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05 January 2010

Smith and Groser - take a bow


New Zealand did very well at Copenhagen, but you won't read much about in the paper

Public perceptions do not treat environment minister Nick Smith and trade minister Tim Groser kindly. Yet to these ministers should go the praise of a grateful nation.

Smith is widely and unfairly portrayed in the blogosphere as somewhat unhinged. Yet most credible commentators praise him for a successful year handling highly complex and controversial portfolios.

Groser is almost invisible on the domestic political stage and is criticised among insiders - including some of his Cabinet colleagues - for his patronising manner. But he is an accomplished international negotiator who enables New Zealand to punch well above its weight at global talkfests.

In contrast to Barack Obama and other western leaders who came back from Copenhagen empty handed, Smith and Groser returned with two major trophies: support from 30 other countries for the NZ-initiated Global Research Alliance on agriculture greenhouse gases and tacit support for an agreement on forestry which addresses two major NZ Kyoto Protocol concerns - the inability to harvest a plantation in location A and replant it in location B, and the recognition of the carbon stored in wood products.

These initiatives are important to countries with large livestock and/or plantation forestry industries, but particularly to New Zealand as the only developed country with an economy that's heavily reliant on these sectors. Reducing methane emissions from livestock and allowing land-use flexibility for forestry could save us hundreds of millions of dollars a year in emission charges.

The Global Research Alliance was largely a Groser initiative. As highlighted in a WHAM Hit in November, the minister has a very good understanding of how consumer perceptions about green issues impact on the ability of NZ products to gain access to upmarket retail shelves around the world.

Even if the government's of the world can't agree on a legally binding protocol to replace Kyoto, the economic imperative to reduce emissions will remain. Affluent consumers world-wide want to buy ethical products and they already expect the major retail chains to include low-carbon footprints in their criteria for sourcing food, textiles and forest products.  

The Global Research Alliance on agriculture greenhouse gases has been praised by many commentators and all major political parties, with the exception of Labour's churlish Charles Chauvel who appears locked into a mindless oppose-everything-from-the-Nats mode.

The forestry initiatives, negotiated by officials and the Forest Owners' chief executive David Rhodes, are still very much work-in-progress. As NZ Herald writer Fran O'Sullivan points out, the draft forestry agreement contains clauses which give effect to the rules NZ wants. But they are not cast in concrete. The draft text has plenty of ‘square brackets' which indicate particular clauses are still disputed.

The Global Research Alliance success has had little coverage in the mainstream media and the forestry progress even less. In part this reflects a reluctance on behalf of ministers to draw too much attention to what little old New Zealand achieved at a global talkfest which so many western countries saw as a failure. Crowing now, before the proposed new forestry rules are cast in stone, could easily motivate a rearguard response from opponents.

The timing of the ministers' return from Copenhagen - during the mainstream media's pre-Christmas silly season - won't have helped either. Not that the nitty gritty of climate change negotiations gets much media coverage at any time - few, other than those intimately involved, understand or seemingly care about what's going on.

Perhaps when the representatives from the 30-odd nations that have pledged to take part in the Global Alliance come to New Zealand in March for a summit on agriculture emissions, mainstream reporters will be moved to move beyond fart jokes and take the matter seriously.

- Trevor Walton

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