Jan Wright's Speech:
State of the Environment: “Prioritising Environmental Challenges: What Matters Most?
Speech at Lincoln University
28 August 2008
Thank you for the invitation.
It feels a little strange to come back to Lincoln in this capacity. Some of you will know that for a number of years – from about 1984 to 1992 if I recall correctly – I worked at the Centre for Resource Management. I spent most of my time at the Canterbury end, but Lincoln is a familiar environment for me.
Last year, Ian Spellerberg invited me to give this address. I pleaded that my feet were scarcely under the table in my new role. And that getting my head around the state of our environment was a work in progress. Of course, it still is a work in progress. But this year I said yes because my feet are now well and truly under the table.
My title is “Prioritising Environmental Challenges: What Matters Most?”
And in the little advertising blurb, I signalled that I would talk about the following.
“Environmental concern tends to be reactive. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is in the fortunate position of being able to work with her staff to set their own work programme. But this freedom and independence carries a responsibility to prioritise and carefully choose projects that can significantly improve our stewardship of the environment.”
But prioritisation of effort directed at improving the state of the environment is a challenge for the public sector that goes way beyond what projects we choose to work on in my little office.
Before I took up this extraordinary job, one of the things that kept me busy was being Chair of Land Transport NZ.
One of the major functions of that organisation was allocating central government funding for land transport – that is, for roads and public transport across the country.
And of course there was never enough funding to meet the wish lists of the 85 councils.
We used to joke that if we made everyone equally unhappy, we were probably getting it about right.
But we decided to engage with the councils on the prioritisation problem, and asked them to prioritise their wish lists.
Prioritisation is painful. Ask Pharmac.
The prioritisation process followed by councils typically occurred in three stages.
1st stage: All the projects we want are priorities.
2nd stage: These projects – which will cost more than we expect you will give us -- are priorities and the rest are not. But finally getting there.
3rd stage: This project is #1, this project is #2, and so on.
You haven’t explicitly prioritised until you rank from highest to lowest.
This might seem a long way from thinking about the state of the environment.
But in the same way as funding for transport must be allocated, the resources available to address environmental concerns must be allocated. And the transport allocation problem is a doddle compared with the environment allocation problem.
Of course, much concern about the environment is reactive and local and properly so.
The concerned citizen who writes to me about an environmental problem is quite rightly focused on that problem – otherwise, he or she wouldn’t bother. And the passion of those citizens who are often pursuing the public interest at their own expense, is often the way environmental concerns end up on the public sector agenda.
The prioritisation of environmental problems is a challenge for all public sector agencies concerned with the environment. As it is for transport or health or education.
But many of us tend to feel that thinking like this about the environment is not kosher – that the language of allocation and tradeoffs and opportunity cost belongs to that enemy of the environment – economics – the dismal science.
I have done my time regarding economists as enemies of the environment – seeing them as smothering the beauty and complexity of the natural world with the cold dead hand of cost-benefit analysis.
David Suzuki, Canada’s best known environmentalist, is reputed to have once said that he would disown his daughter if she married an economist. That seems a bit rough.
But consider this.
The fundamental problem addressed by economists is the allocation of scarce resources. And our resources for addressing environmental problems are scarce. Dollars are scarce, technical capability is scarce, political will is scarce. All are limited.
And so it is crucial that environmental decision-makers understand those two powerful concepts of economic thinking – tradeoffs and opportunity cost. We don’t all need to understand how to perform a cost-benefit analysis – heaven forbid! What a boring lot we would become.
But environmental decision-makers need to understand that resources dedicated to solving one environmental problem often takes away the opportunity to work on another and delays its solution.
If we don’t prioritise consciously we will do it by default – and that is squeaky wheel allocation.
You could say that is what democracy is about – which set of squeaky wheels squeaks the loudest?
But if we manage the environment completely reactively, we might as well make all decisions based on surveys of public opinion.
It is tempting to think that reporting on the state of the environment will do the prioritisation job for us. That measuring the state of the environment with a set of indicators will rank our environmental problems and tell us where to focus our efforts.
But this is not so. Of course data helps. Of course, well-chosen indicators help.
But a great effort to collect more and more information about the environment will only take us a certain distance.
Time series of environmental indicators can tell us whether particular environmental problems are getting better or worse.
But they don’t allow us to compare one environmental problem with another.
To make conclusions about what matters a lot and what matters a little.
How do we compare these two?
In 2005, the average 24 hour concentration of PM10 particulates in Christchurch air exceeded 50 microgram per cubic metre on 20 days.
Nine years ago, the habitat health of 43% of lowland sites of rivers in Canterbury was rated as poor or very poor.
The term “comparing apples and oranges” is often used to describe such dilemmas.
But with the environment, we don’t just have apples and oranges – we have bananas and mangoes and kiwifruit – a whole fruit salad.
In 2005, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions from New Zealand came from transport.
The lesser short-tailed bat currently occupies less than 5% of the range it was estimated to have before human settlement.
Between 1997 and 2002, native forest decreased by 2,300 hectares.
Obviously where the trend is in the positive direction, we need worry less. We can probably assign a lower priority and allocate less resources.
But most of the trends are in the negative direction.
In seeking to prioritise different environmental problems – to compare apples and oranges and bananas – many of us would instinctively think that this is a matter of values. The subjective values that people place on different environmental problems.
I hope that values can be formed in part by exposure to evidence and reasoned analysis.
Let me propose five criteria that can be assessed objectively and might help prioritise environmental problems.
First – cumulative. Is the problem cumulative? Do successive impacts keep stacking up or is there some natural mechanism that tends to restore the system?
Second - irreversible. Is the problem reversible? This is closely related to cumulative, but allows for the possibility of human restoration of the system through technology and management practices.
Third – scale and extent. Is the size of the problem significant? Is it widespread and pervasive, or is it confined?
Fourth – the rate of increase. Is the size of the problem accelerating? Does it need to be dealt with urgently?
Fifth – a limit or tipping point. Is the problem approaching some kind of physical limit? Is there a tipping point – a level of the problem that tips the system into another state?
Lincoln is mostly inhabited by practical people and many of you here may be thinking this is all ivory tower indulgence. So I need to come out of the ivory tower and test this conceptual thinking with some real examples.
Let’s think about two environmental problems. Water quality, specifically excess nutrients. Local air quality, specifically particulates.
Water quality First – cumulative. How cumulative water contaminants are varies. It depends on flushing and diluting mechanisms. But generally, water pollution is largely cumulative.
Second - irreversible. Even if we could wave a wand and stop major sources of contaminants instantly, there is the great backlog of contaminants in the groundwater.
How far will we be able to get with keeping nitrate out of water when it comes from non-point sources on the porous soils of Canterbury?
Third – scale and extent. I already quoted an Environment Canterbury report on the quality of rivers in Canterbury. I recently attended a water quality conference in Rotorua. There are 12 special lakes there - and most are vulnerable. Lake Rotorua itself is probably murky forever.
Fourth – rate of increase. For that we must look to the rate of increase of the drivers of the problem. And we know that the amount of nitrogen used in agriculture has increased very fast.
Fifth – limit or tipping point. Rivers lose their fish. Lakes suffer from algal blooms.
Local air quality. Christchurch is an obvious example. First – cumulative.
Winter particulate pollution in Christchurch is not physically cumulative – the southerly comes up and blows it away. The impacts on the health of some people may be cumulative.
Second - irreversible. The problem is technically reversible.
Though current approaches might well be giving us other environmental headaches. More electric heating must increase winter peaks – and it is peaks that drive the construction of new power plants. And new power plants all have environmental impacts.
Third – scale and extent. The time period is limited to a few days in winter – it is not Beijing. The extent is obvious.
Fourth – rate of increase. The problem is decreasing – and has for many years. I suspect the big reduction came from the decline in the use of coal in open fires and industry.
I grew up in Christchurch. And have a clear childhood memory of the giant coal man tipping his great sacks of coal into the bin by our back door. And I remember winter nights – a spooky sort of Jack the Ripper atmosphere.
Fifth – limit or tipping point. There is no tipping point – the health risk is proportional to the exposure. Therefore, a 24 hour average of 50 micrograms of PM10 per cubic metre has no scientific basis. Nor can it. It is an arbitrary acceptable level.
So if you asked me to rank these two problems, I would – and do – rank the water problem far above the air problem. Although this doesn’t mean that I am saying nothing should have been done about air. And I am ranking the two problems from an environmental perspective not a health perspective.
I would not dare to claim that the criteria I have just proposed are the best to use. Far from it. I just want to get people thinking analytically and systematically.
Ranking environmental problems reactively can leave us prey to perceptions rather than science.
Perceptions are influenced by what cognitive psychologists call the availability heuristic. I just slipped back into the ivory tower. Let me start again.
Our perceptions are influenced – if not determined -- by what is close to us – under our noses. When it comes to perceptions of environmental problems, there are two that are immediately “available” to our senses, in our faces. At least to city dwellers which most of us are. These two are dirty air and rubbish. Dirty air and rubbish are not just under our noses, but sometimes in our noses. And they are clearly visible.
Recently the Auckland Regional Council conducted a survey in which citizens of that city were asked to name the most important environmental problem. Traffic congestion topped the list – which is interesting since it’s not actually an environmental problem, but a cause of environmental problems. Then came air pollution. And yet Auckland’s air is not particularly bad. Total suspended particulates have fallen by about 70% in the last 40 years.
As for rubbish. When I tell people what my job is, I often get the response: “I’m very good at recycling”. Rubbish is the most tangible of our environmental problems – yet the most solvable.
Recently I stayed in a hotel with a superb system of waste management – a hotel that had won a green award. Its recycling system was magnificent. But energy consumption matters as well as material resources. Energy consumption is a lot less tangible than rubbish. I have no basis for judging their energy management –-- but I did count 15 lightbulbs in my hotel room.
So going back to my title: What matters most?
It is clear that climate change is right up there. It’s cumulative. Greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating. The scale is as big as it gets – global. And there are potential tipping points like the melting of the methane clathrates in the tundra.
But if climate change wasn’t about the weather, could we get anyone interested? We don’t know whether particular storms and droughts – extreme events – are made worse by climate change, but they certainly keep the perception score high. Which is very fortunate.
Many consider water quality to be our greatest domestic environmental challenge.
And such a large part of that problem is invisible. Such as the nitrate leached into groundwater sixty years ago that has still to make its way into Lake Taupo, one of our great iconic lakes.
Now, switching from problems to solutions…
When it comes to solutions to environmental problems, we also need perceptions to be supplemented – and dare I say corrected – by reasoned analysis and evidence.
The environment is so hard because “everything is connected to everything else”.
In solving one problem, we may exacerbate another.
And so prioritisation – comparative ranking – matters here too.
We should not delude ourselves that “win-wins” are always possible.
As you will be well aware there is great debate going on not too far from here over the visual impact of wind turbines on iconic high country landscapes. How do we judge that local environmental impact against the need to reduce carbon dioxide from electricity generation? I cannot judge the merits of any particular wind farm.
But consider the criterion of reversibility. Wind turbines can be dismantled and removed, but climate change is not reversible.
As an aside, wind energy is of course classed as “renewable”. The belief that it is always better to use renewable resources than non-renewable resources is an environmental “sacred cow”. Renewable is “good” and non-renewable is “bad” is too simplistic. And I worry about it because of the increasing amount of policy and legislation that relies on classifying resources in this way.
Consider the following:
The modern environmental movement in New Zealand started with opposition to the raising of Lake Manapouri – a scheme to generate renewable electricity.
The only resources that we have exhausted are the renewable biological “resources” that humans have made extinct.
Geothermal energy is defined as renewable, yet the steam used to generate electricity from some geothermal fields can be very “fizzy” – that is, it contains a great deal of carbon dioxide.
So what matters most? Obviously there will be a variety of different views on this.
That is absolutely as it should be.
But one of the key things I hope to achieve during my term as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is to help people understand the importance of getting beyond perceptions about the environment.
And carefully and systematically prioritise our environmental challenges.