The first ever National Adaptation Plan sets the country down the crucial path of preparing for a warmer, wetter and more dangerous world, Marc Daalder reports

Analysis: In the face of escalating climate change-fuelled natural disasters, the Government released on Wednesday a significant new plan to adapt to a warmer world.

The first ever National Adaptation Plan builds on a 2020 report into the climate impacts New Zealand is likely to experience in the near term and the long term. According to that report, over the next 70 years wildfires and extreme storms will become more common, vast swathes of coastal property could be inundated by rising sea levels and social cohesion and the financial system could fracture under the pressure of climate change.

The adaptation plan draws together existing Government work programmes across resource management, infrastructure, local government and more to lay out a comprehensive if abstract approach to future climate risks.

It may seem like déjà vu. Alongside a number of concrete proposals to slash greenhouse gases, the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan in May was criticised for containing 158 plans to make other plans, or to scope the potential of a new policy, or to research an evidence base for a potential new policy.

However, the reality is most adaptation will span from infrastructure and urban development planning. Sure, imminent work around flood protection in the most vulnerable communities could start now – and that’s included in the adaptation plan as well. But the vast bulk of the work to build a more climate-resilient economy and society will come through ensuring that future development takes climate change into account rather than embedding poor preparedness and adaptation in infrastructure that will be around for decades.

One major question left unanswered is who will pay for adaptation – which could include moving whole neighbourhoods or towns out of vulnerable areas or providing some sort of public flood insurance for the most risky homes and buildings. Local government can’t afford to do it all and central government is not just stingy but also wary of moral hazard, where all taxpayers are forced to subsidise the poor decisions of a handful of homeowners in exposed locations.

Expect to see this debate continue to play out over the coming years as climate impacts increasingly materialise and the adaptation plan’s cluster of mini-plans start to come to fruition.

While the adaptation plan is specifically described as “Government-led”, it also differs from the plan to cut emissions in the degree to which it relies on action from other players in New Zealand society. Emissions reductions require regulation or a price signal from something like the Government-run Emissions Trading Scheme, because three decades of failed progress on climate have shown us the market won’t internalise the cost of mitigation if it isn’t forced to.

Adaptation is different. Well before the Government got on board, the businesses and financial institutions which grapple on a daily basis with natural hazards began to see and respond to climate impacts. Insurance companies in particular have proved instrumental in signalling to homeowners and big developers the risks that climate change will pose to property.

So the adaptation plan envisages a role for everyone: Central government leads and regulates, local government plans and implements, the private sector invests in resilience (and avoids investing in maladapted projects) and communities and individuals participate through their informed choices.

“Climate change is felt locally,” the plan notes. Adapting to climate change therefore requires a greater degree of local action than the corresponding effort to reduce emissions.

The risks

The adaptation plan draws from the 2020 report on climate risks to determine what impacts New Zealand actually needs to adapt to.

That report presented 10 particularly significant risks: To coastal ecosystems, to indigenous ecosystems, to social cohesion, of exacerbating existing inequities, to government revenue, to the stability of the financial system, to potable water supplies, to buildings from extreme weather events, of maladaptation and of impacts being exacerbated because institutional arrangements aren’t fit for purpose.

On a physical level, extreme weather events will become more frequent and more intense. We are already seeing this with record storms in the South Island and East Coast in recent years. Westport is currently on track for its wettest ever year in more than eight decades of records.

Conditions that lead to the 2019/20 bushfires in Australia will become more common in New Zealand over the coming decades too.

Changing temperatures and seasons will hit our primary sectors, shifting optimal zones for kiwifruit growth and making some aquaculture unviable. Droughts will become more common in parts of the country, damaging both horticulture and animal agriculture.

As sea-level rise and increasing intensity of storms combine to vastly expand the coastal areas exposed to major floods, the value of buildings vulnerable to coastal flooding could double or even quadruple.

When you include inland floodplains, one in every seven people already live in floodprone areas in more than $100 billion worth of buildings.

All of these risks will eventuate even if the world drastically cuts emissions and limits global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels. They will be even worse if the world warms further.

Plan priorities

The risks are clear. The Government’s plan to respond to those risks is a little less so.

There’s no sweeping pledge here to build billions of dollars of seawalls around the country or move entire towns away from the coasts or develop an adaptation fund to deal with the mounting impacts of storms and floods and droughts and fires and sea-level rise.

Instead, there’s a summary of mostly preexisting actions, with their adaptation co-benefits highlighted, along with a handful of new proposals to plug any gaps.

The plan is divided first across three priorities and five “outcome areas”. The priorities are to enable better risk-informed decision-making, to ensure climate-resilient development occurs in the right places and to build the base for concrete adaptation options including managed retreat. The outcome areas are the natural environment, homes and buildings, infrastructure, communities and the economy and financial system.

The ability to make climate-conscious decisions will be improved through developing and releasing a new generation of climate projections that cover both the national and local scales. NIWA will do this work over the next two years, with national projections available by January.

On a similar vein, a one-stop web portal “will offer a comprehensive view of Aotearoa New Zealand’s climate and natural hazard risks, at the individual community, local regional and national levels”. Prospective homeowners, property developers and councils will all be able to use this tool to identify climate risks in a specific area.

The Government’s ongoing work to include climate-related hazard information on LIMs is also included in this priority area, as is the new regime which requires major businesses to report their financial exposure to climate-related risks.

Experts have said previously that making information around climate risks available is a key part of adaptation. It ensures that costly new developments aren’t started in vulnerable locations, which could otherwise lead to a new generation of stranded flood-prone assets.

Developing climate-resilient infrastructure in the right places will be enabled by the Government’s resource management and three waters reform programmes, according to the adaptation plan.

Added to that is a new proposal to embed climate adaptation in funding arrangements for public housing and general housing and urban development, including Māori housing. Kāinga Ora will also take the next two years to determine how to adapt new and existing public housing to make it more climate-resilient.

Relatively few details are included for the third, especially key, priority area on adaptation options. The Government’s managed retreat legislation remains stalled, though it has promised to introduce a bill by the end of next year. Alongside the ongoing review of local government, this pre-existing commitment is meant to clarify the regulatory and funding mechanisms for moving entire communities away from sinking coastlines.

The adaptation plan says the work to increase Westport’s flood resilience will serve as a pilot project for helping other vulnerable towns and cities.

“This case study will focus on the challenges facing small local authorities and vulnerable communities in funding flood risk management. It will also highlight the challenges of repeat flooding and climate impacts on an existing community that is located on a flood plain with limited flood defences in place,” the plan reads.

The Government is also investigating the possibility of a national flood insurance or reinsurance scheme as insurers become increasingly wary of covering coastal properties. Newsroom reported this week that EQC Minister David Clark wanted to rush a national programme out at the end of last year but was told to wait for the adaptation plan’s release.

Proposed measures for adaptation include scoping the scale of sealed landfills’ vulnerability to climate impacts, a potential fund to improve those landfills’ resilience and tweaking the Government’s multi-billion dollar Climate Emergency Response Fund to enable it to resource adaptation projects as well as emissions reduction ones.

Natural, built and human environments

Other actions in the adaptation plan focus on specific environments.

For example, ongoing work around the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity, the Government’s 2020 biodiversity strategy, the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management and a work programme to align climate and biodiversity policy are all considered critical actions to support the natural environment.

The plan’s measures for homes, buildings and infrastructure include changing the building code so that it covers climate hazards and implementing Waka Kotahi’s adaptation plan.

Communities will be served by a modernised emergency management system and a new Health National Adaptation Plan from Health NZ. The adaptation plan also proposes expanding the scope and quantum of Whānau Ora funding to better resource “communities to proactively future-proof and adapt to the best of their ability, to whatever adversity comes their way”.

A range of existing Government work programmes across different sectors of the economy, including freight, aquaculture, tourism and Māori agribusiness are considered actions to improve the climate resilience of the economy and financial system.

Just five pages in the plan are dedicated to actually implementing it. The Climate Change Commission is tasked under the Zero Carbon Act with assessing the implementation and effectiveness of the adaptation plan every two years, beginning in 2024. A new national risk assessment will update the 2020 impacts report in 2026 and a new adaptation plan will supersede Wednesday’s one in 2028.

The Government will also establish an interdepartmental board of agency chief executives who will report on progress on the plan annually. The existing Climate Response Minister’s Group will oversee that work.

Each of the more than 120 critical and supporting actions laid out in the plan will have specific progress indicators out to 2028.

The Ministry for the Environment will also undertake regular surveys of central government agencies, councils and critical infrastructure owners to track disaster readiness. The first of these surveys was released last year and exclusively reported by Newsroom.

Finally, implementing the plan will require new and ongoing research on climate risks facing New Zealand, with a three stage timeframe to “fill knowledge gaps” out to 2028.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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