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How New Zealand is paving the way to a climate resilient future

10 August 2022

The country’s first climate change adaptation plan focuses on enabling the right decisions for sustainable development. 

How New Zealand is paving the way to a climate resilient future
Climate change will likely affect temperature and rainfall patterns across different parts of the country. Image credit: Stargrass/Shutterstock

Climate change is already increasing the severity and frequency of flooding, landslides, storms and droughts in New Zealand.

In that context the government accepts that ‘a purely reactive approach to climate impacts becomes ever less credible.’

The country’s new national adaptation plan sets out current efforts to build climate resilience, proposed long-term programmes and critical priorities for the next six years.

Here are five takeaways for infrastructure planners.

1. Enabling better decision-making

The adaptation plan responds to the 43 priority risks identified in New Zealand’s National Climate Change Risk Assessment 2020.

It highlights the 10 most significant risks from climate change across five domains: natural, human, economy, built and governance.

These include threats to drinking water supplies and buildings.

It also warns that poor governance and unfit institutional arrangements could lead to maladaptation and worsen the impact of climate change.

To help address those risks the plan identifies four priorities for action:

  • enabling better decisions,
  • targeting the right places,
  • laying the foundations for a range of adaptation options, and
  • embedding climate resilience across government policy.

These rightly focus on putting in place the frameworks needed to ensure better decisions and long-term thinking at all levels of government.

This should help avoid costly or irreversible mistakes that no country can afford given the limitations on public finances and the limited time available for action.

2. Getting infrastructure ready for climate change

The actions outlined in the plan relate to system-wide objectives and five ‘outcome areas’, including infrastructure.

It sets three objectives for New Zealand’s economic infrastructure:

  • Reduce the vulnerability of assets exposed to climate change,
  • Ensure all new infrastructure is fit for a changing climate, and
  • Use renewal programmes to improve adaptive capacity.

There are several critical actions needed to achieve those objectives.

These include developing new guidance to support infrastructure asset owners, who it argues are best placed to manage climate risk.

It promises to scope a new resilience standard or code for infrastructure to encourage risk reduction and resilience planning.

Adaptation will also be integrated into all Treasury decisions on new assets, renewals and upgrade programmes.

The report also highlights the country’s forthcoming national transport adaptation plan, which is being developing by New Zealand’s transport agency.

Other supporting actions linked to infrastructure resilience include:

  • developing the National Energy Strategy,
  • reviewing regulated network revenues to reflect the cost of resilience, and
  • embedding nature-based solutions.

Making the right decisions about new infrastructure will be crucial as New Zealand raises investment to tackle its long-term infrastructure deficit.

3. Place-based climate action

The plan outlines how the changing climate will likely affect temperature and rainfall patterns across different parts of the country.

New Zealand is also particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Therefore, the government will update its decision-making frameworks for planning and infrastructure investment to ensure future development happens in the right places.

This would see new housing, buildings and other infrastructure built to the best adaptive design practice and in locations not prone to climate hazards.

The plan also highlights the role of subnational government in climate-resilient development.

That includes identifying specific risks and avoiding using land that’s particularly vulnerable to climate change or closing off adaptation pathways.

As New Zealand’s new infrastructure strategy made clear, enabling urban development that responds to population growth and unaffordable housing is a key national challenge.

The adaptation strategy aims to ensure this happens in a way that is compatible with long-term climate challenges.

4. Towards a just transition

Around the world, there’s a risk that climate change will increase existing inequalities.

New Zealand has made ensuring an equitable transition a ‘core’ part of its adaptation strategy.

The plan sets out how the risk and cost of climate change will likely fall differently across various parts of society. Some groups will be disproportionately affected.

The government will therefore work with particular communities to address specific needs and risks.

It will also look at how the costs could be more equitably shared between central and local government, and between communities, the private sector and other asset owners.

5. A first step in a long-term vision

The resilience plan is published as part of a long-term climate adaptation strategy.

The New Zealand government aims to drive a shift in policy and institutional frameworks over the coming decades.

This first plan is therefore focused on putting in place the foundations to implement that strategy.

The government will then publish a new adaptation plan every six years.

This will ensure the flexibility to respond to new evidence and updated risk assessments, which are conducted by the country’s independent Climate Change Commission (CCC).

The CCC will also report on the adaptation plan’s implementation and effectiveness every two years.

New Zealand’s strategy recognises that climate adaptation and mitigation efforts must take place alongside one another.

Therefore the new plan sits alongside the country’s recently published first emissions reduction plan.

ICE’s view:

Climate-related disasters across the world have focused attention on the need for climate-adaptive infrastructure.

Even as countries make progress towards net zero, climate change is already happening and will continue to develop.

Countries therefore need to step up their climate resilience efforts and focus on sustainable development now.

New Zealand’s adaptation plan is further evidence of its ambitious, long-term and strategic thinking to try and tackle the challenges of climate change.

In case you missed it:

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE