NZ needs to plan for ‘worst-case scenario’

New Zealand needs to start planning for its worst-case climate scenario, because it’s going to be a whole lot more expensive if we don’t, the local government head says.

On Thursday, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) released a report detailing the cost of adapting core public infrastructure to sea level rise.

Modelling by Tonkin + Taylor for the report found the impacts on key infrastructure, including the ‘three waters (wastewater, drinking water and storm water), roading, and buildings would cost between $2.7 billion and $14b.

The report shows $2.7b of roading, three waters, and building infrastructure is at risk from as little as a 0.5 metre rise in sea levels. 

That cost increases sharply at each subsequent incremental rise, with $5.1b of infrastructure at risk at 1m, $7.8b at 1.5m, and $14.1b at 3m.

NASA scientists have predicted a rise of between 30cm and 1.3m by 2100. NIWA estimates between 35cm and about 1m by the end of the century. Ministry for the Environment figures project sea level rise will be between 46cm and 1.05m by 2100.

This doesn’t take into account other vital infrastructure and services, including highways, homes, businesses, office buildings, hospitals, factories and schools, which the Insurance Council estimates could ratchet up the cost into the tens of billions. New Zealand's GDP is currently about $300b.

The report recommends setting up a national adaptation fund, so the adaptation costs and compensation can be planned and a decision reached on how to share the costs between local and central government.

LGNZ president Dave Cull said he did not know how much that fund would need or how the burden would be split, but the point was to start a conversation, and put a plan in place.

Local and central government needs to consider whether they will be able to continue to provide infrastructure and services to some coastal communities in the future, and what happens if they can't. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

At the moment, storm events and coastal erosion were being dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with the risk of lower socio-economic communities being disproportionately affected, Cull said.

Smaller councils had limited understanding of the costs and the risks, and no resources to conduct their own research.

“Without a plan, we’re flying blind at the moment.”

Cull said he didn’t have all the answers but he knew continuing to take a piecemeal approach to New Zealand’s climate adaptation would not suffice.

The longer those in power waited to come up with a plan, or raise funding, the more the costs would rise, he said.

“The big thing is, this is going to be bloody expensive, and doing nothing at all is going to be even more bloody expensive.”

Climate Minister James Shaw said the Government recognised the challenges facing those on the front line of coastal impacts from sea level rise, adding that the evidence in the report reinforced the Government’s resolve to push ahead with its climate change agenda.

“That work will also incorporate consideration of the very difficult issue of how we spread the financial burden of climate change impacts.”

A spokesperson for the minister said at this stage Shaw could not give many more details as to how funding for climate adaptation would work.

Shaw believed the cost should be spread across council, communities and central government, the spokesman said.

“The big thing is, this is going to be bloody expensive, and doing nothing at all is going to be even more bloody expensive.”

Considering retreat

As well as calling for the national adaptation fund, the LGNZ report recommends local government leads a national conversation about the level of public services currently provided and what can be maintained over time as sea levels rise.

“Realistic expectations for levels of service for roads, water, and other infrastructure must be planned, managed, and communicated with the public now in order to effectively and sustainably meet expectations,” the report says.

This recommendation calls into question the future of some communities, and local government’s ability to service those communities into the future.

Cull said this recommendation was about exploring what services would be able to be provided in a risk or hazard situation, and what the options were when it was no longer viable to provide services like roads and water pipes.

“At some point, if the sea level rises or there’s considerable coastal erosion, in some instances or some areas, we might have to say: ‘we can’t keep that road, or can’t service that group of houses’.”

Communities would have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but retreat was a real threat for some coastal areas, he said.

A fair future

Part of the conversation Cull was championing was a consideration of communities’ means.

“What we don’t want is for this to all disproportionately impact on those that can afford it least.”

In the case of a community being forced to retreat due to sea level rise, or weather events, there needed to be a plan about how to fairly compensate property owners, he said.

Was there more of an obligation to someone with a lower value property, who had been there for 40 years? Or the million-dollar palace, on a cliff, built four years earlier?

“Local government stands alongside our communities on the front line in the fight against climate change, but we can’t do it alone – we need central government to set stronger, national rules around risk and liability to property owners in the path of sea level rise,” Cull said ahead of the report’s release in December.

“Areas like South Dunedin illustrate just how difficult it is to adapt to climate change without hitting lower socio-economic families in the pocket, so we need a national plan that doesn’t leave anyone behind.”

LGNZ also recommends establishing a ‘Local Government Risk Agency’ to help councils understand and factor climate change risks into their planning, decision-making and procurement frameworks. And that local government team up with owners and users of exposed infrastructure to create a ‘National Master Plan’, setting out options, priorities and opportunities for responding to sea level rise.

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