A new report on the impact of sea level rise in New Zealand has called into question the future of public infrastructure, with costs of adaptation starting at $2.7b.

A guaranteed $2.7 billion of government infrastructure will be impacted by sea level rise by the end of the century, with as much as $14b potentially at risk.

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 alarming figures are part of a report commissioned by Local Government New Zealand (the data collected from councils and analysed by by Tonkin + Taylor) into the impacts sea level rise will have on infrastructure, including the ‘three waters’ – wastewater, drinking water and storm water – roading, and building infrastructure.

The report calls on the Government to set up a national war chest for climate change adaptation in order to have a solid funding model in place for future mitigation rather than continue with a piecemeal approach across the country.

But the work on exactly who will bear the burden and how much central government is willing to stump up is not yet clear.

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 report recommends central and local government partner to establish a National Climate Change Adaptation Fund. Part of the issue with the current regime was the disproportionate impact on lower socioeconomic households.

LGNZ president Dave Cull said many councils were already experiencing the impact of sea level rise, most notably in the Bay of Plenty, the West Coast, South Dunedin and Hawke’s Bay.

But there hasn’t been an accurate nationwide understanding of the community-owned infrastructure at risk – until now.

“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 – who is also the Dunedin Mayor – 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.”

The report showed $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.

There are a range of scenarios on how much sea levels are expected to rise in New Zealand and across the world, but the report focuses on the cost if sea levels were to rise 1.5m.

Water infrastructure would be the most expensive to replace nationally, more than the total cost of at-risk building and roading infrastructure. At sea level rise of 1.5m, the estimated cost of replacement is $4b.

Canterbury would be hardest hit, according to the report, with a $1.6b bill at 1.5m rise.

This was followed by Auckland at $1.4b and Hawke’s Bay at $1.2b. Not all coastal areas had data available.

Bill balloons with inclusion of private sector

The report didn’t cover the costs associated with the impact of other vital infrastructure and services like highways, homes, businesses, office buildings, hospitals, factories and schools.

The Insurance Council of New Zealand (ICNZ) said the billions of dollars of local government assets identified in the report “doesn’t even tell half the story”.

“This report should have everyone sitting up and listening,” chief executive Tim Grafton said.

“It has identified that over $5b of local government assets are at risk from a one metre sea level rise, but we believe the full cost of exposure to central government and private sector property will be in the tens of billions of dollars,” he said.

“Every dollar invested to reduce and adapt to risk now will save many more dollars in future post-disaster losses and help avoid social dislocation.”

Last year, at the Insurance Council conference, insurers were given updated – albeit draft – estimates that say $38b of New Zealand’s residential and commercial buildings may be at risk of flooding if sea levels rise by 1m.

That figure represented 125,600 homes and other buildings that could be in the flood zone if seas rise from today’s levels to up to 1m higher.

While the figure – and number of properties affected – rose as the sea levels increased, the first metre rise would be the most devastating.

NIWA’s Ross Bell said the potential cost of sea level rise is heavily weighted towards that first metre, meaning hard decisions will face coastal communities sooner rather than later in the process.

Future of public infrastructure in question

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

“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 said.

“This will require a lead time with strong communication and collaboration across all owners and stakeholders of critical infrastructure.”

These comments about local government’s future ability to provide services raised questions about what the future of public water, roading and wider infrastructure systems would look like.

Newsroom was unable to reach Cull for further comment on this issue.

LGNZ also recommended 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.

This report comes the same week as the West Coast Council’s submission on the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill, which has caused a stir as part of the submission appeared to question the validity of climate change.

“[C]limate change is a very complex issue and to ask the people of the West Coast to commit to an emissions target … the evidence proving anthropogenic climate change must be presented and proven beyond reasonable doubt,” the council said.

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