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.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Re­becca Mac­fie

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.


“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.”

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