Covering Climate Now

Blueprint out for NZ’s first climate risk assessment

It's not a risk assessment, but it's a start: an instruction manual for the experts who'll be writing New Zealand's first national climate risk report for the government.

The Government has taken a step towards making New Zealand's first comprehensive climate change risk assessment a reality - by releasing the instruction manual experts will use to prepare the assessment.

The detailed, 114-page framework was released by Climate Change Minister James Shaw at Parliament on Thursday.

The document isn't really designed for public enjoyment, which might be just as well, since even Shaw admitted he found the length of the first draft daunting. It's a technical blueprint for the expert panel who will guide the government as it tries to grasp the full breadth of New Zealand's climate exposure. What the document lacks as a beach-read, it makes up for in clues about the shape of the climate risk stocktake that's coming in 2020.

It shows the first National Climate Change Risk Assessment will cover a huge range of vulnerabilities: in health, buildings, fisheries, agriculture, infrastructure, incomes and national security, among others. In line with the Government’s attempts to shift away from purely economic measures of wellbeing, it will focus on risks to less tangible things such as social cohesion, social welfare and tikanga Māori.

As well as looking at risks from rising heat, higher seas, droughts, heavy rain and other impacts, the assessment will include potential benefits from climate adaptation - for example, growing crops in places that become less frost-prone.

The first assessment is due in mid-2020. The panel of experts who'll write it hasn't been named yet. Shaw said an announcement would be made in the coming weeks. 

Roger Fairclough, one of the panel members who wrote the framework, said there was internal debate among the authors about how far ahead the assessment should look, with some suggesting it should extend past 2100. In the end, he said, "pragmatism ruled" and it was decided the assessment should look at risks at three points in time: today, in 30 years, and at 2100 (or 2150, in the case of sea levels).

As for emissions, the report will look at at least two alternative futures: one in which greenhouse gas emissions stay on today's high trajectory, and a more benign future in which people have successfully tamed greenhouse gases.

Shaw said the panel would work with insurance companies, the banking sector and others to make sure everyone was using compatible risk information to make their decisions. “Insurance markets are already starting to shift and developing increasingly sophisticated models," he said.

Several climate policy experts praised the framework for beginning a shift from overly concentrating on cutting emissions to also preparing for the inevitable consequences of climate change.

The UN Climate Action Summit starts on Monday. So far, countries' pledges under the Paris Agreement are well short of what's required to stay under 2C or 1.5C of warming. 

Shaw said the Government had to do all it could to help stop climate change, while also preparing New Zealand for the consequences of failure. “You have to plan for the worst scenario, because if you plan for the best scenario, which is that you succeed... we haven’t mitigated the risks," he said. "On one hand, you have to throw everything at ensuring that the best possible scenario occurs and on the other you have to manage the risks if it doesn’t. This is not an either/or scenario.”

Under the Zero Carbon Bill, climate risk assessments are supposed to be produced by the Climate Commission, as happens in the United Kingdom. But the commission does not exist yet, because the Zero Carbon Bill hasn't become law.

The government has decided instead to get started with the first risk assessment before the Bill passes, and has given the job of managing the initial report to the Ministry for the Environment.

The expert panel's first risk assessment will be handed to the government in mid-2020.

Once it has the assessment the government will use it to make an official plan of action for adapting to the risks of climate change -- termed a National Adaptation Plan. 

Shaw says the first adaptation plan will be finished in 2022, two years after the risk report is delivered.

But he said the delay did not mean waiting until 2022 to start working on adaptation plans - noting the government and local councils were working together now on plans for making communities and regions more resilient.

The lobby group for councils, Local Government NZ, has repeatedly called for better central government guidance on adapting to rising seas, severe storms and other challenges. LGNZ President Dave Cull called the new framework a "good first step" but said it would need to be simplified before it would be useful to councils. "If it requires the resources of a city to complete, then many smaller councils will find it challenging if not impossible to resource the work needed," he said.

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