“We need to start planning for the next 100 years,” says climate change researcher Dr Judy Lawrence.
The Victoria University academic has outlined a proposal for a multi-billion-dollar fund to cover the costs of adjusting coastal assets, infrastructure and housing to climate change.
“Climate change adaptation poses unprecedented technical, administrative and political challenges, from rising sea levels, severe droughts and biodiversity risks which will need to be funded somehow.
“Tens of thousands of people in New Zealand, maybe more, will also eventually need resettling on higher ground,” Dr Lawrence says.
She has been advising local and central government on a proposed Climate Change Adaptation Fund, likening it to the EQC Fund which underwrites natural disaster risk. However, an adaptation fund would be pre-emptive in the planning for future damage due to rising sea levels and more volatile and extreme weather patterns.
“At the high end of projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2050 we could have a 40cm rise in sea levels.
"Even that small amount can potentially largely impact our underground water pipes, utilities and coastal housing developments that would need to be protected or moved to higher ground,” she said.
“In 2120 we are looking at around 1.4 metres of sea level rise that we need to start planning for, for future generations.
"Some people can sell their house and move to higher ground but others can’t afford to do that.
“There are several uncertainties to these projections though, how quickly the polar ice sheets melt and how much we reduce our carbon emissions,” she said.
The national civil defence plan provides for central government to contribute up to 60% of the costs of repairing underground water and sewerage services after an event but there are no similar guaranteed contributions for future-proofing our assets and infrastructure.
“Most of New Zealand’s roads and railways and some airports like Dunedin and Hawkes Bay are in low lying coastal areas, so we have major infrastructure that is at risk,” she warns.
So how much money is needed? “We’re talking billions,” Dr Lawrence says.
“No one has done a comprehensive costing of what we need so far.
"A local government report has estimated that around eight billion dollars would be needed for council roads, infrastructure and water assets, not including housing.
"That estimate was for replacement costs though, so for all assets and people at risk you could double or triple that to find what we will actually need,” she said.
“There are a number of options for funding such adaptation, but the scale of the costs nationally suggests that something like a contributory fund, for example the NZ Superannuation Fund, ACC and EQC, with cost sharing across central and local government alongside insurance, is going to be needed.
“The detailed design of the Fund has yet to be developed but issues to address include, what the Fund is spent on, how to avoid moral hazard and how land use planning to avoid further exposure of assets is advanced.
“But the concept is to save money now for what might happen in the future, so the burden of climate change costs are spread across generations,” she said.
Dr Lawrence is a Senior Research Fellow at the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington and was co-chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group.
Alongside Professor Jonathan Boston at Victoria University of Wellington, they developed the idea of a Fund following workshops with government, local government and the insurance industry.