Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

‘We only have one planet’: Dr Jan Wright on saving the one thing we all have in common

Climate change is the defining challenge of our times. The Spinoff is devoting a week of coverage to the issue, its advocates, complexities, and solutionsToday Don Rowe talks to departing Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright. 

Around the same time Al Gore released his first call to arms in the battle against climate change, Dr Jan Wright entered the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. The third commissioner to take up the role, she was reappointed for a second five year term in 2012. This October, after a decade in the job, Dr Wright is stepping down. She leaves behind a legacy of independent integrity and a reputation for upsetting politicians on both sides of the spectrum with her now legendary stewardship of the environment. And, even as the ice caps melt and the future looks increasingly grim, she remains optimistic in the face of catastrophe.

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As you near the end of your time as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, what do you feel looking back?

I feel glad that I have had this role: on a personal level because one thing all my life I’ve always been driven by wanting to make a difference, I’ve always been attracted that need to do good, which is probably to do with my mother and my upbringing. Also, I’ve spent a lot of my life getting rather over-educated in various ways and in quite a number of different jobs, and I think there’s been a great satisfaction in that I’ve felt I had to draw on every bit of education and experience with people and all kinds of things that I’ve developed over the years.

So it’s felt really good and as well as that the independence of the role has been brilliant because I think I’d have trouble being a politician and subjecting myself to the discipline of a party. It’s been a really nice fit in that regard. And I can see things that have changed, I can see a difference, so there’s a satisfaction in that too.

Looking back over the press releases that have come from the commission over the past decade, there are a lot of warnings that haven’t necessarily been taken totally on board by the government. How do you maintain positivity and drive in the face of what I imagine must feel quite frustrating at times?

Environment by its nature is a bit doom and gloom because what you’re doing, you’re dealing with an externality, something that’s outside of the economy, and it’s something that’s just… kind of unfortunate. What I’ve been saying to audiences lately is that the reason that putting a little bit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is so destructive is just damn bad luck. The fact that nitrates are so very soluble and therefore the nitrates in cow urine can travel so easily in the groundwater is just, again, damn bad luck. If the chemistry had been different we wouldn’t have these problems. So it’s not as if people set out deliberately to destroy the environment.

But I’ve seen changes, and it’s also a long game. I seldom expect a minister to immediately respond and say ‘what a great idea, we’re going to do that,’ because they come into office with certain priorities, certain policies, and they want to go in a certain direction, so you can’t expect abrupt change. But you do expect over time those things to be absorbed and obviously public pressure can also grow.

One satisfying area for me is water quality. One of the first reports I did was simply on understanding what the problem was, because when I came into the role I actually knew nothing about it all. I had to learn. And then I convey to people what seems important to me. Sometimes you’re in a better position actually when you don’t know a lot beforehand because you can better tell what’s interesting and important. I get a lot of comments from people about that, and I hear issues around water quality being reported much more accurately in the media – the science is much more rigorous.

So we’ve got policy on water quality when we had none, regardless of the criticisms which get levelled at it. We’ve got regulation coming up on stock exclusion. The Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) was being loosened and now it’s being tightened which is something. We’re no longer debating the reality of climate change.

But perhaps the clearest example would be 1080 – one of the easier reports to do, I might add. Again I knew nothing about it but I went in with my team and looked at every aspect very thoroughly and thought ‘Wow, this is amazing, it’s actually really good and we need more of it’. Being able to say we need to use more is something a minister could never say. Then to have Nick Smith have the courage to pick up on that and launch the Battle for the Birds on the strength of that was a very direct cause and effect. The government has since created Predator Free 2050 and regardless of whether or not it’s realistic, the focus is on where it needs to be on predators. That’s all good stuff on biodiversity.

One of ten little spotted kiwi is released on Motuihe Island, a conservation pest-free island close to Auckland. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Nick Smith took on your advice regarding 1080 and the Battle for the Birds, which is great, but I’m sure there have also been times where you must have seemed like a thorn in the side of the National party considering they’ve been in government for the majority of your time in the role. Your role is also politically independent and not beholden to any party. How do you think the government views your role?

The way I see it is that I’ve upset all the parties. Very early in the piece when Labour were still in power I went against a biofuel bill that I said was not going to be helpful here. I put in a report on solar water heating and said it had very little environmental benefit in New Zealand. Those sorts of reports have not made me popular with other parties. And I do get some quite appreciative comments from government ministers and from others too.

The environment and the economy aren’t always at loggerheads and things that are environmentally damaging aren’t necessarily good for the economy either, so I do not rank political parties according to how well they deal with the environment, I just say what needs to be said.

It strikes me when you say that the environment and the economy aren’t always at loggerheads that you have maybe a little more empathy with big business, or an understanding of the reality that we do have to balance the environment with the economy.

I don’t really like the word balance, because one person’s balance is another person’s bias. I don’t really think of it like that. But often, because I have been trained in economics among other things, I do think in that frame. Take 1080 for example – it’s a very, very cost effective way to control predators across large areas, and it’s the only tool we have for that. I do think about cost effectiveness. I’m not interested in money being spent on environmental projects that are just a waste. I think of it like that.

And of course when you look longer term, a lot of the environmental things that seem uneconomic, it really depends what time frame you’re looking at. Take that report on birds recently – 80% of our birds are in trouble. This is really bad. What are we going to do about this? Whatever it is will cost a lot of money, but can we afford not to? Can we afford to lose all of these birds that are the peak of our ecosystem?

When I came into this role I thought that the thing with the environment is that it needs to be mainstreamed. It can’t just be a green fringe in society. And that means talking to business, talking to farmers, and in fact I spoke to a group of farmers yesterday, I was at the red meat conference last week, so I have been interacting with those people.

With the environment there are a lot of opportunities for the private sector but also a lot of risk as well. It’s been very pleasing to see increasing involvement there. In my last report there were like 30 companies who are getting serious about electric cars, and so the private sector matters too, it’s not just about what the public sector does.

A lot of the time the real game changers and disruptors are private companies. Are you optimistic about the rise of more eco-friendly technology and a greater consumer demand for green technology and eco-conscious products?

It all works together. Of course you do have to be careful of greenwash because you can’t really tell. That heightening of awareness is part of it though. But I think climate change does bring that home because we’re talking about the future as a whole and that brings people in.

Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

I wanted to talk about your proposed climate act. I was reading an op-ed about how that contrasts with Paula Bennett’s desire to maintain a competitive advantage internationally for our businesses. Can you speak about that climate act and the way in which you envision it working in the context of the government’s current aims?

Well the UK Climate Act is not unique to me, Generation Zero had done a version of it and in fact we had the visit from Lord Devon, chair of the UK Climate Committee, who was brought out by the Blue-Greens, the environmental part of the National party, so a lot of people are looking at this. My aim in doing this was to say ‘If we were to do this, what advantages would it give, and how would we do it?’ Because of course as we got into it we discovered that the way they do things in Britain is not the way we do things here. We also have a very different greenhouse gas profile, so would it be useful here? I very much felt it would be.

Paula Bennett from what I can see is very serious about the Paris target. She was newly appointed when she went off to New York to ratify it, and she’s very serious about it. But my focus is on how are we going to get there, and I think we’re going to have quite a lot of trouble getting there. And as we all know our obligations under the Paris Agreement are not a particularly strong target anyway. The strong ones will come in the future. So there’s an emphasis on the stepping stones, the idea of a five year carbon budget, that is provided in the UK system. It’s an interim target on the way to the Paris target.

But the other part of this of course is the importance of this independent commission. It’s really important because of its inter-generational nature. Before Paris we will have five different governments, and you can’t just chop and change every three years, it’d be nuts. All these questions are relevant also to the Emissions Trading Scheme – is it going to be in for three years then out for three years? You can’t do that. That stability and predictability need to be reinforced, because the private sector can’t take up the opportunity and manage their risks without some predictability. After my report came out, just a few weeks ago, one of the things I was most pleased by was the press releases coming out of the private sector in support. There was one from Z Energy, one from Meridian, one from Westpac and one from Dairy NZ saying we need this model in New Zealand. So I’m quite hopeful that it will actually happen at some point.

It kind of mirrors what happened in the US right? Although Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, a good deal of the private sector rose up and said we’re going to meet these targets anyway, regardless of government policy.

Absolutely. The private sector is very important. But also with the US situation, you’ve got a number of states with similar laws to the UK climate laws. In fact, the UK law was modeled on California. California is big enough to be its own country, it’s a huge part of the US economy. But it’s not just California, it’s also Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Washington State, Hawaii – they’re all doing something similar to the UK, so the US is not out of it at all really. It’s just an aberration. One hopes.

In the past you’ve criticised some of the concessions made to big business in regards to the ETS. With the recent proposed changes to the ETS, do you consider it now a scheme worth pursuing? Does it have teeth?

It’s been tightened and the proposed changes are all in the right direction but the ETS is very far from the original concept which was all gasses, all sectors, and it’s meant to be a ‘cap and trade’ system of course but there’s no cap. It is much more of a framework and it remains that. It’s probably biting a bit but the price of carbon has been so low. I think it’s very important to keep it in place because the fundamental reason for carbon pricing is the ubiquity of carbon dioxide. What you do with a price on carbon is you’re embedding the scarcity of the ability of the atmosphere to soak up carbon dioxide into the economy, right across the economy. Theoretically it’s completely brilliant, it’s just that we have a partial system in place. I wouldn’t dump carbon pricing for a moment, what we need to do is more, because it’s not going to even get us to Paris.

When I consider Paris and these targets, in reality we’re talking about saving the earth. The government is obliged to meet this Paris target as a matter of diplomacy, but really what we’re actually talking about here is the fate of the entire planet.

Exactly. It’s all about the long term future of our planet. One thing that really grinds me is that people seem to think we’re just going to go off and find another planet, but get real.

One of the themes that I’ve pushed during my time in the role is that not all environmental issues are equally as important, because if you take that attitude you can just get overwhelmed with impotence. What can you do when there are so many things that need to be done? So the idea of ranking them is very important. For me climate change is at the top because it affects everything else. If you’re worried about the ocean for example, well, I’m afraid climate change is acidifying it, and that will change the creatures that are living in it. Climate change is so important, and seeing the response to this idea – all the youth branches of every political party are saying ‘yes, we need to do this’, major charities like Oxfam are saying yes to UK climate law for New Zealand, and of course the private sector companies have come out in support, so something is going to happen.

Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

Policy aside, what does it mean to you after ten years of fighting for the environment?

It really means that we have one planet. We can have many kinds of economies and many different societies, but we only have one planet. There is a fundamental thing going on with the environment that you don’t have in other aspects of public policy and I suppose in a way that is very important to me. Much of what we do to the environment is irreversible. I think in this country there is a special import because tourism is the biggest sector in our economy at the moment and most people don’t come here to go shopping. Nature is economically important to us as a country.

But I think it’s also our identity as New Zealanders because it’s different and unique and special, and I think that’s what drew me to the birds because they’re particularly different and interesting. One thing I discovered during that investigation is that New Zealand has 93 different endemic bird species. The UK has one.

And there’s also the great human experiment to continue too. It’s not only about nature but our place within it too.

Are you optimistic looking forward?

I am optimistic. The older I get the more optimistic I become. When you live a bit longer you see a lot of good things happen, it’s not all bad. How can you live, how can you argue for the environment if you’re not optimistic? You might as well just give up. I am optimistic, I must be, I must be. I couldn’t do this job without being optimistic.


Climate Change Week at The Spinoff is brought to you by An Inconvenient Sequel – in cinemas August 24.

A decade after Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, brought climate change into the heart of popular culture comes An Inconvenient Sequel – highlighting the perils of unmitigated climate change and the need for more action. See it in cinemas from Thursday August 24.

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