Addressing the global threat climate change is critical, but forging a concensus on how to act remains a formidable challenge
Foreign Minister Winston Peters' speech to the Otago Foreign Policy School, Otago University, Dunedin, on June 22
Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be back in Dunedin to open the Otago Foreign Policy School, now in its 42nd year.
The organisers have once again assembled a diverse range of distinguished speakers from New Zealand and abroad. Welcome to what promises to be a rich debate.
This year's topic, "International Environmental Governance and State Autonomy in a Changing Climate", provides a timely platform to debate environmental issues.
Timely, because this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Bruntland report called "Our Common Future", which injected considerable momentum into the emerging field of environmental diplomacy.
Surely most people would put climate change at the top of their list of current environment issues. It is probably the compelling issue of today.
For several decades now, however, the international community has been focused on how to manage a range of environment issues such as water quality, air pollution, hazardous waste, habitat destruction, and the loss of biodiversity.
Over the last 30 years we have seen many governments, including New Zealand, sign up to international rules and agreements on the environment.
These treaties addressed specific issues, and the model that evolved in environmental governance was not the "comprehensive approach" in the manner of global trade negotiations.
Instead treaties were developed to address specific clusters of issues - for instance, the trade in endangered species, or the protection of the ozone layer.
Governments that signed up had to ensure that domestic legislation was in line with the international rules.
There were pluses to this system, because it is not possible to compartmentalise good environmental outcomes. Benefits achieved through one treaty can have benefits across eco-systems, and across treaties.
For example, collective global action in the 1990s to reduce the use of ozone-depleting chemicals also helped slow climate change. Why? Because many of the worst ozone-depleting chemicals also emitted a lot of greenhouse gas. So there was a co-benefit across two quite separate treaties.
On the down side, work done in one treaty can sometimes undo the good work done in another.
For example, incentives for developing countries under the climate change treaty have spurred the production of the chemical HCFC, in countries such as China, for use in air conditioners. The problem is that HCFC also seriously depletes ozone.
This problem of one treaty undermining the good work of another is a recognised shortcoming in the evolution of global environment governance.
Other shortcomings include duplication of effort, fragmentation, and a lack of coherence between the various treaties.
New Zealand is supporting efforts underway in the United Nations to improve the multilateral framework.
These reforms are moving in the right direction. They also seek to strengthen coordination between the environment and development arms of the UN. This should help developing countries build the capacity to implement good environment policies.
So, while current structures set up to deal with environmental issues through the UN are not perfect, they nevertheless have provided an important framework for common action.
Where there is still a serious gap is in oceans governance. It is surprising just how little effective oversight there is for the high seas that lie beyond Exclusive Economic Zones, and for the marine resources that live there.
There are overarching international legal frameworks, such as the Law of the Sea, the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The challenge is to take these broad principles and develop effective systems to manage and protect regional fish stocks. This is especially urgent in the South Pacific Ocean.
Two migratory fish species in particular, the bigeye and the yellowfin tuna, are under threat from unsustainable fishing practices. The threat is often from northern hemisphere players who have over-fished their own waters.
Tuna fishing is a lucrative business. The total value of migratory tuna fisheries in the Pacific is estimated at two billion dollars US.
Because tuna are migratory, the effects of over fishing are felt regionally. So it makes sense to work with our Pacific neighbours to protect this valuable resource.
Our aim is to establish governance structures that ensure fish stocks in the Pacific can be sustainably managed.
New Zealand hosted a meeting of Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Ministers in May this year. Ministers came together to work out minimum fisheries standards that are common across our Exclusive Economic Zones.
New Zealand is also working to establish a Regional Fisheries Management Organisation throughout the South Pacific.
In doing so, we need to maintain a global perspective. A regional management structure is not about sovereignty or about any form of ownership. It is about collaboration to establish effective rules for resource management.
A pretty good story of international environmental cooperation is the Antarctic Treaty System. New Zealand was a founding member of this Treaty, which has been successful in keeping the continent virtually pristine.
However illegal fishing around the ice, and the rapid expansion of tourism, are putting pressures on the Treaty.
In this regard New Zealand supports the Treaty system by putting considerable resources into combating illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean.
Each summer our Air Force carries out long-range patrols over the Ross Sea, and the Navy's new Offshore Patrol Vessels will be ice strengthened so they can carry out inspections of fishing vessels under the Treaty system.
We have also taken a lead in addressing the impact of tourism. This year's Treaty meeting adopted a New Zealand proposal to discourage any tourism activities that might substantially contribute to the long-term degradation of the Antarctic environment.
Climate change is not only very topical, it also illustrates the theme of this year's foreign policy school.
On the face of it, there is nothing too wrong with international governance arrangements on climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the "UN F Triple C" as it is known) is one of the better UN agreements.
It is served by an expert secretariat and a prominent scientific body - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Non-governmental organisations covering the environment, business, research, and other areas, take part in it its work.
So why has it not been effective? Simply, because governments have had other priorities, and until recently there has been no sense of urgency.
There is no doubt that climate change policies are hard. There are no easy measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term or even the medium term.
You can understand why governments grappling with reducing poverty, and improving basic health care and education, will be reluctant to spend money on policies that have no effect for several decades.
Some countries fear they can only reduce emissions by sacrificing economic growth, and through it the right to enjoy the prosperity levels of industrialised countries.
Businesses also worry about competition from countries that have not taken on any commitments.
And finally, domestic policies aimed at reducing global warming will have little or no impact unless there is a critical mass of other countries taking similar action.
Certainly New Zealand can achieve nothing on its own in trying to reduce and stabilise greenhouse gases at a safe level.
We can't pass a law to stop greenhouse gases crossing our border. All we can do is take measures to adapt New Zealand to the effects of climate change that we know will happen anyway.
That means, for example, making our infrastructure more resilient so it can cope with one-in-a-hundred-year floods rather than one-in-twenty-year floods. Or do more research into new crops that will grow in changed climatic conditions.
But when it comes to reducing emissions, even if we closed New Zealand down tomorrow, we would make no impact on global emissions. Our emissions are only 0.2 per cent of the world's output.
So we have to rely on others cutting their emissions. This means we have to protect our interests by being at the negotiating table, working with others towards a new global agreement.
If our point of view is to carry any weight, we must have credibility through what we do at home - and that is at the heart of the policy on sustainability announced by the Prime Minister.
There are other dimensions, too.
New Zealand is engaged in key scientific partnerships around climate change. We are leading an international group researching agricultural greenhouse gases. The US-New Zealand Climate Change Partnership has undertaken over 30 joint projects on climate change science, developing new technologies, and assisting developing countries.
One problem that has emerged alongside the growing awareness of climate change is that there are now almost too many forums grappling with solutions.
It was a key outcome of the G8. It will have a prominent place at APEC this year; it will feature at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and it has even reached the UN Security Council.
The common achievement of all these meetings is that they have engaged political leaders and policy makers. Negotiations on a new global agreement can only succeed in the UN, but political progress has to be made outside.
This sort of engagement has helped raised political awareness. It is no coincidence that in recent weeks we've had major statements on climate change policy from the leaders of the United States, Japan, China, Australia and Mexico.
The next UN Framework Convention conference will be held in December. There's a chance we can begin negotiations on a new package, which will undoubtedly include more commitments from industrialised countries.
Obviously New Zealand will want to ensure that its domestic circumstances are taken into account in a new, post-Kyoto agreement. Our big-ticket issues are agricultural emissions and New Zealand's high percentage of electricity generation from renewable sources.
Our economy is heavily reliant on agricultural export earnings, and there is a limited range of proven mitigation measures for agriculture emissions.
The high percentage of our renewable electricity generation is internationally commendable. That, however, means New Zealand has limited scope for reducing its emissions by switching to cleaner burning fuels or renewables - a low-cost option for other countries that currently use more polluting forms of electricity generation.
We need to ensure that these circumstances are recognised in a new agreement, or we risk being unfairly disadvantaged.
Are we going to get there? We certainly need to, if we are to help the most vulnerable countries such as those in the Pacific who will feel the first effects of global warming through rising sea levels.
Other expected climatic changes, such as greater cyclone intensity and changes in rainfall and drought patterns, will exacerbate the existing challenges that many in the Pacific already face in securing food and water, and in dealing with the damage of regular cyclones.
Through NZAID, the government's aid and development agency, New Zealand is supporting local responses in the Pacific.
Current projects include helping Kiribati build bigger seawalls and stopping the erosion of beaches; protecting its supply of fresh water, and storm-proofing its hospital. Post-cyclone rehabilitation in Niue has seen buildings, such as the hospital, moved to higher ground out of the reach of the destructive giant waves such as those whipped up by Cyclone Heta in 2004.
So in conclusion, it is clear that environment issues present a number of challenges from a foreign policy perspective.
Existing international structures are still evolving to address these challenges in a coordinated manner.
We need to address the barriers and drivers to achieving better coherence and coordination between those structures.
New Zealand's approach is to make considered decisions about which negotiations, or parts thereof, we will target. We need to be at the table and working effectively to achieve the best possible outcome.
We have a role to play in advocating for vulnerable societies, particularly in the Pacific. We also need to ensure that our domestic circumstances are taken into account in international agreements on the environment.
The Otago Foreign Policy School is a timely forum to pose these challenges for discussion.