We didn’t cover it much at the time, but one of the most significant events of last year was the Paris Outcome that world leaders agreed at climate talks in December. It’s a big deal. For the first time, every country on earth agreed that it was a necessity to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. While the Outcome doesn’t bind countries to any specific level of emissions reductions, it does require them to submit plans and keep coming back to the negotiating table to agree to do more.
And it’s also a serious signal to markets and firms that long-term investments in fossil fuels will be increasingly risky. Open a coal mine at your own peril.
While New Zealand signed up to the agreement, the truth is that we haven’t taken many concrete steps to achieve our commitments. The result – unless we change – will be rapidly rising emissions:
However, a recent report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, demonstrates why it’s in our interests to play our part in addressing global warming. The report, entitled “Preparing New Zealand for Rising Seas: Certainty and Uncertainty”, identifies 9,000 homes that will be put at risk if sea levels rise by only 0.5 metres. If sea levels rise by 3 metres – which some climate models expect to happen by the end of the century – that figure could be many times higher.
The PCE report observes that the impacts will be most acute in Dunedin – especially South Dunedin, which was essentially built by draining a swamp. Here’s a map showing which parts of the city will be underwater as a result of rising seas:
Following the release of the report, Listener science journalist Rebecca Macfie went to Dunedin to report on the impacts. Long story short, the wolf is already at the door:
“The evidence is overwhelming,” says Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull. Rising sea level is not a remote future threat for his city; it is already here. “It’s happening to us, and it’s happening now.”
Six months on from the midwinter floods that inundated South Dunedin, damaging more than 2000 homes and businesses with sewage-contaminated water, displacing 200-odd households and causing $30 million worth of damage and ongoing distress for many families, the implications of the disaster are in plain view.
Cull says Dunedin is confronting something akin to a “slow-motion earthquake” – an unfolding disaster in which extreme rainfall events such as happened in June (when 142mm fell in 24 hours in South Dunedin) will occur more often, and will conspire with gradually rising groundwater to cause much more frequent floods.
Addressing rising sea levels is an engineering, economic, and social problem. There are no great options for communities affected by them:
In a broad brush-stroke, those choices are already known. As Fitzharris outlined it in his 2010 report, they are “protect, retreat or evacuate. All have large costs.”
Wright suggests the situation facing South Dunedin could become analogous to a slowly unfolding red zone – a reference to the removal of 8000 Christchurch households from earthquake-damaged land that was deemed too costly and complex to rebuild on after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.
Unlike the Christchurch earthquake, rising sea levels are not a surprise. We can predict them coming a long way off – and, with the right political will, we can plan to manage the effects. But while some local communities are making plans, central government seems to have its head in the sand:
There has been no request for financial support from the Government – yet. Nor is there any pot of money available to a city like Dunedin facing certain threat from sea-level rise, although Local Government New Zealand has been pushing for the Government to set up a national fund similar to EQC that would allow property owners to be bought out before disaster strikes, rather than after.
Environment Minister Nick Smith says he doesn’t have enough information to comment on the issues facing South Dunedin, but argues any move to surrender communities or developed areas is premature. “I think based on where the science and the knowledge is at this point, to be starting to withdraw from areas would be an overreaction.” Smith knows as well as anyone that, although Dunedin is the most severely affected, it is by no means alone. Wright’s report identifies 9000 properties at certain risk of rising seas, including in the Hutt Valley, Christchurch and Napier.
Dunedin is the first to come under threat, but this is an issue that will eventually affect most New Zealand cities, as most of them are built by the coast. It’s not something that can be ignored in when building infrastructure or choosing where and how to grow.
However, the flip side is that cities can also do a lot to prevent climate change from getting worse. In New Zealand, approximately 40% of emissions come from transport, mostly from using cars to get around cities. Vehicle emissions are strongly linked to urban form – when I analysed emissions from commute journeys using Census data, I found that they increased with distance from the city centre in NZ’s major cities:
Technology changes may help to get our urban transport emissions under control. This is not a guaranteed win, though. Past increases in fuel efficiency haven’t done much to reduce emissions, as people have just responded by buying bigger cars. Electric cars would do the trick… but uptake of new vehicle technologies been anemic to date.
Fortunately, some things can be done right now, as the technology and techniques are currently available. This means:
- Increasing the availability and efficiency of public transport services, which are low-emissions when well-used. Getting the CRL and the new bus network in place is important, as is rolling out bus lanes throughout the city.
- Making it easier and safer to walk and cycle everywhere in the city. The $300 million Urban Cycleway Fund is an important step forward in this area, but it will be necessary to follow it up with more.
- Getting pricing right. Currently, driving and parking is underpriced due to minimum parking requirements, which result in an oversupply of free parking, and a lack of congestion pricing. As a result, people drive too much, often for low-value trips.
At a national level, a well-functioning Emissions Trading Scheme, or a similar carbon tax, is essential for ensuring that people face the right prices when choosing how to invest. In other words, there’s a lot to do… but it can be done!
How do you think that New Zealand cities should address the likelihood of sea level rise?