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Maharey - “First to see the light”

31 October 2007

“First to see the light” - Science, society and sustainability in New Zealand


Good morning ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be here in Washington DC to speak to so many outstanding people.

This opportunity to speak to you comes at the end of a fantastic trip here in the United States.


The New Zealand Government regards scientific cooperation as a crucial element in our relationship with the United States. Around 40 per cent of New Zealand researchers have collaborative projects with US counterparts – more than with any other country.

Scientific cooperation is a linchpin of the work that our two countries do together to enhance our understanding of pressing environmental challenges and to find more sustainable ways of doing business.

We have a proud track record on which to build in this respect. New Zealand and the United States have cooperated on world-leading research that has greatly enhanced our understanding of global concerns – notably climate change and the depletion of the ozone layer.

New Zealand scientists have also made significant direct contributions to US interests. For example, New Zealand scientist William Pickering was director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the height of the space race in the 1950s, 60, and 70s and is considered by many as one the fathers of space flight.

The opportunity to visit and learn from some of your world-leading institutions, organisations and people is extremely valuable. We have learnt a lot during our brief time here, but importantly, we also have a lot to contribute.

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In reaching our goals, New Zealand’s success will depend on international partnerships. But we expect that our partners also stand to learn a great deal from New Zealand’s experiences and from the new ways of doing business that we aspire to develop.

New Zealand has a strong vision for the future.

This is the first of three themes I will discuss today.

I will then show how we are uniquely positioned to put this vision into action because of our geography and culture.

Thirdly, I’ll offer some examples of how this unique position has shaped our science, and how our science provides us the opportunity to achieve our vision.

Our vision

And that brings me to my theme of sustainability.

New Zealand’s challenge, as outlined by our Prime Minister is;

 Building a sustainable economy based on innovation and quality in a world where high volume, low quality goods and services will always undercut us on price

 Sustaining and improving family and community living standards in our open, competitive economy

 Sustaining our unique culture, values, and national identity in a world of globalised media and culture

 Making a commitment to greater sustainability in our resource use and way of life, to avoid exposing our economy to significant risk in a world increasingly aware of the scale of the global environmental challenge.

I understand that in terms of sustainability policy in these areas, New Zealand and the United States are thinking along similar lines.

Issues around sustainability and climate change have become the compelling issues of our times, dominating international forums and agendas.

The level of aspiration we have for New Zealand in this area is high.

We believe New Zealand can aim to be the first truly sustainable nation.

We believe we can aspire to be carbon neutral in our economy and our way of life.

We believe that the pride New Zealand takes in its quest for sustainability and carbon neutrality will come to define our nation in the 21st century.

It makes sense for our economy; food and tourism are our major export industries and those who cannot show they are sustainable producers of goods and services are likely to face consumer resistance and even barriers to trade in the near future.

Being an island nation offers New Zealand a unique set of opportunities- and challenges- for an integrated approach to economic, environmental and social sustainability. I believe it is our very smallness and relative isolation in the southern ocean – coupled with smart science and a ‘can-do’ attitude – that will allow us to become a beacon of sustainability and an exemplar of sustainable practice.

Ours was the last major land mass on the planet to be colonised by humans. The Maori settled in Aotearoa some 800 years ago as skilful Polynesian seafarers. Some 500 years after their arrival Captain James Cook claimed New Zealand for Britain. Today our population of 4 million people is a mix of mainly NZ European, Maori, Polynesian and Asian.

Our culture

New Zealand has always been an outward looking nation; New Zealand’s isolation, rugged landscapes and challenging environment have shaped a people who are independent, resilient and innovative.

We produce great sports teams, athletes and pioneering explorers such as Sir Edmund Hillary. We are practical people.

And we do well in science – our three Nobel Laureates are all in science. They include the atom-splitting Sir Ernest Rutherford, Maurice Wilkins who discovered the structure of DNA with Watson and Crick and, more recently, Alan MacDiarmid, co-inventor of conducting polymers.

Our outward looking and innovative nature has also led to a considerable diaspora of our people, which was once seen as a sore point but is now seen as one of our major assets; the ability to capitalise on knowledge, information and resources from around the world has benefited New Zealand in many ways in the age of the global community.

Our achievements

Our unique combination of location, size and the nature of our people has both directly and indirectly influenced the development of several areas of science excellence, such as sustainability, species recovery, agriculture and environmental science.

One of our particular areas of achievement is in species recovery. One of the worst records for extinctions has been matched by one of the best records of bringing species back from the brink of extinction. Science has been absolutely pivotal in New Zealand’s conservation success stories.

Species recovery involves a range of complementary activities, but removing predators is usually number one. Over time, and based on good science, we got better and better at managing and eradicating predators. Our imagination and confidence grew.

A few years ago New Zealand climbed the ecological equivalent of Mount Everest when we eliminated rats from the 24,000 acre Campbell Island located in the sub Antarctic Ocean. The resulting impact on birdlife has been tremendous. The Campbell Island rat eradication and the journey leading up to it, mean that New Zealand is well recognised as a leader in island pest eradication and our expertise is sought internationally.

New Zealand’s national emblem – the kiwi – provides an example of the role of science in species protection. Painstaking data collection, complex modelling of kiwi population dynamics, understanding the ecology, physiology and breeding behaviour of stoats – the kiwi’s main predator, biomolecular work on poisons and understanding how and when stoats prey on kiwi.

Our scientists have combined all this so communities can take responsibility for killing stoats to help save the kiwi from extinction. And communities around New Zealand that still have kiwi in their neighbourhoods are taking up the challenge. Volunteer groups, from pensioners to hunters, from local Maori to urban professionals, are working together to save the kiwi.

From a sustainability perspective the interesting impact has been in the social area. The science based tools and techniques, vision and ultimately science-driven success in saving species from extinction, have fired up numerous volunteer conservation groups and tens of thousands of volunteers the length and breadth of the country. This is an anchor point in our culture from which to advance towards sustainability.

Our dramatic landscapes, our historical economic reliance on the land and our keen understanding of conservation issues make it a short step for public acceptance of the need for sustainability.

Moving towards sustainability

So as you can see, some of the critical foundations to make New Zealand a truly sustainable nation are already in place.

We have a population that is tuned in to environmental and conservation issues.

We have much of the legislative infrastructure and systems in place to deliver sustainability.

And we have excellent science to support our move towards becoming a truly sustainable nation.

I believe that science is going to be absolutely vital to helping society move towards sustainability.

I will now explain in more detail what is happening in science in New Zealand in this area.

Our Science

One of the areas of excellence that New Zealand’s unique environment has enabled is climate change science.

As in the US, and many other countries, the shocking reality of climate change that scientists are describing is driving a whole new focus on sustainability in New Zealand. Science is absolutely critical to the issue of climate change, from alerting society to the problem, to understanding the implications, to providing the solutions. Science truly is the enabler of this revolution.

Science has a number of roles in addressing climate change. Firstly, science brings the issues to society’s attention. Without the excellent climate change science done in the US, New Zealand, Antarctica, Europe and many other places, we would have little understanding of the nature and impacts of climate change. This puts science in a political or at least policy role, a role that is not always easy for science to play.

Science and technology will also provide many answers – and that’s where the partnerships we in New Zealand have with our United States partners are so important.

With support from both the NZ and US governments, our scientists have collaborated to understand some important scientific phenomena. Much of this research has taken place in Antarctica, where we have a long history of working together.

The pioneering spirit of both our nations has driven our scientists to lead a project that tries to understand Antarctic weather patterns back to the Cenozoic. This work builds on fifty years of formal cooperation between the US and New Zealand Antarctic research programmes, which was kick-started by the International Geophysical Year and the establishment of the New Zealand base in Antarctic in 1957. With US operations in the Ross Sea and at the South Pole supported from New Zealand – and with your McMurdo Station and our Scott Base being close neighbours – we have developed a unique partnership in Antarctica. No other two countries enjoy such a close and enduring relationship on the ice.

In January this year the New Zealand Prime Minister Rt Hon Helen Clark travelled to Antarctica with explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, NSF Director Arden Bement, and other senior US officials to celebrate the 50th anniversary of New Zealand – United States cooperation in Antarctica.

International Polar Year (IPY) also got underway on 1 March 2007. The climate change related project ANDRILL, on which we collaborate closely with the United States, is currently our largest IPY activity.

Our tradition of cooperation in Antarctica is spectacularly upheld in the ANDRILL programme. This is a multinational drilling project that aims to understand how the Antarctic ice sheet has retreated and advanced over millennia, giving us a better understanding of climate change. Drilling into the sea floor below McMurdo Ice shelf reached over 1000 metres last season. From core samples scientists can show in microscopic detail how that the Antarctic ice shelf has advanced and retreated 50 times in the past 10 million years.

Our Antarctic collaboration was vital to understanding the depletion of the ozone layer – today it is reaping great benefits in unlocking the secrets of climate change.

New Zealand is engaged in a range of other international programmes relating to climate change. Recently I had the pleasure of launching the 3000th ARGO float. ARGO is a network of robotic floats across the world’s oceans that provide crucial data relating to climate and temperature. The 3000th float is an important milestone as it marks the completion of the network. New Zealand boats have launched more ARGO floats than any other country.

Another example can be found at a point just south of our capital, Wellington – it is home to an important carbon dioxide monitoring station that is the Southern Hemisphere version of the now famous Hawaii site run by Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Hawaii. The 30 year record from the Wellington site shows the substantial and now well understood increase in carbon dioxide emissions globally.


In searching for solutions to the critical issue of our time, climate change, a priority internationally, and for New Zealand, is the energy sector. In New Zealand we are well placed to meet the climate change challenge, but much work is still needed.

For most of the past century New Zealand has run it’s non-transport energy demands largely from renewables – hydro and geothermal, with a few thermal stations for back-up. Renewable sources of electricity meet between 60 and 65% of New Zealand’s needs. However in recent years, renewable energy has not kept pace with economic growth and cheap gas has been used to meet increased electricity demand. This Government will change this. In our Energy Strategy released just this month we have set a target of 90% renewable electricity by the year 2025.

New sources of renewable energy are being harnessed, including our fabulous wind resource.

Government owned generators, which make up the majority of the industry in New Zealand are no longer allowed to build any further fossil fuel generation capacity.

Investment in energy research and development has increased by 40% in the last 2 years. Most of this new investment is in the renewable energy area. We are, for example, taking a serious look at the potential to harness the enormous energy generated by our marine environment. And a number of energy conservation initiatives are underway.

When New Zealand’s energy resource advantages are examined, it becomes clear that there is no reason why, with good science and an innovative approach, our energy system cannot only be carbon neutral, but also deliver this with 100 percent renewables. This, another first in sustainability, could take place within a relatively short time frame – perhaps a generation.

In the transport area the Government has set a goal of reducing per capita carbon emissions by 50% by 2040. To help move down that track the government has increased funding in public transport by 750 % over the past seven budgets. Investment in the rail system including electric trains is also unprecedented.

But it is the imported fuels which present the New Zealand’s most pressing challenge. More than 80 percent of New Zealand’s energy use is currently from fossil fuels, much of it imported. As if the evidence of climate change was not sufficient reason to act, we - along with most of the world – want to ensure the security of our energy supply.

New Zealand has generous natural opportunities for the provision of materials for conversion to biofuel. Our researchers are experimenting with opportunities in the conversion of plantation forests – converting cellulose to ethanol. For example, the San Diego-based Verenium company (formerly Diversa) has teamed up with New Zealand’s AgResearch and Scion research institutes. The plan is to explore the feasibility of cellulosic digesters for transport biofuels. The feed stocks are based on timber production wastes and even grass. We want focus on the conversion of non-food resources to biofuels.

New Zealand scientists are working on a technique to convert algae to fuels including aviation fuel and it seems likely that one of the first commercial bio-fuel powered jet flights will be a New Zealand aircraft in partnership with Boeing. Oil companies are now required to progressively introduce 3.4 percent of biofuels to pump sales by 2012. One company has already lifted the percentage to 10 percent in some centres, using whey – a by-product from cheese making in our substantial dairy industry.

But it will take an unprecedented amount of inter-disciplinary, cross-sectoral collaboration that builds on previous success. And the actions and policies that result will mimic nature - they will be diverse, interlocking and engaging all elements of society.


New Zealand has a substantial agricultural sector relative to the overall size of the economy. In agriculture, our challenge is to turn one of the world’s most efficient production systems into one of the most sustainable.

Our scientists are wrestling with reducing the cloven carbon footprint of sheep and dairy farming. We are focusing on research on methane emissions from grazing animals, responsible for 43 percent of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas contribution. New Zealand has around half the world’s research capability in ruminant methane production. We have set ourselves the challenge of leading the world in lowering the impact of agricultural green house gas emissions.

Our scientists are working with others in their field around the world; later this year researchers in this area are gathering in New Zealand to share knowledge and plan further work to understand this problem.

The methane emissions problem is a difficult one, and solutions are not readily at hand. But if we crack the ruminant methane problem and the solutions are applicable to other countries then we will make a real difference to the problem of climate change.

Methane emissions are not however, the only issue facing the agricultural sector. Like most developed countries, we have more work to do to get on top of the nutrient issue. We are acutely aware that nitrogen fertilizer results both in greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. Out scientists are pursuing nitrogen inhibitors as a way of reducing leaching and gaseous emissions. The results of the science efforts look very encouraging.

Our scientists are also working to link forecasting into day-to-day farming operations. The aim is to improve efficiency in a range of areas, from improving irrigation applications to reducing nitrogen runoff from fertiliser applications, to improving flood forecasting.

The issues around sustainable agriculture do not only affect New Zealand, and their importance cannot be overstated. By stepping up to the challenges we face in this area, our scientists are doing work that will benefit climate change science around the world.


Climate science is pointing to water being a critical sustainability issue in the future in many parts of the world. For some it already is.

Like most developed countries New Zealand has worked hard to improve the quality of its waters, which was not great in the 1950s and 60s. Since then, New Zealand has been putting in place sewerage treatment schemes and other effluent treatment systems. Diffuse sources of pollution, mostly from farms but in some urban areas too, are proving difficult issues to tackle, as is the case in your country too. While science has helped us identify the issue, the solutions are not trivial.

In the urban area the technical challenges are particularly difficult. Systems designed to carry storm water away as quickly as possible must somehow be retrofitted to remove contaminants. Not an easy task as many of your cities are discovering, as are ours.

Demand for water in New Zealand continues to grow as demand for food increases. With the drought in Australia contributing to high dairy prices internationally we might be seeing the impact of climate change on New Zealand – an increase in demand for water. We are working to ensure that New Zealand has the science needed to deliver sustainable water management. We are exploring new opportunities using forecasting, as I have mentioned, coupled with real time sensing and monitoring to try and optimise water use. We don’t have big water storage systems in New Zealand – our rivers are too short and steep. So we need to get much smarter about how we use water and how we predict how much water will come down the river next week and next month. Science is critical to providing these predictions.


Our wine industry is an example of how good science, including water and agricultural science, has combined with innovation. In the past 30 years New Zealand wines have developed an international reputation second to none. Exports continue to grow in volume and acclaim. The industry is run by an elite of entrepreneurs with an eye to quality, marketing and the detail of incremental improvement. Understanding the soil, water resources and climate requirements for premium grapes has drawn heavily on science, as has New Zealand’s use of clean wine technologies.

From this science and innovation base it has been a small step for some of our leading producers, Grove Mill, for example, to become officially CarboNZero. CarboNZero was developed by Landcare Research, and the World Resource Institute, who developed the Greenhouse Gas protocol, has recognised it as a world leading programme in emissions management.

As sales show, their customers love it. Science is at the heart of the certification for CarboNZero. Certification is based on a range of scientific measurement and management advice for the reduction of greenhouse emissions across a wide range of activities.


Like our wines, New Zealand has an international reputation in the biosecurity area. Like freedom, the price of sustainability is eternal vigilance – always backed by smart science.

Science is helping ensure that our borders remain a barrier to pests and diseases that threaten our environmental and economic viability. And when things do slip through, excellent science is used to eradicate them. Recently our scientists used systematic aerial spraying, pheromone attractants and other measures to eradicate a new, seemingly intractable moth threat to our timber industry. To our knowledge we are the only country in the world to eradicate not just one but two moth species – both closely related to the gypsy moth – that posed serious risk to both our forestry sector and conservation lands. Again we learned from your experiences – having seen what the gypsy moth has done to some of your forests we were determined not to let that happen in New Zealand.

Government actions

These areas of expertise and knowledge are now feeding into Government actions.

The Government is linking biosecurity with climate change. We are investigating the role of our native forests in sequestering or releasing carbon. This work will look at the effect of pest control operations and how these affect carbon storage in native forests. Deer and the Australian possum have taken a liking to our forests and we spend considerable effort controlling these animals in an effort to protect our forest ecosystems. Now we are asking our scientists to think beyond just the biodiversity outcomes of pest control and to consider the benefits of pest control for climate change.

We are establishing pilot projects with commercial investors to increase carbon storage on conservation land. This is an exciting initiative that may provide an entirely new imperative for the conservation of native flora.

This is an example of how we need to think laterally about responding to climate change and how we need to factor climate change into all aspects of the things we do.

We are also rethinking the day to day operation of government departments. At the practical level we are asking departments to walk the sustainability talk, in their purchasing and day to day activities.

In my own ministry landfill waste has reduced by 80% in the last year.

A small group of departments are experimenting with carbon neutrality by reducing travel, undertaking energy efficiencies and offsetting unavoidable emissions.

New government buildings have been designed to operate at optimal energy efficiency.

The New Zealand Energy Strategy, launched earlier this month, sets out the government’s vision for a sustainable, low emissions energy system, and an action plan to make that vision a reality.

The Government of New Zealand is leading the sustainability challenge by example.


When I was thinking about giving this speech, about what I could say that would be valuable to such an esteemed audience, I kept coming back to the underlying theme that New Zealand is the “first to see the light”. Geographically, physically, we are the first place in the world to see the light of the new day. Our unique position and environment means that we are also the first to see the light in grasping the opportunity to become the world’s first sustainable nation.

We have the vision, and we have the conditions to put that vision into action. What we need is to continue and strengthen our collaboration. We need to learn and support each other in this new era of sustainability. We need to build on our existing science relationships and expand them into the era of sustainability. We have a bilateral agreement which is an excellent platform upon which to build.

Let’s move our collaboration forward so we can take advantage of being the “first to see the light” and meet the sustainability challenge head-on.

Thank you.


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