Exit stage Wright
After 10 years as the country’s environmental watchdog, Jan Wright is bowing out, having shaken up a lot of our complacency about being clean and green.
After 10 years as NZ’s environmental watchdog, Jan Wright is bowing out, having shaken up a lot of our complacency about being clean and green.
Over the past 10 years, Jan Wright’s trademark rainforest-green and white investigation reports have accumulated: meticulously researched, crisply written and anchored in a deep love of New Zealand’s spectacular, but damaged, natural environment. Stacked up, they amount to an encyclopaedia of the country’s inconvenient truths. Dive into any one of them and you hear the voice of reason explaining what’s going wrong with our environment and what we should do about it.
As Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Wright has occupied a position of rare independence. Along with the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman, the PCE is an officer of Parliament, not an appointee of the Government. However much politicians and vested interests might have wanted to shut her down, she has occupied a position with statutory protection to speak evidence-based truth to power.
Those truths have often been unwelcome, sometimes surprising, and at times counter-intuitive. Early in her tenure, the then Labour-led Government was pushing a bill requiring 3.4% of fuel to be biofuels. Wright dug into the evidence and concluded this seemingly climate-friendly measure could do more harm than good.
On another occasion, after years of subsidies for solar water heating and passionate backing from the green lobby, she concluded that our infatuation with solar was misguided: it might feel virtuous to put a solar panel on the roof, she said, but the sun doesn’t shine on cold winter evenings when our electricity use peaks. It made much more sense, the pragmatic PCE said, for householders to heat their water overnight when the hydro dams are churning out cheap renewable energy and demand is low: not only would it save money, but it would also help with the biggest environmental challenge – reducing carbon emissions – by flattening out the demand peaks that trigger the building of fossil-fuel-burning power stations.
Later, when the National-led Government was keen to double agricultural exports, Wright analysed the connection between farming and freshwater contamination and reached the inescapable, but very inconvenient, conclusion that more cows mean more pollution of our waterways.
GRACE UNDER FIRE
“She really has operated without fear or favour,” says Kevin Hague, the former Green Party MP who is now chief executive of Forest & Bird. “Her logic is exemplary.”
People who know Wright say political pressure has been brought to bear at times. If so, she’s dismissive of it. “I’ve had people rather upset with me,” she says, “but I can honestly say I have never changed anything because I was leant on. I just wouldn’t.
“What I will do is frame things in particular ways that will be the language that might appeal to whoever is in power. But I won’t change the content.”
Now at the end of two consecutive five-year terms as New Zealand’s environmental watchdog, she’s handing over to former National Party Cabinet minister Simon Upton, who is returning from Paris, where he has been leading the OECD’s environment directorate.
After a decade of intensive slog on behalf of the environment, 68-year-old Wright seems bone-tired and ready for a
break. Yet it’s hard to avoid the impression that she has unfinished business. Having helped knock the environmental complacency out of New Zealanders – water quality is getting worse, the dawn chorus that she used to wake up to as a young tramper has been silenced by predators, rising seas are eating at our shoreline – Wright steps down knowing she has provided the nation with a large body of lucid analysis on the biggest environmental problems of our time.
But there is still so much to be done, and on the greatest challenge of all – climate change – so little time to do it.
“I worry, a lot,” she says. “When I look at New Zealand, where things should be easier, I find it hard to imagine how we will meet our Paris [climate accord] target. I mean, there are big boilers that burn gas and coal which, if they are installed in the 2020s, will still be there in the 2050s. These things have long lifetimes, and we need to be changing a lot faster.”
Wright has never had much tolerance for the endlessly repeated argument that New Zealand can’t do much because half our emissions are from agriculture and most of our electricity is already renewable. Of course there are things we can do, she says – and quickly.
“Electric cars would obviously be No
1 – on a much bigger scale, and with much more determination. You’d also be looking at electricity and asking what uses create the peak demand: LED lighting is a no-brainer.
“We need to be looking at alternative forms of transport. I think we are probably doing far too much road-building. If we do have self-driving vehicles and they are able to drive very accurately and lock up together on the motorways and work like a train, are we really going to need all that road space?
“We need to think about our land use, because synthetic protein is going to come, in some form or other. Are there some parts of the country more suitable for nut trees? Should we be growing hemp? Are there places where we should be growing meat, but at really high prices – the $100 lamb chop – and doing it really well and managing the greenhouse gases as best we can?”
In a country as fortunate as ours, such an approach makes economic sense, she says. “Our whole branding depends on it, so it is foolish not to really be taking climate change a whole lot more seriously.”
Wright doesn’t claim to have the answers. Instead, it’s about establishing the “stepping stones” to a low-carbon future, then figuring out the most efficient ways of getting there. That’s why, in her final investigation report, she came out strongly in favour of embedding emissionreduction targets in law, and setting up a UK-style expert climate commission to set five-year carbon budgets which the government would be required to meet.
It’s a well-tested approach that has helped the UK achieve a 42% cut in greenhouse-gas emissions since 1990. New Zealand’s, by contrast, have risen 64% in the same period.
Wright’s report set out a formula for depoliticised decision-making that takes climate policy beyond the reach of the three-year election cycle. But although Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First support the UK-style model, and even Federated Farmers and DairyNZ responded relatively warmly to Wright’s report, Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett dismissed setting up an independent climate change body “at the moment”,
Jan Wright: “I worry, a lot. We need to be changing a lot faster.”