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NZ’s first Climate Adaptation Plan – Expert Reaction

The government has released its plan to deal with the rising seas, increasing heat and extreme weather that are predicted to come with a changing climate.

The Climate Minister says the National Adaptation Plan will support community-led and Māori-led adaptation, provide better information for home-buyers, and embed adaptation into policies across Government.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Dr Luke Harrington, Senior Lecturer in Climate Change, Te Aka Mātuatua – School of Science, University of Waikato, comments:

“This is a timely reminder that climate change in Aotearoa is about more than just sea level rise. We need to contend with the reality of more severe and frequent droughts, widespread increases in the intensity of extreme rainfall events and rapidly changing risks associated with extreme heat.

“This National Adaptation Plan is a great first step towards addressing some of these challenges, though paucity remains in some of the details.

“Many of the impacts of climate change can be reduced by ensuring our responses are people-focused: understanding who is exposed and how to bolster their resilience to worsening hazards. Some sections of the report highlight specific ways to modify the physical and built environment but lack an equally-detailed focus on people. Yes, urban greening can help to mitigate the effects of extreme heat in cities, but this will only work alongside early warning systems, pop-up cooling centres which are free and easy to access, and monitoring plans which are tailored to our most vulnerable friends and whānau. Often it is the very old, the very young, and those with chronic health conditions who need targeted assistance when extreme weather events occur.

“It seems that NEMA and EQC will be tasked with disseminating information to the public on natural hazards associated with a changing climate, and how to prepare for extreme events when they occur (Actions 3.2, 3.4, 3.11, 3.12). If this is true, then both organisations will need to significantly expand their horizons as to which natural hazards they consider relevant. Heatwaves, drought and wildfire response plans must be included if we are to fully prepare for a warming world.

“There also remains uncertainty about how a warming planet will modify climate hazards at the neighbourhood scale. Some of these uncertainties are unavoidable, but many can be reduced if the right scientific questions are asked. Unfortunately, this is not one of the knowledge gaps identified in the report. Rather, there seems to be a misplaced perception that we have all of the information that we need on changing climate hazards and now it’s just a matter of ensuring that data is open-access. This is not the case.

“Finally, page 69 of the plan explicitly recommends that local councils should prioritise their scenario planning around a high emissions future (SSP5-8.5 or an RCP8.5). This is poor advice: such scenarios rely on extremely unrealistic assumptions, including that global coal use will increase by a factor of five through the twenty-first century.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Associate Professor Sandy Morrison, Vision Mātauranga Programme Lead, Deep South Challenge; and Head of Māori and Indigenous Studies, Waikato University, comments:

“I think the National Adaptation Plan is going in the right direction. It has acknowledged work undertaken in the past and drawn on it to think about future work programmes which are time bound and goal oriented. It notes that there are some of the elements needed to ramp up adaptation. Would have liked to see a clearer strategy though.

“The Rauora is referenced as an overall framework and the value of Mātauranga Māori acknowledged. This is woven throughout the plan. The Māori Climate Platform will be established and a just transition based on reducing inequities are providing the right platforms practically for Māori to be supported in decision making processes. Access to data is highlighted and the value of local actions.

“The funding gap for adaptation research has already begun. For example, the Deep South National Science Challenge has now invested all its funds in adaptation research, which means that one significant funding stream has already dried up – and there isn’t anything in place yet to support it (nor any plans to start one yet). The great research that Deep South has kicked off particularly in Vision Mātauranga (but also Impacts & Implication and Earth Systems Modelling) is now in limbo.

“The Govt has a chance to build on the partnership approach that has been started with Māori and with other partners to elevate what has already been underway.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Anita Wreford, Agribusiness & Economics Research Unit, Lincoln University; and Impacts and Implications Programme Lead, Deep South National Science Challenge, comments:

“The National Adaptation Plan is in general an improvement on the draft Plan. It is structured better and easier to see where the actions are.

“I am pleased to see a more concrete programme of future work, particularly for providing guidance for adaptation. There is stronger and clearer direction in some areas, particularly around decision-making for long-lived investments such as infrastructure and housing. It contains more direction for local government for example in the consideration of future climate change in land-use planning decisions. It also sets out actions to review the sharing of the costs of adaptation between local and national government.

“Some concerns highlighted in response to the draft Plan remain, for example around establishing a baseline of adaptation early on. Understanding what adaptation is occurring and monitoring its effectiveness over time is a priority area of learning and future implementation. This is particularly important in areas such as the natural environment.

“I would also like to have seen more direction regarding the way decisions are made, and the tools used for making decisions, particularly acknowledging and accommodating the inherent uncertainty regarding future climate change.

“Overall, the plan represents a starting point for adaptation planning in Aotearoa New Zealand. The actions and their implementation will be critical to ensure a resilient country into the future.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Bruce C. Glavovic, School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University, comments:

“The team of people involved in preparing the National Adaptation Plan published today are to be commended for their thorough and comprehensive work on this matter of pressing national significance.

“Obviously, the National Adaptation Plan needs to be viewed in the context of the many enabling provisions in place and being developed. It is regrettable that the Climate Adaptation Act has not yet been promulgated because this legislation will provide the institutional architecture necessary to implement the plan.

“The goals of the plan are utterly compelling: Reduce vulnerability; build adaptive capacity; and strengthen resilience.

“Based on my experience as an IPCC author and working with communities around Aotearoa NZ, and overseas, there are five key areas that need even sharper focus as the intentions of the plan are translated into practical reality.

“First, climate impacts will affect every aspect of life in Aotearoa New Zealand. The people hardest hit are invariably those who are more vulnerable. More focused attention needs to be centred on the root causes and drivers of vulnerability – and to actions that can be taken to reduce vulnerability and ultimately climate risk. This means addressing poverty, marginalisation, inequity and other structural causes of vulnerability.

“Second, local government will be fulcrum for enabling – or hampering – adaptation at the local level; for all. Transformational capability building from the political to operational level of local government is imperative. More focused attention needs to centre on building local government capabilities in partnership with tangata whenua, government, the private sector (which receives scant attention in this plan) and civil society.

“Third, introducing the concept of climate resilient development is a welcome and important framing. According to the IPCC, climate resilient development is the intertwining of mitigation and adaptation efforts to advance sustainable development, i.e., transformative equitable, just and environmentally sustainable development. There is work to be done to broaden the concept of climate resilient development as presented in the plan. Here it is reduced to climate resilient ‘property development’ – which is only one dimension of a multifaceted concept.

“Fourth, the managed retreat imperative looms large with so many New Zealanders living along rivers and the shoreline. Enabling proactive retreat from imminent danger will only be achieved when government determines an equitable solution to the simple question: Who pays? The question of ‘Who Pays’ is a tough call. The plan does not provide an answer. But this question cannot be ducked if this plan is to be implemented.

“Fifth, it is inevitable that there will be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the ongoing struggle to adapt to a changing climate. More focused attention needs to be given to climate-driven conflict and to the establishment of institutional processes and capabilities that facilitate independent mediated negotiated solutions for inevitable climate conflict.

“Again, the authors and contributors to this plan are to be commended for robust and comprehensive work. The easy job has been completed – drafting a plan. The hard work can now begin – implementing the plan.”

Bruce Glavovic is an IPCC Coordinating Lead Author: Ch4 on sea-level rise in the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate; IPCC Co-lead: Cross-chapter paper on cities and settlements by the sea in the Working Group II report; IPCC Lead Author: Ch 18 on climate resilient development in the Working Group II report; and author of UNESCO guidance on how communities can reduce coastal hazard risk.

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Bronwyn Hayward, Director of Hei Puāwaitanga Sustainable Development and Civic Imagination Research group, Canterbury University, comments:

“Publishing a National Adaptation Plan today is an important step. New Zealand now joins other countries that have created a plan for protecting people from the worst impacts of climate change, the test will be in implementing, evaluating, and investing in adaptation over time.

“It is easy to assume people are more worried about supermarket bills or the price of fuel than they are about reducing climate risks but in reality, ask any community where homes, farms and other businesses have been impacted by repeated floods or fires, and the climate is also top of mind, even if voters don’t always express their anxiety using the term ‘climate change”.

“New Zealand is a long skinny country. Living close to the sea is a feature of the lives of many of us in a country that is only 400 kilometres wide at its broadest point. More than 65 per cent of us live within 5 kilometres of the coast so what happens on our coasts including sea level rise and coastal inundation is an immediate to concern to over half the population. Coasts are particularly important for Māori and aspects of Māori wellbeing, because of exposure of marae and culturally significant sites, and use, development and protection of marine resources is closely entwinned with Māori tikanga, culture and traditional practices.

“New Zealanders are highly exposed to coastal risks with 18,200 kilometres of continuous beach and cliffs, making ours the seventh longest coast in the world. This risk is expanded if we include the coastline of the wider ‘Realm’ of New Zealand including: Tokelau, the Cook Islands and Niue.

“This plan is a welcome start. But I would hope all governments revisit the core principles more regularly than every 6 years. Chaotic climate impacts will not wait for parliamentary election cycles.

“Discussion in the wider document has started to bring together some important key issues, particularly the need to integrate actions that cut emissions and reduce risk (like planting trees to cool our heating cities and absorb carbon) for climate resilient development. And there is recognition that welfare payments and health and education, are also part of climate adaptation.

“But the overall vision of the plan is oddly short-sighted as a guide to how we will protect New Zealanders. The vision statement currently says the plan aims to protect our people, places, and systems from the unavoidable effects of climate change “in a fair, low-cost and ordered manner”. Yes, it is vital the actions we take are fair and equitable, protecting the most vulnerable, but there is no way that adequate adaptation can be low-cost. Who or how will we pay to protect lives and businesses?

“Acting now will be cheaper than retrofitting infrastructure and homes in the future but we should be under no illusion adaptation is cheap. Political parties promising tax cuts to the highest earners for example will need to explain how they will afford to protect this country in a chaotic climate?

“Secondly, it is not clear why the Treaty of Waitangi is not framing this vision statement. The latest IPCC report on Adaptation and Vulnerability is clear that where decisions are informed by Indigenous and local knowledge, science and principles of equity and inclusion, adaptation outcomes are most effective. This finding was signed by 200 governments including our own.

“It’s time we lifted climate planning above party politics, there is too much at stake, and too many lives at risk now. All political parties, councils and communities have a role to play in ensuring this plan is part of wider progress towards a safer, fairer, more sustainable future. Let’s start now.”

Prof Hayward was a co-lead of the Cities and Infrastructure chapter of the IPCC Impacts Adaptation, Vulnerability report 2022. 

No conflict of interest.

Dr Nick Cradock-Henry, Senior Scientist, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, comments:

“The effects of climate change play out over decades, and therefore action is often pushed aside in favour of more urgent priorities. However, with increasing evidence of unprecedented and severe heat waves, extreme rainfall events, and increased variability – around the world – we are already witnessing the limits of existing infrastructure, health care, productive agriculture and other critical aspects of society to withstand these impacts. Adaptation involves changing practices, processes, capital, and infrastructure in response to actual or anticipated climate change. It encompasses the diversity of strategies, tools, and methods used by decision-makers, communities, businesses, and regions to minimize risk and reduce exposure; as well as responses in the decision context.

“Significant, even transformational adaptation therefore is urgently needed, as an equal, alongside the dramatic reduction of greenhouse gases. The release of Aotearoa’s first National Adaptation Plan is overdue, but welcome action on climate change. Building on the recent risk assessment, it establishes a baseline for meaningful action that may help drive reduced exposure to climate-related risk, increase awareness, and catalyse efforts aimed at strategic planning in the face of uncertainty. High-level, national scale planning efforts however, must be complemented by, and are no replacement for, bespoke, sectoral-, place- and problem-specific adaptation planning. Climate-sensitive primary industries; vulnerable coastal communities and marae – across Aotearoa, and at all levels, support is needed to better understand the impacts and implications of climate change, and enable decision making in the face of uncertainty.

“Furthermore, the Plan and adaptation to future trends in climate hazards must be addressed within the broader context of other societal changes. The transition to a low carbon economy, demographic aging, social fragmentation and shifting social security systems, for example, need to be considered together in order to realise synergies, avoid maladaptation, and ensure the costs – and benefits – are distributed fairly. Drawing attention to potential winners and losers – who might disproportionately bear the costs or impacts of adverse events – and providing support to the most vulnerable will be necessary to ensure fair, and equitable climate-adapted futures.

“As we clean up following recent flooding, and face another potentially record-breaking year of extremes, the this Plan is a reminder that we still have a long way to go. Adaptation to climate change is one of the most complex societal and environmental challenges we face, but with this Plan we are at least moving in the right direction.”

Dr Nick Cradock-Henry is Lead Scientist, Social-Ecological Resilience at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, and a contributing author, Working Group 2 on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability for the IPCC.

No conflict of interest declared.