New Zealand unveils plan to tackle climate crisis by adapting cities to survive rising seas

Proposals to prepare the country for more floods, massive storms and wildfires include building away from high-risk areas and protecting cultural sites

The New Zealand government has released new plans to try to prepare the country for the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis: sea level rise, floods, massive storms and wildfires.

The proposals, released for consultation on Wednesday, outline sweeping reforms to institutions, councils and laws to try to stop people building in hazardous areas, preserve cultural treasures, improve disaster responses, protect the financial system from the shocks of future disasters, and reform key industries including tourism, fisheries and farming.

“The climate is already changing and there will be some effects we cannot avoid,” climate change minister James Shaw said. “Just in the last few months we have seen massive floods, such as those in Tairawhiti; storms, such as those experienced recently in Westport; fires in the Waituna wetlands in Southland; and droughts right across the country.”

“These events demonstrate the case for urgent action on climate change – action to protect lives, incomes, homes, businesses and infrastructure.”

Over the last year, some New Zealand communities have been repeatedly hit by devastating flooding. In March, Tairawhiti was hit with its second destructive flood in less than a year. Flood waters damaged homes, schools and infrastructure, with residents saying it would “take about a year to clean up”. Last year, flooding in Westport left 450 homes unliveable or damaged.

At the forefront of the plan is the challenge of how to adapt New Zealand’s cities and housing stock – much of which is coastal – to the risk of rising seas and flood waters.

According to the government, the scale of the problem is enormous: 675,000 people – one in seven New Zealanders – live in areas prone to flooding, amounting to nearly $100bn worth of residential buildings. Another 72,065 live in areas projected to be subject to extreme sea level rise.

“The number of people exposed to these hazards will increase as the climate changes,” the report says. It found that between 2007 and 2017, the contribution of climate change to floods and droughts alone cost New Zealanders an estimated $840m in insured damages and economic losses. Those figures present a huge, looming problem for homeowners, who face losing their ability to insure their homes as the risk level rises, and for local and central government, which have been met with furious revolt by some communities when trying to shift them away from hazards.

The government’s proposed changes, include updating the building code to make sure new builds account for climate hazards, ensuring the country’s public housing stock is built away from hazards, creating incentives for development away from high-risk areas and making it compulsory to disclose information about climate risks to prospective buyers and builders. Some of those measures are likely to cause unease for homeowners, who are worried that climate risk assessments could tank the value of their homes.

Shaw was clear that the government would not be picking up the bill for all such changes. “Central government does not bear all the costs,” he said. “The consultation asks how best to share risks and costs between property and asset owners, insurers, banks and local government as well.”

The draft National Adaptation Plan outlines the actions the government will take over the next six years to respond to climate-related risks. It also includes proposals for protecting important cultural sites, such as coastal marae [māori meeting houses], and to adapt government-funded infrastructure to take climatic heating into account. It also covers proposed reforms of the tourism sector to ensure international visitors “contribute to resilient, adaptable infrastructure and the natural environment they use” – possibly through an arrival fee or other taxes on tourists.

Prof Bronwyn Hayward, of University of Canterbury, said via the Science Media Centre that the plan “shows the enormity of the task facing the government after years of inaction”.

“We now need to implement climate planning guidelines across a raft of new legislation, and we need to think carefully about how people are exposed to repeated flooding effects – and I’d add fires – in the future. If homeowners, businesses, schools, ports or airports have to move away from a high-risk area for example, who pays?”

Prof Anita Wreford, of Lincoln University, said that the plan was “well overdue” and “an improvement from New Zealand’s current approach to hazards, which has been very reactive and focused on recovery after an event”.

But she said the proposals were still very high level, and needed to provide “much more guidance for decision-makers”.

“I suspect groups waiting in anticipation for this … may have hoped for more concrete direction in implementing adaptation to achieve these goals.”

The plan will be open for public consultation before the proposals are finalised by the government.

“Aotearoa will soon have a plan to bring down our emissions and help prevent the worst effects of climate change,” Shaw said, “But we must also support communities already being hit by more extreme and more frequent weather events.”

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