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Adapting to Climate Change: Coastal Hazards Guidance

Home Insights Adapting to Climate Change: Coastal Hazards Guidance

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Published on: February 02, 2018


With climate science now clearly showing that past greenhouse gas emissions have already locked in future climate change, we anticipate increasing attention by central and local government, business and individuals on climate change adaptation, in addition to measures to lower future emissions, such as the proposed Zero Carbon Act. Indeed, earlier this week, James Shaw, as Minister for Climate Change, noted that he was making adaptation to the effects of climate change one of his top priorities for 2018. 

Related to this focus on adaptation to climate change, on 15 December 2017, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) released two new documents. The first was new guidance titled 'Coastal Hazards and Climate Change: Guidance for Local Government' (Guidance). The Guidance is a major revision of the 2008 version and seeks to inform councils and communities about how to both manage and adapt to expected future risks caused by climate change and sea level rises.The Guidance can be found here.

The second document was a report titled 'Adapting to climate change in New Zealand: Stocktake report from the Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group' (Report). The Report, the first of two prepared by the Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group, summarises the expected impacts of climate change on New Zealand over the medium and long term, takes stock of existing work on adaptation and identifies gaps in New Zealand’s current approach. The Report can be viewed here.

National consistency?

The Guidance was updated by MfE early last year but released by the then newly elected Minister in December. In its initial briefing to Minister Shaw, MfE had encouraged the release of the report in order to help councils manage current and future risks in a way that is fair to residents and consistent around the country, and to encourage good decision-making so that New Zealand faces fewer risks from climate change in coastal areas.

Despite MfE's comments about national consistency, given that the Guidance is non-statutory and sits outside of the Resource Management Act's framework, its effectiveness will depend on how it is implemented by councils and communities as they develop new policy and planning procedures. It seems likely that this approach will lead to a fragmented response in each region or district, whereas climate change and coastal effects is quickly becoming a national issue. 

A possible move towards increasing national consistency may, however, flow from the second report of the Adaptation Technical Working Group which is due to be published in April and will focus on policy options addressing climate change effects. Minister Shaw has indicated that that report "will form a good basis for the much-needed strong national direction that we need to take on dealing with the effects of climate change on farmers, on local communities, and on infrastructure in New Zealand". However, again, it remains to be seen what form stronger national guidance could take but based on the Minister's comments, it may be that new policy announcements can be expected over the coming year.

Future compensation?

Ahead of releasing the Guidance, Minister Shaw also noted he would be reviewing the suggestion by former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, that the Minister of Finance should establish a working group to assess the fiscal implications of paying for relocating, and possibly compensating, homeowners flooded by rising seas. This suggestion was made in the 2015 report, 'Preparing New Zealand for rising seas: Certainty and Uncertainty'.

Minister Shaw said the issue of government compensation "…is certainly one of the things we need to take a good, hard look at" and indicated that he would do so this year. We wait to see whether any compensation comes as a result of a Government-initiated response (analogous to responses to other natural disasters such as major earthquakes), or evolves out of litigation brought by private parties against local, regional or central government. 

Meanwhile, climate change related litigation is arguably already underway as we head into the new year. Residents of Edgecumbe have brought a class action against Bay of Plenty Regional Council seeking compensation following the ex-tropical Cyclone Debbie in April 2017, which saw flooding breach the stop bank wall protecting Edgecumbe. It is certainly foreseeable that similar claims could be fashioned by those affected by the effects of raised sea levels caused by climate disruption.

More detail on the Guidance

The Guidance provides detail on how to apply a risk-based, adaptive planning approach, along with case studies, tools and techniques. Key features include:

  • Information on the effects of climate change on coastal hazards, incorporating the latest science and relevant legislation, as well as information from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s 2015 report on sea-level rise and feedback from stakeholders.
  • A new "pathways" approach to adaptive planning that involves a practical staged approach for councils to use when identifying flood risks and replaces the 2008 0.8 metre sea level rise stress test. This acknowledges that there is uncertainty about future physical conditions affecting the coastal environment.
  • Sections on how to implement best practice collaborative approaches to engaging with communities and local government. The Guidance proposes to adopt the Internal Association for Public Participation for public engagement, which identifies clear goals and expectations depending on the impact of the decision.
  • A ten-step decision-making "dynamic adaptive pathways planning" process that councils and communities can follow when planning for the effects of climate change on coastal hazards.
  • Identification of differing responses for four scenarios for future planning from a best case "low emissions, effective mitigation scenario" to a higher, more extreme "H+ scenario". The scenarios advise that people should be planning for a minimum 1m of sea level rise for existing neighbourhoods, while the H + scenario identifies that developments expected to last beyond 2120 would need to be tested against 1.88m sea level rise.


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