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The legacy of NZ’s departing environmental watchdog Jan Wright

Jan Wright: “I worry, a lot. We need to be changing a lot faster.” Photo/Hagen Hopkins

After 10 years as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, 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.

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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.

Wright on snowshoes in Vermont. Photo/Wright family collection

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 trekking in the Himalayas. Photo/Wright family collection

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.”

Low-carbon future

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 emission-reduction 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”, although she confirms climate change action should be cross-party and the proposal is “something worth looking at in the future”.

The unflappable Wright can barely conceal her exasperation at our inadequate action on what she calls “the ultimate intergenerational issue”. Yet, as she knows from other issues she has investigated, the path from research to action is seldom short or straight.

Jan, at left, with family at Arthurs Pass, 1959. Photo/Wright family collection

The 1080 challenge

Where she has probably had the greatest influence is in the use of 1080 against introduced predators. For years, the biodegradable organofluorine was the subject of angry, and often ugly, protests and accusations. But Wright and her small team of researchers went through the evidence and concluded that, if we want to save our native birds from oblivion, we are lucky to have it and ought to be using much more of it.

Hague says the PCE report on 1080 was a powerful piece of work that enabled commentators, the media and decision-makers to have confidence in the science, which has in turn flowed through to public opinion. Nick Smith, who was Conservation Minister at the time, says he was already working towards the first “Battle for Our Birds” campaign of landscape-scale predator control when the report came out, but having 1080 endorsed by an independent environmental champion gave him the “political confidence”. In turn, Wright’s report helped create a pathway for the establishment of the Department of Conservation’s ambitious Predator Free 2050 target.

Wright has taken a “real-world” approach to her role, Hague says. “There’s been a very strong focus on what’s actually achievable. Rather than writing an absolutely purist report that no one can really do anything with because of practical political problems, she has tried to frame the way forward so that it’s possible to achieve things through incremental political change. That’s been very, very useful.”

On the issue of water quality, she has channelled her earlier life as a teacher, carefully explaining to politicians, journalists and the public what the major pollutants are and where they mostly come from: phosphorus is carried on soil particles from eroding hillsides and stream banks, and nitrogen from the abundant urine of cows.

“I’ve always enjoyed that intellectual struggle of how to make the complex simple,” Wright says.

But behind the simplicity, there is always the rock-solid science. Long-time political commentator Colin James says Wright’s work isn’t alone responsible for rising public concern about issues such as water quality and climate change, but she has underpinned that concern through rigorous research. “She is taken seriously, and that’s very important … She leaves an enviable record for Simon Upton to follow.”

Wright teaching at Hillary College.

Wright is leaving her hillside home and precariously steep garden on Wellington’s south coast and moving to a new house she is building in flat Christchurch. There will be no solar panels on the roof, but it will be packed with insulation, and the water will be heated at night. Her next car will be electric and she’s thinking about buying an electric bicycle.

Christchurch, still bruised and battered by earthquake damage, is in many ways unrecognisable as the city she grew up in. But she never stopped thinking of it as home, despite years in Auckland, Berkeley, Harvard University and Wellington. It was in Christchurch that her parents – her father, Frank, worked for the Customs Service and her mother, Joan, was a shorthand typist – grew up, in the working-class suburb of Sydenham. They met on the bus on the way to work.

They married and raised their three children in a time of rapid upward mobility. As newlyweds, they got a low-interest loan and built a new house on the edge of the city, in an area that later became heartland Fendalton. Jan, her brother and sister were brought up on the firm understanding that education was a priority, although at the time “virtually no one we knew had parents with university degrees”, Wright recalls.

Joan died of cancer at 47, when Wright was 20. Frank died six years later. At the time of her mother’s illness and death, Wright was completing an honours degree in physics at Canterbury University. From there, she headed to Auckland to start a PhD in elementary-particle physics. “I didn’t last very long at all,” she says. She was the only woman in the department at that academic level, and was surrounded by PhD candidates who appeared to be miserable. “So I was out of there.”

Teachers’ college followed, and then four years at Hillary College in Otara, which she remembers as “tremendously challenging”. “Seven different classes at any one time, 40-minute periods. It was chaos, really.” The students sometimes called her “Mum” by mistake. “It was a great eye-opener for a girl from Christchurch.”

She became part of a cohort of teachers that introduced a whānau system, with four fourth-form (Year 10) classes taught together in one-hour periods, learning via themes that resonated with the kids’ lives. It was radical stuff for the 1970s.

Her time at Hillary was broken by a year of travel, during which she spent time in Israel working on a kibbutz, as a cook in pre-Thatcher Britain and on an overland trip through east Africa, war-torn Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa.

On the road, she read one of the seminal texts of the era, Small Is Beautiful, by EF Schumacher, and became increasingly interested in energy. In 1978, with the oil shock still reverberating through world economies, she headed off to the University of California, Berkeley, to do postgraduate study in energy and resources. The energy world was obsessed with renewables as a way of escaping the manipulations of the oil states, but Wright was introduced for the first time by her supervisor John Holdren – who later became President Barack Obama’s science adviser – to the notion that carbon emissions from energy were going to be a far bigger problem than running out of energy. It was the first time she heard of climate change, the issue that would later become an abiding concern.

Wright graduating from Harvard.

Cancer diagnosis

She returned home to teach and research at Canterbury and Lincoln universities’ Centre for Resource Management, and lived in the Creekside Community, a housing co-operative.

Later, she was one of two students to win a fellowship to the elite Harvard Kennedy School to do a PhD in public policy, but only a year into her studies, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. At 42, she was close to the age at which her mother had been diagnosed with bowel cancer, and she found it hard to accept the doctors’ assurances that she could survive. Alone, far from home, and in the middle of a demanding academic programme, it was “pretty tough”, she recalls with characteristic understatement.

“It was a bit of an existential crisis. really, because here I was doing this very long-term degree, which was harder than I thought it would be, and suddenly it was ‘am I even going to be able to live to use it?’ But I thought I could hardly go back to New Zealand and say, ‘I have breast cancer. I dropped out of my PhD. Can I have a job, please.’” Plenty of people would have done precisely that but, as Wright’s friends and associates observe, she’s made of tough stuff.

The treatment was brutal. “Slash, burn and poison,” as she puts it: surgery, six weeks of radiation and six months of chemotherapy. “I became skeletally thin and I was tired for years. And your brain turns to mush. Here I was doing this PhD and my brain just wasn’t quite working properly.”

It was hard to decide whether to go through with the chemotherapy. “As with all chemo, all it does is alter probabilities. And so you go through this, never knowing whether you needed to or not. If you die, it didn’t work. But if you live, you don’t know whether you actually had to put up with the treatment.”

Fortunately, she had an intellectual fascination with risk and decision-making, “so I was madly applying it to myself”.

The cancer and treatment slowed her down, but didn’t stop her. The PhD took six years instead of four, and she won a top prize – outstanding student in risk and decision sciences.

Now, she’s been cancer-free for 25 years. “I was one of the lucky ones. It has never come back … But it does things to you. It made me impatient to achieve things. It drives you; you want your life to be worth something.”

Has the past 10 years of delivering sometimes-unpalatable messages to often-unreceptive decision-makers met that test? “I really feel that I’ve used every bit of education and experience that I have had in this job. It’s been very rewarding.”

And for those who regret that Wright’s rigorous analyses have not triggered a more thorough political response on the big issues of water quality and climate change, that encyclopaedia of research remains, providing stepping stones to a cleaner, greener New Zealand.

This article was first published in the October 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.