New sea level rules prepare for the worst

Coastal hazards guidance held back by the previous government is advising councils to plan for worst-case scenario sea level rise for major coastal developments. 

The Coastal Hazards and Climate Change guidance 2017, leaked in draft form by the Green Party earlier this year, was released at a briefing in Auckland this morning.

The new guidelines map out a staged approach to planning for flood risk, advising councils to plan for the possible melting of the polar ice sheets before letting big, new housing developments proceed on the coast - displacing the 0.8m sea level stress-testing recommended by the previous 2008 guide.

Minister for Climate Change James Shaw formally released the guidance - held back by the previous government until after the election - alongside Dr Rob Bell, one of its lead authors, and Dr Judy Lawrence, co-chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group.

It was released in conjunction with a ‘stocktake’ report - a state of the nation type round-up of how New Zealand is placed to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Described by Shaw as “grim reading”, the stocktake report makes clear we have no coordinated national plan to adapt to the coming changes, including sea level rise.

It warned New Zealanders to expect changes that will affect “where we live, our infrastructure, and our economy”, noting the 30cm of sea level rise projected for the next 50 years would have an impact on all coastal areas.

It points out we have no shortage of information on climate change, but that information just isn’t in the form to help make decisions on what course of action to take.

The news comes after a Newsroom special inquiry found that, in the Coromandel alone, hundreds of new, permanent land titles were created on the coast in the past two years, after modelling at most 1m of sea level rise.

The long-delayed guidance outlines four scenarios for planning - beginning at a 'low emissions, effective mitigation scenario,' up to a 'higher, more extreme H+ scenario'.

The scenarios advise that people should now be planning for 1m of sea level rise for existing neighbourhoods, and for the "H+" scenario for ‘greenfields’ developments or redevelopments that intensify land use in already built-up areas.

Among changes from the draft version, the 'upper range' scenario of 1.9m of stress-testing had been replaced by the 'H+' scenario - which stipulates any developments to last beyond 2120 would need to be tested against 1.88m sea level rise. 

The authors of the report had also “rearranged the bar for intensification” for councils.

“Councils from now on will have to go through that full process rather than simply get out of jail,” Bell said.

Thanks to the uncertainty of what might happen to sea levels, Bell said it didn’t make sense to apply the same numbers across the board, but plan to adapt by giving councils four scenarios to work with, ranging from a ‘we stick to the Paris Climate Agreement’ best-case-scenario, to the other end of the scale should the ice sheets melt.

There is a clear emphasis on being ‘adaptable’, calling for flexibility from councils when dealing with the number of different ways sea level rise might play out.

“We try to get away from the numbers, because you’re just second-guessing the future,” he said.

The level of stress-testing also depended on the nature and permanence of the development.

Shaw further illustrated the point by comparing a picnic shelter to an airport.

“If you just apply a 1.9m blanket, no matter what, then if you say ‘Well we’re going to build a picnic shelter to 1.9m [stress-testing]’ then that’s kind of absurd, but if you’re building an airport then that makes a lot more sense.”

What’s not clear in either of the reports is how the recommendations will be enforced in law.

The guidance examines the roles and responsibilities of councils and territorial authorities managing natural hazards, and maps out the mosaic of (often conflicting) Acts and relevant parts of the Resource Management Act.

Shaw told Newsroom today something like a National Environment Standard to make sure councils comply wasn’t out of the question, but there was a lot of work to be done first to make sure changing one piece of legislation didn’t cause problems for another.

“If we’re going to develop a proper adaptive mechanism for the country … we need to look at how the whole system works together.”

Lawrence added: “If we’re going to do it right, and the shift is going to happen, then there has to be a comprehensive framework.”

Shaw also said he would look at taking up former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright’s suggestion there needed to be a finance ministry report on the fiscal implications of paying for relocating and compensating homeowners flooded by rising seas.

The Ministry has also been working on a “complementary” report with the help of the Department of Conservation, which will focus on implementation.

Shaw said the release of that report was “imminent”.

Paula Bennett earlier told Newsroom the guidance had been held back from publication so councils could be consulted.

"They were being consulted very early on and that's why there was a delay in releasing it publicly ... we were consulting with those very councils," she said.

Either way, as Shaw said today, the guide’s release was “better late than never”.

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