The big environmental challenges for NZ

Dr Jan Wright is approaching the end of a decade-long stint as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. As Newsroom’s Watchdogs series continues, she explains why a Government Minister’s admission could be her sweetest moment yet.

“I think we need to start thinking about soil again,” Jan Wright muses while sipping on a cup of tea.

“In the 90s erosion was a really big issue … we’re a very erodible country, the Government paid people to clear bush on erodible land right into the 1970s, this was mad.”

So soil, along with the plight of our native birds, is on the mind of our Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Appointed to the role in 2007, Wright is the third to take up the position.

She is softly spoken and slight-of-stature - but don’t let her demeanour fool you.

No matter what question is thrown at her, Wright fires back immediately in an almost defiant manner.

“You’ll never do a report that doesn’t make someone unhappy, if you haven’t made someone unhappy you haven’t done the job. If you haven’t questioned anything about the status quo, then what is the point?”

During her two terms, she has taken on the anti-1080 brigade, anti-frackers, and farmers.

But now, while debate about water quality and ownership are dominating the headlines, it’s another topic that has Wright smiling.

Comments from the Government that there is a limit to dairy intensification is something she has been waiting her entire tenure for.

“I think there was a tipping point yesterday … I think the comments by [Primary Industries Minister] Nathan Guy yesterday that we’ve got to focus on value not volume, now I’ve been waiting for that for quite a long time.

“I didn’t see it coming but of course there has been a kind of crescendo building … so it’s not surprising but it’s very welcome.”

“You’ll never do a report that doesn’t make someone unhappy, if you haven’t made someone unhappy you haven’t done the job. If you haven’t questioned anything about the status quo, then what is the point?”

Wright will step down in October, but before then will release one final piece of work on the plight of those aforementioned native birds.

She warns that the reading will not be pretty.

Wright says 80 percent of species are under threat and New Zealand's birdlife is a shadow of its former self.

“We have these good news stories all the time, but things aren’t that good.”

What does the Commissioner for the Environment do?

Unlike other watchdogs whose main function is to deal with complaints from the public, Wright’s office does not.

This means her team is much smaller, at about 20 people.

For Wright, the crux of her position is its independence.

Rather than reporting to a Minister, she reports to Parliament as a whole.

This leaves her independent of the Government and allows her to follow her own path of work.

Under the Environment Act, Wright’s office has seven main functions (she keeps them pinned to her wall, to keep her “focused”).

Essentially though, they boil down to two – investigations and advice.

The former makes up the largest chunk of work.

A decision to investigate an issue can come from Wright’s own initiative, or be driven by public mood such as her work on fracking.

Previous work has included agricultural emissions and sea level rise.

The work is often complex and Wright tries to find a way to find common ground between two sides, rather than just “heads slamming together”.

She cites as an example agricultural emissions and her suggestion that nitrogen fertiliser, which accounts for 17 percent of nitrous oxide pollution, be taxed as an alternative way to bring dairying into the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Then there’s times when you’ve just got to be direct.

“Sometimes I’ll come out very clearly and 1080 is the classic one, I really didn’t expect to find it’s good as it is.

“That’s where the power of the role kicks-in, because no Minister could ever say 'use more 1080'."

“Put on your carbon glasses”

During the interview, Wright asks if she can talk about renewable energy.

It is, she says with a grimace, likely her biggest regret.

Not so much a failure to encourage uptake, but more the point that “renewable” can be misleading.

She says there is a “warm, fuzzy feeling” associated with the word, which has proliferated alongside a general distrust of the electricity industry.

Having undertaken her Master’s degree in energy at Berkley University in 1978, Wright emerged to a decade of oil price shocks and Government initiatives such as car-less days.

The discussion became one of “renewable vs non-renewable”, a black-and-white argument where there was only one winner.

But Wright says things are not so simple.

“I think that that’s a 70s thing we still retain and what we should be thinking about first and foremost with energy is carbon. If you put on your carbon glasses, the world starts to look a little different.”

Going through energy sources on her fingers, Wright says coal is the worst, gas not so bad.

But then what about all the concrete that is used when constructing a hydro-electric dam?

“People forget that New Zealand’s modern conservation movement started with opposition to the Manapouri Dam.”

Wright doesn’t want to bash solar energy, but says it just doesn’t suit New Zealand.

Apart from Northland and some parts of Auckland, in most of the country our electricity demand peaks during the winter when there isn’t a lot of sun.

Places like Australia, California, and Israel are far better suited to solar, as the use of air conditioning in summer meant there was higher demand.

“We already have extremely green electricity, the part that’s not so green is in the colder parts, especially in winter, and we need to work to flatten those peaks.”

We should be using more wind-generated energy, Wright believes, and people should remember two things: New Zealand has plenty of room and turbines can always be removed.

Climate change

At the beginning of her tenure, the debate about the validity of climate change was raging.

Now that it has been largely accepted, Wright would like to see New Zealand step up and play a leading role in combating climate change.

It was not good enough to simply play our part. We need to be leaders.

“For example, we’re set up for electric transport, it should be relatively easy for us. Our ability to grow trees and store carbon, we’ve got so many advantages so it should be relatively easy.”

Even so, New Zealand’s greenhouse emissions continue to rise (Wright points out the jump is from transport, not agriculture, which has remained steady).

As sea levels rise, problems with coastal living will increase and it could become society’s most vulnerable who congregate at the water’s edge.

“We already have extremely green electricity, the part that’s not so green is in the colder parts, especially in winter, and we need to work to flatten those peaks.”

Insurance companies are undoubtedly having discussions about the level of risk involved with such properties, while a lack of cohesion between councils in their approach to the issue is unfortunate, she says.

“One of the things we’re getting with sea level rise and river flooding is councils will overreact and say 'we’ve got to be really precautionary'… and are just pushing things too hard and too fast, while others are doing absolutely nothing.”

Wright herself lives on Wellington’s coast.

But she’s moving back to her hometown of Christchurch in October, building a house near the Heathcote River (high up on a pad, of course).

She’ll watch her successor, former National Minister Simon Upton, with interest and offer all the help she can.

The environment, after all, deserves it.

“For me our natural heritage it’s us, it’s our national identity. People don’t come here to go shopping, they come here because they saw a photo of a national park - even if they don’t go to it - and we really need to think how we keep that.”

The Newsroom Watchdogs interviews can be found here.

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