Insight: Adapting to climate change in a thriving, low emissions Aotearoa

CE Jo Hendy writes about why adapting to climate change is an important part of our work and a big focus for us right now.

Many may be wondering what we’re up to at He Pou A Rangi Climate Change Commission after delivering our first advice to the Government on achieving New Zealand’s emissions reduction targets — the mahi that dominated our first 18 months. As a very new agency with an urgent mandate, there’s a lot for us to get on with and we are full steam ahead with our busy work programme.

We have some significant projects underway, including determining how we will monitor the Government’s progress on delivering its Emissions Reduction Plan and, alongside that, how we will monitor another critical piece of the climate change response, the National Adaptation Plan.

While much of our initial focus was on reducing emissions, adapting to climate change is also an important part of our work and a big focus for us right now.

The importance of adaptation

No matter how quickly we reduce emissions around the globe, or by how much, some level of climate change is already baked in due to historic emissions. The planet has already warmed by 1°C since 1900. We have seen sea levels rise by 20cm, and we are already seeing more extreme weather events. And that already impacts our choices for mitigating climate change, such as where we can build public transport or energy infrastructure that will be resilient to rising seas, floods or storms.

Changing climate could impact how much energy we need to heat and cool our buildings, how much water is available for our hydro lakes, the kinds of trees we can plant for carbon capture. The list goes on. We must understand these changes, and the linkages, and adapt in ways that support our transition to a thriving, climate resilient and low-emissions future.

Assessing the impacts

Mitigation and adaptation are two sides of the same coin. The choices Aotearoa makes about how to reduce emissions will affect our ability to adapt to the impacts of climate change. And the physical impacts of climate change can affect our ability to reduce emissions.

We know that at a global scale, the more we reduce emissions, the better our ability to adapt to the impacts of climate change. We also know there are costs or damages from delaying action to reduce emissions, but these are hard to quantify. The science around assessing the risks and impacts of climate change and adaptation is still evolving.

There are estimates available, particularly from integrated assessment modelling – which is designed to help us understand how societal choices affect our climate. However, there is also a growing body of research by the likes of the London School of Economics, which shows that these estimates significantly underestimate the damage climate change will cause. It is difficult to assess some of the most serious consequences of climate change such as destabilisation of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, disruption to ocean circulation, biodiversity loss and the collapse of ecosystems, because we have never experienced these changes before.

There is a lot of work underway to build a more ‘bottom-up’ estimate of the damages associated with climate change, for example attribution work at Victoria University of Wellington has looked at droughts we have recently experienced and assessed the degree to which climate has intensified their severity. We are starting to get clues for our future modelling from major weather events already happening around the world and what they are costing, and how much of that we can attribute to climate change.

The UK Climate Change Committee looked at the costs and benefits of a range of climate adaptation actions in their 2021 Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk and found that the benefits generally outweigh the costs. In some cases, the benefits outweigh the costs by up to 10 times – for actions like early warning systems for extreme heat and flooding events, surveillance for pests and diseases, and water efficiency labelling.

Last year the Ministry for the Environment published the first National Climate Risk Assessment, which gives the first national picture of the risks Aotearoa faces from climate change – covering all aspects of life from our ecosystems and communities to buildings and the financial system – and identifies the 10 most significant risks that require urgent action in the next six years to reduce their impacts. It lays the foundation for a national adaptation plan due next year, which will outline the Government’s response to these risks.

Businesses are also assessing the risks

Kiwi businesses increasingly need to understand their climate related risks and how they can be managed – both the transition risks such as ownership of emissions-intensive assets and the physical risks of climate change such as the impacts of flooding or coastal erosion on infrastructure.

Some will soon be required to assess their climate related risks. The Climate Related Disclosures Bill is likely to make Aotearoa the first country in the world to make climate-related reporting compulsory for the financial sector.

The role of the Climate Change Commission

The Climate Change Commission will have the role of carrying out the second National Climate Risk Assessment in 2026 and updating it every six years. And, from 2024, we will also have a role monitoring the progress and effectiveness of the National Adaptation Plan as it is implemented. This includes identifying any barriers to implementation, and how they might be addressed.

That is what we are turning our minds to now. We are starting to scope how we will monitor progress, including what the monitoring framework will look like and what the criteria will be. That work will include engaging widely over the next few years with a range of stakeholders including local and central government, scientists and academics, economists and modellers.

We’ll be listening to those who will feel the impacts and will have a strong interest in adaptation and we’ll use their input to help shape the monitoring framework that we ultimately put in place.

Adaptation is important for all of us – it will impact all sectors of our economy and society. It will bring risks and costs and it will bring opportunities. As with mitigation, it is imperative that we make the best transition we can to adapt for a thriving, climate resilient and low emissions Aotearoa. And the work the Climate Change Commission is doing will help to ensure that.