New Zealand has been rated the readiest country in the world to tackle the effects of climate change, but the ranking may not mean what you’d think

New Zealand is the readiest country in the world to deal with the effects of climate change, according to a global rating system.

And we rank second only to Denmark (and equal to Norway) as the overall best-placed country to adapt, once our vulnerability to climate change is taken into account.

For the second time running the Indiana-based University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative has given New Zealand the second spot in its rankings of more than 180 countries, which places Eritrea, Chad and the Central African Republic in the bottom three.

Each country gets a combined score: one for climate vulnerability and one for readiness to adapt, calculated by the ND-GAIN Country Index using dozens of publicly-available reports.

New Zealand ranks first in the world for climate change readiness, and 15th least-vulnerable.

The vote of confidence may reinforce New Zealand’s perceived status as a safe haven in tumultuous times and reassure doomsday-preppers who’ve chosen New Zealand as a future bolt-hole.

But our top ranking for readiness doesn’t mean we’ve taken concrete steps to prepare for sea level rise, drought, storms or flooding.

The assessment of readiness is more like a Standard & Poor’s-style appraisal of our ability to absorb and effectively use investment in climate adaptation projects.

An investor like the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund might use the index to help assess, for example, whether a country is in a good position to efficiently use funding for low-emissions and climate-resilient development projects, says ND-GAIN’s director, Patrick Regan. If a country is highly vulnerable to climate change but not ready for investment, it might look to countries like New Zealand for examples of ways to improve, says Regan.

New Zealand is too wealthy to be in line for UN development funding, but Regan says the strengths identified in the index may help explain why, for example, nations were very willing to contribute when Christchurch experienced its deadly earthquakes.

The index might also help private investors work out safer long-term destinations for their facilities, he says. “If you are a chocolate company and you need cocoa and the climate is shrinking your access to cocoa facilities, you want to know which countries are more or less vulnerable to climate conditions and which countries are ready for the company to invest.”

Could do better

Regan hopes the index can reduce global harm from climate change by helping investors prioritize aid investments towards the places where money will be used most effectively.

While many of the damaging effects of climate change will be out of a single nation’s control, Regan says all countries can, to some degree, control the extent to which lives, money and health are lost when bad events happen.

New Zealand has fluctuated between second and third place overall since 2003, when we jumped from fifth place.

But even high-ranked countries can improve their positions, says Regan.

New Zealand has always scored highly for readiness, which is based on a combination of economic, government and social factors, including corruption, inequality, education levels, internet access and how many patents are issued to a country. “New Zealand has a social system with a significant component of social welfare, it has a governmental system with a minimal to non-existent levels of corruption and abuse and it has an economic system where the market plays a very strong role in co-operation with the social system,” says Regan. “If I was putting my $100 million into a country where I wanted to be certain that almost the whole $100 million goes towards the project, New Zealand would be ready.”

But New Zealand’s vulnerability score has been worsening, partly because of factors like increasing pressure on freshwater resources.

Last time the index was prepared, using 2014 data, we were ranked the fourth most-ready country and the fifth-least vulnerable. And, also in 2014, Standard & Poor’s ranked us 72nd least-vulnerable out of 116 countries, placing us nearer the bottom of the ranks in a report that incorporated Notre Dame’s vulnerability score as well as measures such as what proportion of the population lived within 5m of sea level and the importance of agriculture to the economy.

The most recent Notre Dame ratings were released last year using November 2015 data.

The Notre Dame vulnerability measure takes into account factors such as urbanisation, reliance on imported food, protection for ecosystems and the holding capacity of dams.

One reason for New Zealand’s worsening score is that the proportion of our renewable freshwater being withdrawn from lakes, rivers and bores rose markedly since 1995, according to data ND-GAIN drew from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. “If you look at New Zealand’s reporting in 1999, you were good,” says Regan. “In 2006 you reported effectively a 50 percent worse withdrawal rate, and 2010 you reported even worse than that. Now you don’t have that residual capacity in the event, of, say, a drought,” he says. “If a drought hit New Zealand now, relative to 1999, you’re in a much worse place. But New Zealand also has the resources to fix that.”

Other measures that worsened included a drop in the number of health workers per 1000 people and a plunge in our disaster preparedness. Our disaster risk reduction score dropped after the Christchurch earthquakes, which Regan said might be because resources were directed to the recovery.

On the other hand, our perceived readiness to deploy climate change preparations was helped by improving social factors, including higher enrolment in tertiary education and greater mobile phone and wifi access since the index started in 1995.

Warped train tracks after the Kaiapoi earthquake – New Zealand has the capacity to move in quickly after a disaster which improves the country’s climate change readiness score. Photo: Mike Campbell

Newsroom was thrilled to see New Zealand ranked first in the world for climate readiness in an international index, but also a little skeptical. Eloise Gibson spoke to ND-GAIN’s director, Patrick Regan, about what the rating means.

Newsroom: What’s the goal of this index? Does it tell countries how to improve their preparedness for climate change?

Patrick Regan: Part of it is identifying the capabilities and trajectories of countries. A country like New Zealand is doing very well, so there is not a lot we can tell New Zealand, but if you go down that list a lot of countries are doing poorly and they tend to suffer disproportionately from the consequences of climate change. The UN has funds like the Green Climate Fund to help poor countries address their climate problems, and if you have $10 billion or $100 billion you want to know who to send the money, so you need some metric to know which countries are most vulnerable and most ready to accept that money.

Private investors are trying to figure that out too. You don’t want to invest your capital in a country that is more vulnerable than the one you’re running from.

We can also help countries think about how to improve their own conditions, and one of the ways to do that is by looking at New Zealand. You’re not always the best country in the world on what we call vulnerability, but you’re really good on readiness. You have social and governmental and economic policies that would allow you to be in a good position to accept climate investment.

NR: When I saw us ranked top for climate readiness I was surprised, because I thought it meant we’d physically prepared for climate change – that we’d moved everyone away from the coast and we had our sand bags ready, so to speak. But is this more (to keep using the sand bag analogy) about whether we have the capacity to buy sand bags when we need them and get them where we need them to be?

PR: You’re right, it’s really about how ready is the country to absorb climate adaptation investment. New Zealand is probably not going to get money from the UN but it might not be the UN investing, it might be the government of the country saying, we better get sand bags because we see what’s coming. What makes a country ready is the government and economic system and the social system. So if you have a very corrupt government you are not ready. If you ask me which countries are in a position to make adaptation investments that are efficient, New Zealand has a social system with a significant component of social welfare, it has a governmental system with a minimal to non-existent levels of corruption and abuse and it has an economic system where the market plays a very strong role in co-operation with the social system. If I was putting my 100 million into a country where I wanted to be certain that almost the whole 100 million goes towards the project, New Zealand would be ready. Nigeria might not be.

Patrick Regan says other countries are looking to New Zealand when it comes to preparations for coping with climate change. Photo: University of Notre Dame

NR: When New Zealanders think about our actual response to crises we sometimes compare ourselves to Japan, which has a lot of earthquakes, as we do, and is a developed nation of a similar physical size. But we tend to see ourselves as the poor cousins when it comes to disaster rebuilds because when Japan has an earthquake, it feels like you go back six months later and you can’t tell anything happened. We are not in that space with our own rebuild.

PR: Sure. But when you think about where you would put your money – and earthquakes are not climate-related so they are not in our data – but when the earthquakes hit I recall people were very willing to help New Zealand, as they were Japan. They knew if they put a dollar into New Zealand most of that dollar would go to fixing New Zealand. And there you’d be in a similar category to Japan. Japan might be able to get all the people in the community to line up so that six months later there are golf courses back were there were golf courses, and New Zealand politically might have a little more agitation, there might be a more vibrant dynamic. But at the end of the day New Zealand could mobilise its population and its resources if it thought that was the way to go.

NR: Our overall ranking of second has not changed in the latest index but we used to be fourth most ready and fifth least vulnerable. Now we are first in readiness and 15th least vulnerable. What’s happened?

PR: Firstly, remember this is relative to other countries. So if you shifted but everyone below you also shifted on their scores you’re exactly where you were. The scores might be more interesting than the ranking in some ways. If you look at New Zealand since 1995, it will always be roughly at the top for readiness but there are small changes in the vulnerability score. But because New Zealand is so strong on readiness it’s never going to go backwards very far (in the overall ranks).

A large part of vulnerability is the exposure indicator, which is based on scientific estimates of how vulnerable New Zealand is to, for example, vector borne diseases. Dam capacity, water discharge rates, how much water you’re taking out of the water system. Those things change and are reported by New Zealand to international agencies. For freshwater withdrawal rates, if you look at New Zealand’s reporting in 1999 you were good. In 2006 you reported effectively a 50 percent worse withdrawal rate, and 2010 you report even worse than that. Now you don’t have that residual capacity to do things in the event, of say, a drought.

There are some spikes in the New Zealand data and they might be tied to your earthquakes. Somehow the country gets more vulnerable, because if you have a terrific earthquake and your resources go to one area they are no longer so available in other areas. So looking at your score you might say by focusing on this area we open up to vulnerability in other area and that might be okay – but it might be useful to understand just how the tradeoffs happen.

NR: It’s easy to think of climate vulnerability in terms of things we can’t control, like rainfall changes or typhoons or sea level rise, most of which are largely out of New Zealand’s individual control. But in fact, based on what you’re saying, some of these vulnerabilities might be within our control.

PR: It’s the adaptation that is within New Zealand’s control. Sea level rise is not really within New Zealand’s control so New Zealand has to respond. The same is true of somewhere like Oman, the drought is not within their control but how many people perish is… to some extent. They have less control than New Zealand does and that’s why the world community needs to work out how to invest in them.

NR: What’s next? I see you’re working on producing rankings for cities.

We want to be able to say how Auckland is doing relative to Wellington, relative to Christchurch, relative to Dunedin. In the U.S. federal system we expect it won’t be even, so maybe California will be well prepared but not Alabama and Florida. And we want to see how policies of adaptation affect social inequality, because wealthy people want their homes protected and policies that put all the adaptation in the wealthy areas. Those are political choices. If cities have an indicator, they can see how the policies they choose affect social inequality. And if you leave all the poor people subject to heat waves or flooding, it might be social policy you want to rethink. We want to assess U.S cities first, by the end of next year, then our plan is to take that mechanism and do it for cities around the world, so you could see how Nairobi and Delhi are placed. 

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