The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment was set up under the Environment Act 1986. Its roots lay in the 1980s reform of New Zealand's environmental administration following a 1981 OECD report, Environmental Policies in New Zealand. This report recommended changes including strengthening environmental advice to government, and establishing an environmental body with a separate audit and oversight function.
- The first Commissioner, Helen Hughes, served from 1987 to 1996.
- The second Commissioner, Dr J. Morgan Williams, served 10 years in the position and retired in March 2007.
- The third Commissioner, Dr Jan Wright, served two terms between 2007 and 2017.
- The current Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is Simon Upton.
Much of the history around the establishment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is outlined in David Young's book Keeper of the Long View, which was published in March 2007 as part of 20th anniversary celebrations. Further information about the office can be found in relevant chapters of Mai Chen's Public Law Toolbox.