Responding to a changing climate

Sector Manager Kristin Aitken from our Local Government team delves into some of the terms used by councils and experts in their efforts to address the effects of climate change. She also takes a look at what councils are already doing, and what they need to consider for their next long-term plans.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.At the end of June, I attended the Society of Local Government Managers Forum on Climate Change in Christchurch. Speakers included experts on adapting to changing climate, a lawyer who spoke about risk with a focus on obligations around risk disclosure, council staff who talked about the challenges they’re facing, and a member of New Zealand’s Interim Climate Change Committee.

At the Forum, there were some frequent terms used when speakers described climate change challenges. Terms like ‘mitigation’, ‘adaptation’, and ‘transitioning to a zero carbon economy’ kept popping up. I thought it might be useful to explain what these mean, particularly because they speak directly to what councils are doing to address the effects of climate change.


Mitigation is about actions to address the root causes of climate change, by limiting the magnitude or rate of long-term global warming and its related effects. It generally involves reductions in human emissions of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, which is the main contributing greenhouse gas released by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation; methane; and nitrous oxide, mainly from agriculture and fluorinated gases. Our emissions trading scheme is a key mitigation response that New Zealand has taken. Other mitigation actions include things like tree planting to sequester carbon.

In 2016, New Zealand signed the Paris Agreement, which provides a framework for the global response to climate change. By ratifying the Agreement, New Zealand commits to having a greenhouse gases emissions reduction target and regularly updating it. The purpose of the Agreement is to:

  • keep the global average temperature well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C;
  • strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the effects of climate change; and
  • make sure that financial flows support the development of low-carbon and climate-resilient economies.


Adaptation is about recognising that the climate has and will continue to change irrespective of what mitigation we achieve and that we need to act to reduce the risks resulting from the consequences of climate change. Although it’s unclear what sort of increases in temperature we could be facing (1, 2, 3°C, or more?) we are already seeing the effects of climate change – rising sea levels, more frequent and extreme rainfall events, and – in some areas – drought.

Zero Carbon

The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill – the Zero Carbon Bill for short – is currently being considered by the Environment Select Committee. The Bill would establish an independent Climate Change Commission to provide independent expert advice and monitoring, to help keep successive governments on track to the long-term mitigation and adaptation goals. It requires the preparation of a national climate change risk assessment and national adaptation plans that prioritise actions based on regular risk assessments.

Our interest in climate change

Our Office’s interests in climate change include:

  • how public organisations consider and respond to risk;
  • prudent financial management and intergenerational equity (who pays?);
  • the role of governors – in particular, councillors; and
  • how public organisations engage with the public when considering matters that are uncertain in terms of scale, timing, location, and impact.

Councils and climate change

The effects of climate change have consequences for people, the environment, and our economy. Councils are at the forefront of responding to changes in our climate. A recent report commissioned by Local Government New Zealand identified that as much as $14 billion of local government infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise.

Recent examples of councils’ responses to climate change include the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s release of a sea level mapping tool – this was discussed in the Dominion Post. A number of councils have declared climate change emergencies and we are seeing strong community interest and a desire for action – the Hauraki Coromandel Climate Action group has recently taken legal action against the Thames-Coromandel District Council over its decision not to sign the local government climate change declaration.

When we looked at councils’ 2018 long-term plans we saw that most councils are deferring making decisions about how to respond to the effects of climate change because there is too much uncertainty about what they should be planning for – what effects may occur and when, including the scale of effects and what this means for council infrastructure, and how they deliver services to their communities.

In our 2019 report Matters arising from our audits of the 2018-28 long-term plans, we noted that, to support better planning, councils need to do more to gain better information about the condition of their assets, the likelihood of a natural hazard event occurring, and the potential effects of climate change. We recommended that central government and local government continue to consider how increased leadership can be provided for climate change matters:

  • what data is needed and who collects this;
  • the quality of this data; and
  • how councils should consider this in future accountability documents, including the long-term plan.

The Productivity Commission, in its draft report Local Government funding and financing released in July, also notes the importance of national leadership – in developing and providing high-quality and consistent data, information, guidance, and legal frameworks.

I ran a session at the Forum on what councils should be considering when preparing for the next round of 10-year council long-term plans. Some of the key points I made were:

  • Councils need to be transparent with their communities about their current understanding of the risks posed by climate change effects and what this means for future decision-making – noting that their understanding will evolve over time.
  • Councils need to acknowledge their information gaps, identify programmes to address these gaps – a particular focus should be on better understanding the performance and condition of their most critical assets.
  • Councils need to think about the level of uncertainty in their assumptions and therefore how robust their financial forecasting is – and be transparent about this.
  • Councils need to be having a comprehensive discussion of resilience and climate change issues with their community. This discussion needs to include financial and non-financial effects.

A key message I took from the forum was the important role that elected members have in helping their communities to understand the risks that they are exposed to from climate change and discuss what risk they are prepared to accept and what they are prepared to pay to manage any remaining risks.

The Office’s Local Government team is focusing on risk management for its work in the sector for the coming year. Two main objectives that we have for the sector are that councils have effective audit and risk committees with an independent chair, and that councils have better information about their critical assets to inform their long-term plans.

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