Step by step guide on how councils can adapt to climate change
Adapting to the impacts of climate change is essential to the long term wellbeing of councils and their communities. This is a summary of ‘Coastal Hazards and Climate Change – Guidance for Local Government’ and ‘Preparing for Coastal Change’ which were published by the Ministry for the Environment in December 2017. I have compiled this summary to help council staff to quickly get to grips with the core advice being provided by the Government so they can consider how to apply this framework to their area of responsibility.
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Step 1 — Preparation and context
Set up a team to create an adaptation strategy and to engage with the community. This team needs to include people with technical expertise and the ability to engage with the community throughout the process.
This team will be involved in developing a plan that:
- assesses the implications of a range of future sea-level rise and climate change scenarios
- identifies the circumstances and timeframes in which unacceptable levels of risk may be reached
- expresses those circumstances as decision points when a new pathway is needed.
As part of this first step, the team will also need to decide on an approach to community engagement.
Public participation spectrum
Consider whether a process built around informing, consultation or collaboration will be the most appropriate. Here’s a general guide, which brings together the key points from three tables on pages 53 to 54 of the MfE guidance.
Virtually no conflict about what should be done
Longer timeframes before impacts will occur
Small changes required
Moderately complex problem
Potential for some level of disagreement on technical issues
The changes required are not substantial or disruptive
High levels of disagreement about the science and/or technical issues
Significant conflict about what should be done
Impacts are being experienced now, or will be experienced in the next decade
Large change is required, which has the potential to cause considerable disruption for some people
In some circumstances, local government may initiate a special consultative procedure under section 83 of the Local Government Act 2002. This is to be used where a council seeks to “enable public understanding of the proposal” or where a major decision is involved. In the future, making difficult decisions, such as not to maintain coastal roads or sea walls, may require such a procedure.
Most decisions affecting areas of higher value, existing development and involving adaptation to sea-level rise are likely to require an engagement process that falls towards the consultation and collaborative end of the engagement spectrum.
While this kind of engagement process requires significant resourcing, it is likely to enable a good result that will be supported by the community, and provide co-benefits for communities and those who make decisions on their behalf.
Ways to collaborate
Three ways of working with iwi/hapū and the community and stakeholders have been identified, and each of these has advantages and disadvantages (which are outlined on page 49 of the MfE guidance).
- As far as possible, the whole community is included in the engagement.
- The community, iwi/hapū and stakeholders select a sub-group to represent their interests or someone volunteers.
- The local authority invites the representatives who it considers have the appropriate skill set and legitimacy to represent local interests.
Note: Many iwi/hapū environmental or natural resource management plans detail climate change issues and implications, and these should be read before initiating more detailed conversations with local iwi/hapū.
Step 2 — Sea level rise assessments (using scenarios)
Short term scenarios
- In the near term (eg by 2050), the projected global mean sea level rise (SLR) range for all ‘representative concentration pathways’ (RCPs) is relatively tight (0.2–0.4 metres).
- Sea-level rises of up to around 1 metre are ‘very likely’ over a planning timeframe out to the next 100–130 years — it is just a matter of when a specific SLR occurs.
Longer term scenarios
In the latter half of this century and beyond, there is an ever-increasing range of plausible sea levels if all RCPs are considered.
Four scenarios have been developed for New Zealand to cover a range of possible sea-level futures, as follows.
- A low to eventual net-zero emission scenario (RCP2.6)
- An intermediate-low scenario based on the RCP4.5 median projections
- A scenario with continuing high emissions, based on the RCP8.5 median projections
- A higher H+ scenario, taking into account possible instabilities in polar ice sheets, based on the RCP8.5 (83rd percentile) projections.
Sea level rise (metres)
Year achieved for RCP8.5+
Year achieved for RCP8.5 (median)
Year achieved for RCP4.5 (median)
Year achieved for RCP2.6
The following guidance is provided on what scenarios to apply in specific situations
Coastal subdivision, greenfield developments and major new infrastructure
Avoid hazard risk by using sea level rise over more than 100 years and the H+ scenario (see above)
Changes in land use and redevelopment (intensification)
Adapt to hazards by conducting a risk assessment (using all of the above scenarios
Land-use planning controls for existing coastal development and assets.
1.0 m sea level rise
Non-habitable short-lived assets with a functional need to be at the coast, and either low-consequences or readily adaptable (including services).
0.65 m sea level rise
Before intensification or change in land use occurs in low-lying, developed coastal areas, a full dynamic adaptive pathways planning approach should be undertaken using all four SLR scenarios, with the higher H+ SLR scenario being used to stress-test the various pathways.
Categories C and D
Actions to be taken to reflect these sea level rise predictions don’t all have to happen immediately. They can be staged over a period of time, with some not occurring until specific triggers are reached (a pathways approach).
Step 3 — From values to objectives
a) Work with communities to identify:
- what of value is potentially affected by coastal hazards and sea-level rise
- who it is of value to
- where it is located geographically.
b) Reframe this information in ‘council speak’, (eg. as objectives to be included in council plans.
How to identify values
Four different ways to gain an understanding of community values are:
- review existing documents
- interviews with key people
- meetings and hui.
The advantages and disadvantages of these options are discussed on pages 167–168 of the MfE guidance.
Reframe the values as objectives
Clearly identifying the community and local government values and then translating these into objectives is a critical step because the objectives will inform and guide the identification of options and pathways (in step 5) and underpin the development of measurable triggers (decision points).
This will involve clarifying and agreeing on local government objectives over different jurisdictions (eg all the district councils and the regional council in a region) and functions (eg resource and asset management planning).
Step 4 — Vulnerability and risk (coastal hazard assessments)
This is an assessment of the potential harm and loss caused by ongoing sea-level rise.
A vulnerability assessment (VA) also considers the ability or capacity of people and assets to cope, recover and adapt to sea level rise. Examples of factors to consider include the effect of reduced asset performance, ability to use alternative transport routes, use of different building materials, and the ability to move away from harm. Relationships and support networks within the community can also be considered.
Note: The VA will not be static, because existing vulnerabilities will change as a result of the frequency, intensity, duration of impacts and the emergence of new threats and information. Monitoring of these types of changes should be included in the monitoring strategy (step 9).
A risk assessment calculates the likelihood of the risk multiplied by the consequences of that event occurring.
A screening analysis should start with a high SLR scenario (eg, H+ scenario). As a minimum, a coastal hazard screening assessment should assess the impact of at least 1 per cent AEP hazard, plus the H+ SLR scenario.
Hazard screening can be achieved in several ways:
- existing problems
- conversations with coastal communities
- vulnerable areas can be identified by experienced staff with knowledge of the coastline, land elevation, its hazard sources, population density and existing asset value
- existing information, such as previous reports or existing tools such as the coastal sensitivity index
- geographic information systems analysis to identify low-elevation coastal land,
- broad-scale hazard assessments using simple techniques and available data
- evaluating the impact of broad-scale hazard scenarios using available risk analysis software, such as RiskScape.
RiskScape overlays hazard exposure for various scenarios (percentage AEP inundation level or erosion added to the different sea level rise scenarios) over the inventory of assets and resident population of a region, district or city or at the suburb level. It can be used to determine the consequences of that scenario, such as the number of people and the assets affected).
Areas with both high risk and high vulnerability should be priority planning areas, whereas areas with both low risk and low vulnerability will be lower priorities.
Existing, exposed developments will require input from coastal hazard experts
The greatest resource demands related to coastal hazard assessments will apply for existing, exposed developments, where ongoing adaptation will be required to cope with rising sea level, for example, areas with dense populations or high-value assets in low-lying areas, close to an eroding coastline or surrounding a lowland river or watercourse.
Defining areas at high risk of being affected by coastal hazards, requires the involvement of a coastal hazard expert; but assessments can be supplemented by local and traditional knowledge.
Generally, these more detailed coastal hazard assessments (using multiple SLR scenarios and taking into account sensitivity to changes in waves and storm surges as outlined on pages 114–115) will be needed as input to:
- community engagement processes, to provide background information for communities, iwi/hapū and stakeholders about the increasing hazard exposure at local levels
- risk and vulnerability assessments (step 4)
- detailed land-use planning and adaptation planning processes (steps 5–8).
The regional level is the most appropriate for hazards identification and high-level risk screening, and this regional hazard screening should identify areas that require more detailed assessments of coastal hazard exposure.
Regional and local councils should coordinate hazard assessments with other councils in the region facing common threats from coastal hazards and SLR.
Step 5 — Options and pathways
Vulnerability and risk assessments can inform councils on viable options to meet long term objectives. They can also be used to determine under what conditions measures might be effective before another pathway is required, and therefore used to determine measurable triggers (decision points) for transfer to a different approach (pathway).
There are three core categories of options, as follows.
1 Accept hazard – where the risk of damage from coastal hazards and SLR is low or the asset can be easily adapted to cope with future SLR.
2. Adapt to hazard – such as for existing areas of higher value development, the hazard assessment must provide sufficient information to inform the decision(s) to be made. (This is likely to require the most complex and costly technical work and community engagement processes.)
3. Avoid hazard (for example, by including rules in district plans which don’t allow new development in areas which will be affected by coastal hazards and sea level rise). Modelling effort can be kept relatively straightforward and low cost, focusing on an upper-range hazard scenario of at least the 1 per cent annual exceedance probability (AEP), hazard plus the H+ SLR scenario.
As noted above, accepting or avoiding hazards are the least resource intensive options.
Adaptation options include:
- accommodate (eg raise floor levels, provide alternative inundation flow paths or require relocatable houses)
- protect (eg use natural buffers like dunes or hard structures like seawalls)
- retreat (move existing people and assets away from the coast in a managed way over time).
For near-term decisions (eg, with lifetimes up to 2040–60), because the uncertainty range is smaller (sea-level rise range of 0.2–0.4 metres), sea level consideration should not delay initial decision-making processes.
For impacts that can be adapted to with relatively small changes to the way the coastal environment is currently managed, incremental adaptation approaches may be appropriate, so long as they do not increase hazard risk.
Near-term decisions such as these should build in flexibility, to enable changes to pathways or measures that can accommodate high-end sea-level rise over longer timeframes.
Where existing development and assets are involved, Policy 27 of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010 outlines strategies for developing options to reduce coastal hazard risks.
Flexibility over the longer term
For activities and assets with long lifetimes, which have decision timeframes of at least 100 years or more, a wide set of possible futures needs to be considered.
The main criterion for choice of options is to avoid path dependency by building in flexibility at the start, to allow adjustment to changing risk. This means managing people’s expectations of further protection. Increasing the communities’ understanding of the limitations of static measures (such as a sea wall) in a changing climate context is a critical requirement underpinning the implementation of this guidance.
This step involves:
- identifying the possible range of adaption options
- developing pathways that meet the agreed objectives (recognising that the pathway needs to be flexible, so that different decisions can be made over time as conditions change).
Involving the community in the identification of options and pathways is essential, particularly for existing settlements or suburbs that are currently, or soon to be, exposed to coastal climate change effects. It will be important to be transparent about the process, how options evolve, what was and was not included and why. Brainstorming alternative options, including novel ones, will avoid narrowing down the options too early.
Approaches for including community interests in options and pathways identification include:
- interviews with key people
- workshops, hui (whole of community)
- workshops with selected representatives.
See page 208 of the MfE guidance for a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of each of these approaches.
Step 6 — Option evaluation
Section 9.4 of the MfE guidance (pages 200–207) lists a number of criteria to apply when assessing options. These include: flexibility, feasibility, ability to meet community values and provide co-benefits, sensitivity to multiple impacts, value for money, and environmental impacts. Decision support tools are also outlined in this section.
Step 7 — Adaptive planning strategy
This step involves agreeing on triggers to monitor, which will provide early warning that a change in approach will be required.
Examples of measures that can be useful early alerts include:
- increasing frequency of clearing stormwater drainage systems
- measurement of saltwater in groundwater systems
- increasing cost and/or complexity of maintaining pumping systems
- increases in sea levels.
Advance warning of the need to invest in changes is important (eg stormwater, water supply, sewage, electrical utilities) as it usually takes a long time to complete the design, consenting and construction phases of infrastructure development.
Step 8 — Implementation plan
This is the stage at which a plan is drafted, which sets out the agreed pathways, and the trigger points at which new decisions will be required.
Some plans which focus on a particular issue may be a subset to the overall strategy or plan, contributing to asset and reserves management plans.
While many adaptation decisions can be implemented through existing local government planning, policy, building and asset management processes, they need to sit under a wider strategic public–private–council adaptation plan that can be adjusted over time in response to evolving climate change impacts.
As an example, the Wellington Region Natural Hazards Management Strategy was developed alongside the proposed Natural Resources Plan, in partnership with five city and district councils and the Wellington Region Emergency Management Office.
The adaptive planning process will also need to be embedded in the resource management planning framework. For example, the Regional Policy Statement may identify exclusion areas for new urban development. Spatial planning, if undertaken at regional level, may also be expressed through the RPS by identifying areas suitable or unsuitable for growth and intensification.
Details of the adaptation plan/strategy may also be incorporated in a district or regional plan through an appendix or schedule. There it can provide context and guidance for planners and decision-makers and be reviewed at the time of plan reviews or when the triggers in the adaptive plan signal that it no longer meets its objectives (taking into account implementation lead time).
Other policy and plans will also need to integrate with the adaptation plan. In particular, the long term plan will need to identify how implementation of the plan will be financed.
Step 9 — Monitoring
Monitoring relating to climate change effects, including coastal hazards, will ideally be undertaken within a regional framework. This monitoring information should be publicly available to enable a shared understanding of the changing risks.
There are three general areas of monitoring that will contribute to an understanding of the changing environment: vulnerability, risk exposure and the effectiveness of responses.
Vulnerability and risk monitoring
To monitor vulnerability and risk, consider measuring changes in the human and built environment, such as:
- extent of developed areas potentially exposed to inundation or coastline retreat
- trends in intensification, redevelopment or other changes in existing developed areas
- trends in demographic and socio-economic structure
- frequency of events that disrupt infrastructure services — road closures, seawall erosion or wave overtopping, stormwater network overloads, and costs of maintenance and repair
- loss of natural coastal buffers
- the number of damaging or disruptive floods in the central business district over a specific time period.
Monitoring the effectiveness of responses
Immediate, medium-term and long-term effectiveness needs to be considered. (The approach to monitoring must consider the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations, as well as the impacts on the current community.)
Step 10 — Review and adjust
Regular reviews of the adaptation plan may be needed to reflect:
- monitoring related to the triggers
- emerging research and findings about hazards and risks
- development of new tools for managing hazard risk
- feedback from the community.
The three yearly review of asset management plans and long term plans, and the 10 yearly reviews of resource management plans will also be opportunities to reflect on changing risks, new monitoring information and public feedback.
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