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UN representatives Clark and Figueres challenge New Zealand on Climate Change

Last month The Pacific Energy Summit that took place in Auckland, bringing together Pacific heads of state and the heavyweights of the global renewable energy industry, raised $635 million with an objective to advance renewable energy projects across the Pacific. The region has the highest petroleum fuel dependency of any region or sub-region in the world, exceeding by far that of the Caribbean island states. Pacific Islands spend on average 10 percent of their gross domestic product importing petroleum products, and for some countries, that bill totals nearly a third of their GDP. 

In an interview with UN representatives, Helen Clark and Christiana Figueres discussed how they envision New Zealand’s sustainability role in the Pacific and globally.

The former New Zealand Prime Minister, who became Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme in April 2009, expressed an enthusiastic outlook for New Zealand. 

“Access to energy is a prerequisite for human development in all its facets, including health, education, and livelihoods. New Zealand has a big role to play as a development partner in the Pacific, and has historically. If we set a tone of wanting to be really helpful with this, we can make miracles happen.”

Clark cited Tokelau as an example. Last year the island nation broke its dependency on fossil fuels, showing that a transformation to renewables is possible. The project was spearheaded by Mount Maunganui company PowerSmart, officially making Tokelau the world’s first solar powered nation. Said Clark, “We should take this as inspiration. If Tokelau can do it, anyone can do it.”

Access to modern energy services is fundamental to fulfilling basic social needs, advancing economic growth, and driving human development, yet nearly 1.3 billion people remain without access to electricity around the world, and 2.6 billion do not have access to clean cooking facilities.

Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, emphasized that the leadership of New Zealand could extend beyond the Pacific region, and lead globally in the agricultural sector where many developing countries have a very serious situation of high greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Figueres said that New Zealand, together with other countries, is putting funding and effort into trying to find solutions to reduce greenhouse gases from the agricultural sector.

New Zealand faces unique challenges because no other developed country has a greenhouse gas footprint comprised of fifty percent of gases from the agricultural sector, and the solutions to that are not as obvious as they are to getting down fossil fuel dependency in energy generation. 

Clark explained that this is why for a long time New Zealand governments have put a lot of emphasis on agricultural research which would try to deal with particularly the methane issue from animals, but also the applied technology research which deals with the nitrous oxide footprint as well. 

There was a moment of contention at the Pacific Summit, when on the second day of keynote speeches, the floor was open for questions. Julie Anne Genter, a Green Party list MP directed a question at Figueres asking her to comment on the fact that New Zealand failed to sign up to the second Kyoto protocol. She asked if the UN representative saw this as a sign that New Zealand isn’t leading on the climate change action that needs to promote a low carbon economy. 

Responding Figueres said, “I was very public in expressing my disappointment in New Zealand choosing not to continue in the second commitment period. I do fundamentally believe that New Zealand stands before a very important choice. In my discussions here with New Zealand government members I have put forward that New Zealand could be in a very important leadership role, showing how they can take everything that they are doing from the agricultural sector through to power and technologies, and on an international level, construct an avenue of how all the other countries who are not in the Kyoto protocol could actually engage internationally.”

Clark took the opportunity to build on what Figueres said, and concluded that the key thing that New Zealand will be judged on is what its commitments actually are. She said there is no question that committing under the Kyoto protocol has an important cachet, and that is because the renewal of the Kyoto protocol was linked to the building of trust and confidence from developing countries, that developed countries were serious about carrying out their responsibilities. She said she felt the global negotiations had moved some way from some years ago where the assumption was that the developed countries would do most of the heavy lifting. 

“Actually,” said Clark. “We can’t deal with the climate change problem unless everybody does heavy lifting.”