Home The Washington Diplomat August 2008 Squeaky-Clean New Zealand Hopes to Set Global Example

Squeaky-Clean New Zealand Hopes to Set Global Example


This article is the first in a series examining how different parts of the world are tackling 21st-century environmental challenges. In the September issue, we highlight Taiwan’s efforts to become a waste-free society.

On his office wall, Roy Ferguson has a framed picture of “Manaia,” one of only 42 kiwi birds living in captivity outside New Zealand. Manaia was born at Washington’s National Zoo on Feb. 13, 2006 — the same day Ferguson arrived here to become New Zealand’s new ambassador to the United States.

“I took that as an auspicious sign,” he says, chuckling at the coincidence.In his two years representing New Zealand’s 4.2 million “kiwis,” as inhabitants of the remote South Pacific nation are affectionately known, Ferguson has made it his mission to solidify already-strong bilateral U.S. ties — and to publicize New Zealand’s ambitious effort to fight climate change while achieving ultimate green status over the next 20 years.

“Our prime minister has set a very bold vision of New Zealand being the first truly sustainable society on Earth,” Ferguson told The Washington Diplomat during a leisurely interview at the New Zealand Embassy on Observatory Circle. “The important thing is getting policies into place to support that.”

To reward its eco efforts, the United Nations chose New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, as the host of this year’s World Environment Day (other cities to host this event in recent years include Barcelona, San Francisco, Algiers, Beirut and Shenzhen, China). More than 300 events were held throughout New Zealand this past June under the theme “Kick the Habit — Towards a Low-Carbon Economy.”

“We think it’s important for every country to play its part, and in New Zealand, we’re trying very hard to be proactive on climate change and sustainability. We need to start looking at this as a business opportunity as well as a challenge.”

To that end, the government announced that by 2025, the country aims to generate 90 percent of its electricity needs from renewable sources; New Zealand is currently at 66 percent, with energy being produced mainly from hydroelectric, geothermal and wind energy.“We also want to reduce our use of transport fuels by 50 percent per-capita by 2040,” Ferguson said, noting that New Zealand emits more than its share of greenhouse gases. “But it’s very heavily skewed toward methane and other gases that animals give off — basically cows and sheep belching.”

That should be the worst of New Zealand’s problems — gassy sheep.

Located nearly 9,000 miles and 18 hours by air from Washington, this pristine, Colorado-size parliamentary republic is one of the most isolated nations in the world, yet undeniably one of its luckiest.

Sparsely populated and blessed with natural beauty ranging from snowcapped mountains to spectacular fjords, English-speaking New Zealand has no outside enemies and virtually no political unrest. Last year, New Zealand’s people enjoyed annual per-capita income of about ,700, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Kiwis also enjoy a high standard of living. Ferguson noted that “Gallup recently did a poll on people’s state of happiness around the world, and New Zealand scored second only to Finland.”

International Living magazine also ranked New Zealand eighth in the world in its 2008 Quality of Life Index — trailing only France, Switzerland, the United States, Luxembourg, Germany, Australia and Italy — and the U.N. Development Programme ranks it the 20th most livable country in the world.

New Zealand’s premium on quality living clearly extends to all its citizens. On May 6, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon bestowed upon New Zealand the annual Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award, noting that the country’s comprehensive disability strategy led New Zealand to adopt sign language as its third official language in 1996 — along with English and Maori, an indigenous language spoken by 4 percent of the population.

“As a result of these measures, New Zealand has become a model for the world on disability issues,” said Ban. “Your example strengthens our resolve to ensure human rights and development for all — especially through the full and meaningful participation of persons with disabilities in every level of society, from the local to the global.”

Yet all is not paradise in the land of the kiwi. The country’s aggressive efforts to slash the use of fossil fuels and make New Zealand carbon-neutral by 2012 have run up against resistance from taxpayers unwilling to foot the bill in the face of high mortgage rates and skyrocketing food and oil prices reverberating throughout the world.

In early May, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced a two-year delay of including the transport component in the flagship emissions trading scheme — a move even some of her most ardent supporters see as environmental backpedaling.

Nevertheless, Ferguson points out that New Zealand has taken extraordinary measures at home to tackle a global problem. “I suppose we could just sit back and not worry about climate change. We could all just move up to the mountains if the sea rises. But instead, we feel we must set an example and be responsible international citizens,” says the ambassador, noting that “the hole in the ozone layer caused by man’s use of CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] first appeared over Antarctica, and even today, when you go to New Zealand, you’ll find that the rays of the sun are much more fierce.”

He adds: “We are far away, but it’s an illusion to think geographic isolation can protect us from the world’s problems.”

That applies to both the environment and to security, which Ferguson called Wellington’s top foreign policy objective. “We want to safeguard our security,” says the ambassador, a Fulbright scholar with a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania. “That means working pro-actively with other members of the international community to uphold international law and work for the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

In fact, New Zealand’s hard-line stance on arms control issues and concerns about nuclear testing in the South Pacific contributed to the 1984 election of a Labour government that barred all nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered warships from New Zealand ports. That led to Washington’s 1986 suspension of its security obligations to New Zealand under the 1951 ANZUS Treaty.

“Even after President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 announcement that U.S. surface ships do not normally carry nuclear weapons, New Zealand’s legislation prohibiting visits of nuclear-powered ships continues to preclude a bilateral security alliance with the United States,” according to a fact sheet issued by the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “The legislation enjoys broad public and political support in New Zealand. The United States would welcome New Zealand’s reassessment of its legislation to permit that country’s return to full ANZUS cooperation.”

But the ANZUS rift hasn’t prevented the United States and New Zealand from cooperating closely on one of today’s most pressing nuclear dilemmas: North Korea. New Zealand has offered to contribute an undetermined sum of money to an energy assistance package negotiated with the reclusive North as part of the six-party talks aimed at getting Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.

This is a subject Ferguson knows especially well, having won accreditation to Pyongyang in 2001, toward the end of his three-year posting in Seoul. That unprecedented arrangement allowed Ferguson to visit North Korea for five days — a country he diplomatically suggests has “a huge amount of potential.”

On the economic front, Ferguson says New Zealand hopes to improve its trade flows, which explains why it’s been “quite aggressive” in supporting the Doha round of trade talks.And one of New Zealand’s biggest trading partners is the United States, which ranks second only to Australia in overall importance. Last year, trade between the two allies came to billion; top exports to the U.S. market include beef (most of which gets mixed into hamburgers), milk protein concentrates, lamb, wine and fruits.

China is also an increasingly important customer for New Zealand, which Ferguson proudly notes was the first Western country to negotiate a free trade agreement with Beijing. At the same time, he insists that his government isn’t overlooking China’s dubious track record on human rights — particularly its support of the military dictatorship in Burma and its recent crackdown against pro-independence supporters in Tibet.

“We’re taking a consistent stance. We are concerned about human rights everywhere,” he says. “Obviously, we want a good, constructive relationship with China. In our dialogue with the Chinese we have raised Tibet and other issues. But the reality is that the leverage a small country like New Zealand has is limited.”

Since 1999, New Zealand has been governed by the left-leaning Clark, who last year was named by Forbes magazine as the 38th most powerful female in the world. Ferguson said Clark’s gender shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering that New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote, back in 1893.

“This is our second female prime minister,” he adds. “She’s very well known and respected around the world, though for New Zealanders, we are used to having women in senior positions. Our chief justice is a woman, our former governor-general was a woman, and the head of our largest public company was a woman.”

Yet Clark clearly won’t go down in history as President Bush’s favorite head of state. In 2003, the prime minister — who protested the Vietnam War as a teenager — publicly suggested that the Iraq War would never have happened if Democratic candidate Al Gore had won the presidency in 2000.

Clark later apologized to Bush for that comment, though in late 2006, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, she declared that the U.S.-led invasion had made the world less safe from terrorism than before. “We didn’t agree with the decision to go into Iraq, although we made it clear that we’d be prepared to help with reconstruction afterward,” says Ferguson, commenting on the rift. “I think it’s fair to say that there was some tension about the fact we didn’t go into Iraq, but both sides have worked hard at strengthening our relations over the last two or three years, and we now have a very good relationship with the administration.”

In fact, New Zealand has deployed troops to Afghanistan, where Ferguson says “we were one of the early contributors to a provincial reconstruction team.” It also has 181 peacekeeping troops in Timor-Leste, working in an Australian-led mission to assist a force of more than 1,000 U.N. policemen maintaining security in the former Indonesian territory. In addition, the country supports peacekeeping troops in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, southern Lebanon and the troubled Solomon Islands.New Zealand’s next parliamentary elections must be held no later than Nov. 15 — only 11 days after the 2008 U.S. presidential election, which Ferguson says he’s “watching with great interest and fascination.”

“My priority is to strengthen the overall relationship between New Zealand and the United States because we share values, as two of the relatively few countries that have been continuous democracies since the 19th century,” explains Ferguson, who heads up a staff of about 60, including 20 diplomats, at New Zealand’s largest foreign mission in the world.

“By and large, we have similar outlooks on the world — we’d like to see human rights are respected and our peoples have democratic choices, which lead to a lot of cooperation.”It also leads to a lot of tourism, which by the way is New Zealand’s number-one income generator. Last year, the country attracted 2 million tourists, including 220,000 Americans — despite the fact that only three airlines fly there from the United States: Qantas, Air New Zealand and Tahiti Nui, with round-trip airfare from the East Coast running well over ,000.

“Usually when I meet Americans, even if they don’t know much about New Zealand, they will at least have heard about our spectacular scenic beauty,” Ferguson says.

“We are moving as quickly as we can toward sustainable tourism, trying to compensate for our carbon footprint by planting trees in New Zealand and other imaginative schemes,” he adds. “We have a directive to go carbon-neutral by 2012, and that’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

One of New Zealand’s most interesting tourist attractions is the Auckland Zoo, which also happens to be the headquarters for the Fragile Kiwi Campaign. According to the New Zealand Kiwi Foundation, there are only 70,000 kiwi birds left in the country — a drop of more than 8,000 in just six years, meaning that the rare birds could become extinct within 30 years unless more is done to protect the fragile species.

On the positive side, Operation Nest Egg, a kiwi conservation program, recently celebrated the hatching of its 1,000th kiwi chick. (Birds raised in captivity have a 65 percent chance of surviving their first year of life.)

Speaking of kiwis, the term refers not only to the flightless bird, but also to the furry sweet green fruit that originated in China but eventually came to be one of New Zealand’s most popular exports. In recent years, however, New Zealand kiwi producers have been getting serious competition from Italy, and to a lesser extent Chile.

“When we developed the green kiwi fruit, there were no plant protection rights,” says Ferguson. “Since then, our plant scientists have developed the gold kiwi, which we sell in other countries like Japan and South Korea. We get royalties, and we’re hoping to develop a new fruit every five or six years. This is part of the innovative culture we’re trying to encourage, based on our traditional experience in agriculture.”

The jovial ambassador also notes: “Our latest invention is the kiwi berry — a fruit about the size of a grape, but without the furry skin, so you can eat it whole.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.