New Zealand launches its first national plan to protect against climate-driven disasters

New Zealand has released its first national plan to prepare for the floods, fires and rising seas it expects to be triggered by the climate crisis in the coming years.

Climate Minister James Shaw, who released the plan on Wednesday, said that while New Zealand would do its best to start reducing emissions, it was also preparing for a likely scenario of huge climate disruption, saying it was “crucial” that the country was prepared.

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“We have already seen what can develop. “Severe weather events that had previously seemed unthinkable, even just a few years ago, are now occurring at a pace and intensity we have never experienced before,” he said. The plan’s release comes after weeks of wild weather and flooding across New Zealand.

“Even with 1.5 degrees of warming, we’re going to see the effects of climate change on our communities and the way we live our lives,” Shaw said.

Climate Minister James Shaw

Climate Minister James Shaw Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The National Climate Adaptation Plan is the country’s first, and is a comprehensive document that provides a road map to try to protect infrastructure, homes, cities and cultural treasures as the planet warms.

Much of the plan is focused on preparing people, businesses, local authorities and developers by ensuring that they are adequately informed about risks and must take these risks into account in the planning process. Some of the changes include forcing councils to provide climate risk information to potential home buyers, making councils responsible for climate change in planning regulations, and creating national maps and public portals where people can see up-to-date information on how the climate crisis will affect their area.

“Our government has taken steps to support the affected communities and will continue to do so,” Shaw said. “But instead of having to deal with these events as and when they happen, people want the tools to prepare so that when climate events do occur, their lives can go on.”

What the plan does not provide, however, is an answer to one of the most crucial questions facing the country: When houses, streets or entire communities become uninhabitable due to climate change, who pays to move them?

The issue of “managed retreat” – who pays the bill when sea level rise or flooding leaves a community unsafe or uninsured – has become increasingly pressing in New Zealand. One in seven New Zealanders, or 675,000 people, live in areas at risk of flooding, and a further 72,065 live in areas expected to be at risk of extreme sea level rise. A 2020 government-funded report by the Deep South Challenge – a national scientific collaboration – found that at least 10,000 homes in New Zealand’s biggest cities would effectively be uninsured by 2050. The government has committed to managed retreat legislation by the end of 2023.

Researchers say the plan, while welcome, is light on details.

The details are lacking, says Dr Luke Harrington, Senior Lecturer in Climate Change at the University of Waikato. “There is also still uncertainty about how a warming planet will change climate hazards at the neighborhood 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,” he said.

Dr Nick Cradock-Henry, senior researcher at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, said the new plan was “overdue but welcome”.

“As we clean up after recent flooding, and face another potential record year of extremes, this plan is a reminder that we still have a long way to go,” he said. “Adapting 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.”

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