English says Environment Commissioner's report on rising sea levels "speculative"; rejects call for study of fiscal costs; Govt non-committal on need for National Policy Statement; Smith criticised over coastal housing areas

By Lynn Grieveson

The Government has downplayed a report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on rising sea levels as “speculative” and has shrugged off its recommendations about the need for a fiscal analysis of the costs and a National Policy Statement for Councils.

Finance Minister Bill English told reporters in Parliament after the release of the report that the Government had no current plans to assess the fiscal risks of rising sea levels.

“I see the Commissioner for the Environment has put out a report, but it’s pretty speculative both as to the level of the sea level rise and the costs that might incur,” he said.

English rejected the idea that the risks of rising sea levels be built into the Government’s forecasts.

“No, I think it’s trying to pull out of the basket of possibilities one particular possibility that could be a risk. There is uncertainty about that, and trying to put a cost on that,” he said.

“We would take a more pragmatic approach which is, if you are going to build a road, then take into account all the risks. Sea level rise may be one of those. They have to assess the probability of that and build it into the costs.”

Specifically asked about the risks for South Dunedin, he said: “You’d be best to talk to people in South Dunedin about that. If you went and talked to them now they would be a bit reluctant to up sticks and move out on the basis of speculation about the sea level rise in 100 years.”

He denied the Government was ignoring the risks.

“It’s another report that indicates there is a risk ahead of us, but the government is dealing with all sorts of risks all the time of which this is one. It’s a bit speculative. There are others that are more immediate and more costly.”

‘Kicking the can down the road’

Transport Minister Simon Bridges, speaking on behalf of Environment Minister Nick Smith in Parliament in answer to a question by Green MP Eugenie Sage, described the report as “sensible,” but was not clear on whether the Government would produce a National Policy Statement. See the video of the exchange above.

This question from Sage summed up the Opposition’s response to the Government’s reaction: “Is his Government’s reluctance to commit to a strong, national policy direction on sea level rise another example of this Government wanting to shirk the hard decisions and leave them for future Governments and future generations?.”

Bridges’ simple answer was: “No.”

NZ$20 billion cost possible

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, yesterday released the report on ‘Preparing New Zealand for Rising Seas’ detailing which coastal regions would be most affected by an inexorable rise in sea levels – and laid out a series of recommendations for Governments on how to prepare and avoid the worst effects.

Wright’s report included detailed elevation maps of the most affected areas and is a must-read in my view for anyone in the real estate, banking, construction, local Government and planning communities. Dunedin, Napier and Christchurch are listed as the cities with the most homes potentially affected over the next 50 years, with 4,905 homes in those cities being less than 50cm above the spring high tide mark.

This is the area seen vulnerable to the expected 30cm rise in sea levels over the period, while a total of 21,534 homes in those three cities are less than 150 cm are above the spring high tide mark and could be affected in the much longer run.

Wright called for a National Policy Statement from the Government to direct Councils how to prepare for rising sea levels within the framework of the Resource Management Act and called on Bill English to begin considering the fiscal implications of rising sea levels. She also warned against developing new suburbs or infrastructure in these regions.

This report follows a preliminary one published in November last year that looked at the underlying science of rising sea levels.

‘South Dunedin uninhabitable’

“If we think about areas like South Dunedin — homes there will become uninsurable and ultimately uninhabitable, but doing something about it is also going to cost money as there will be a very strong case for assistance — some sort of compensation,” Wright told a news conference .

“So it’s a little bit like a slowly unfolding red zone. If we put all the purple areas that we have in our data together, we get nearly 9,000 houses across the country that are within 50 cm, and that’s a bit more than the 8,000 that were red zoned,” she said.

“So it’s like a slowly unfolding red zone situation, but it doesn’t stop — it goes on.”

Fiscal risks

Wright talked in particular about the need for Treasury to consider the fiscal risks over time.

“There will be claims for assistance in various ways and they will only increase over time but there’s also this accumulative cost of defence after defence being built,” she said.

“For instance, on the east coast of Coromandel you have seawall protection at Buffalo beach, and then you have it at Cook’s beach – and where do you stop? Do we try and protect everywhere or somewhere? And if we just let it unfold and respond to pressure, that could end up being a lot of cost where in some places it might be better to just start moving inland a bit.”

Wright estimated the replacement cost for the buildings lower than 50cm above the spring high tide mark was NZ$3 billion, but cautioned the data was not complete and did not include the cost of land or infrastructure.

“That’s purely the replacement value of the buildings sitting there now. By the time we get up to 1.5 metres it’s something like NZ$20 billion,” she said.

She warned in particular against approving new housing developments in low-lying areas, in particular some Special Housing Areas recently approved in Nelson by Nick Smith.

“I spoke to him the other day about this at length and he was very attentive,” she said.

Wider reaction

Local Government welcomed the report and its call for a National Policy Statement.

“However there are some areas which do require more urgent planning including new developments and infrastructure which carry significant cost and are in place for many decades,” said LGNZ Vice President Brendan Duffy.

“We stress the benefits of careful, coordinated planning to moderate the costs of adaptation to our communities,” he said.

Insurance Council CEO Tim Grafton also welcomed the report’s analysis showing the replacement cost of assets located between 50cm and 150cm above high tide levels was between NZ$3 billion and NZ$20 billion.

“Those are huge replacement costs representing thousands of houses and businesses. Dr Wright’s report makes timely and useful recommendations ranging from better quality guidance on managing the risks to assessing and preparing for the economic impacts of sea level rise,” Grafton said.

“However, a critical issue that is not covered in the report is the quality and capability of underground infrastructure like stormwater drains.  Many of these are decades old, designed to specifications long before anyone was aware of sea-level rise combined with climate change which will bring more intense storm and storm surge event,” he said.