Environment watchdog’s final words of warning

As Dr Jan Wright’s 10 years as New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment come to an end, the audience at her Victoria University of Wellington public talk discovered she has two unexpected enthusiasms: Margaret Thatcher and the national grid.

Dr Wright was discussing her final report as Commissioner, ‘Stepping stones to Paris and beyond: Climate change, progress and predictability’, about which Newsroom’s Lynn Grieveson wrote when it was released at the end of July. (Read, too, this profile of Dr Wright by Shane Cowlishaw.)

Under the international Paris agreement on climate change, New Zealand is committed to cutting net carbon emissions to 30 percent below 2005 gross levels by 2030, and it also has its own ’50 by 50’ target of cutting net emissions to 50 percent below 1990 gross levels by 2050.

However, net emissions rose by 64 percent between 1990 and 2015.

Twice during her talk, Dr Wright said that, with only 13 years to go and emissions still on an upward trajectory, she did not see how New Zealand would achieve its target.

In her report, she recommends we introduce climate legislation based on the United Kingdom’s 2008 Act of Parliament whereby the country’s emission target is fixed in law and an expert advisory body works with the government to set binding five-year ‘carbon budgets’ to build incrementally toward it.

The recommendations have been supported by Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.

But on their release, National climate change minister Paula Bennett said she did not think ‘carbon budgets’ were “necessary at the moment”, given the government had clear targets that were gazetted and therefore locked in.

She added: “I don't think that actually setting up an independent climate change body would work for us at the moment, but I certainly think it might be something worth looking at in the future.”

Soon afterward, Prime Minister Bill English also said the government did not plan to go down the ‘carbon budget’ track.

An important aspect of the UK Act’s success has been that it passed through the House of Commons by 463 votes to three, ensuring the necessary stability of ongoing cross-party support no matter who is in government, said Dr Wright.

"I’m not meaning to imply I worship at the altar of Margaret Thatcher at all. But she actually cottoned on before any other world leader to that climate change was real. And she did something about it."

Under the Act, the UK government is committed to reducing net emissions to 80 percent below 1990 gross levels by 2050, and it has also committed to a 2030 target of a 57 percent reduction. Between 1990 and 2015, the UK’s net emissions fell by 30 percent.

“The world is looking at the UK climate change Act,” said Dr Wright—with “at least nine other countries” picking up the essential features of the Act, along with “some states in the US, some in Australia and I think a couple of provinces in Canada”.

Having Lord Deben, a former minister in the Margaret Thatcher and John Major Conservative governments, as chair of the UK expert advisory body sends an “actually quite powerful” message about cross-party agreement by both the centre-right and centre-left, said Dr Wright.

Video: Lord Deben discusses political and industrial responses to climate change with Rod Oram

The consensus began, she said, with Thatcher and another Prime Minister serious about the issue —Labour’s Tony Blair.

“[Margaret Thatcher] was a chemist who got the science. She is actually my new climate change hero and I recommend you look on the internet to the speech she made in 1989 that put climate change on the international agenda, because Margaret Thatcher knew how to make a speech.”

Answering a question later from a member of the audience surprised by her Thatcher reference, Dr Wright said: “She’s not my new hero generally. I’m not meaning to imply I worship at the altar of Margaret Thatcher at all. But the thing about her is she actually cottoned on before any other world leader to that climate change was real. And she did something about it, and she made a speech at the UN and things happened as a result of that.”

She added: “Of course, she was only at the stage of ‘this is real, we need to do something about it’. How you do something about it, how much you rely on market mechanisms, all that sort of thing, that’s all much further down the track.”

"We too easily assume we know what to do.”

Talk chair Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy in Victoria’s School of Government, observed: “You can think of two centre-right women politicians, both scientifically trained, who have been champions of climate change action: Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. We haven’t had anyone on the centre-right like that in New Zealand. And that is a factor in the challenge we’ve faced here, isn’t it?”

While the first half of Dr Wright’s talk was devoted to her report recommendations, the second focused on “something’s that’s core to everything I’ve done in this job: analysis that is as rigorous as possible. And I particularly want to talk about the importance of crunching the numbers, the importance of quantification. I’m one of those weird people who think numbers are cool, and [believe in] the great importance of questioning everything, and constantly testing our thinking, and questioning again and questioning again. We too easily assume we know what to do.”

She wanted to challenge the assumption that renewable energy and low carbon energy are the same thing.

“They often are but it’s not always true,” said Dr Wright.

She pointed out that the 1991 Resource Management Act says the benefits of renewable energy should be given particular regard, with geothermal energy listed as an example of renewable energy.

However, she said, carbon dioxide comes out of the ground when geothermal energy is tapped, and there is an enormous range from low to high for the carbon footprint of geothermal plants.

Similarly with biofuels: in the United States, nitrogen fertiliser is used to grow maize for ethanol production and some of that nitrogen ends up as nitrous oxide, a potent and long-lived greenhouse gas, she said.

"If you want to put solar panels on your roof and a wind turbine in your backyard, that’s fine. But it’s not a solution for the country.”

In New Zealand, EECA (the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority) is “charged with promoting the efficient use of energy, big tick for that, and renewable energy, as if renewable energy per see was automatically an end to be sought … I think EECA’s mandate needs to be changed so it is explicitly focused on reducing the carbon dioxide emissions associated with energy”.

Something else that needs questioning, said Dr Wright, is that distributive electricity generation—electricity generated in lots of places (e.g. domestic wind turbines or solar panels)—is always better than centralised generation.

“Being independent from the grid, or independent at least as far as possible, is considered by many to be axiomatically a good thing. But why is it, really? I have come to see the electricity grid as the friend of the climate … When you build big rather than small, a kilowatt an hour of electricity is cheaper because of economies of scale and because large grid-scale generation can be put at optimal places [whether for wind turbines or solar panels] …

“It’s not just about optimal location. Electricity generated from wind and sun and water varies over time. Sometimes there’s a lot, sometimes there’s very little. And demand for electricity varies over time too, over the day and over the year … And the grid enables variable supply and variable demand to be balanced at much lower cost than if done by batteries at the local level …

“The grid is like public transport: it is something we can all share in and helps get us to where we need to be. If you want to put solar panels on your roof and a wind turbine in your backyard, that’s fine and I’m absolutely fine with that. But it’s not a solution for the country.”

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