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Climate change turns up the pressure on local government

May 07, 2019


Partners Matt Conway, Gerald Lanning, Sarah Scott
Senior Associates Joanna Lim

Climate change (inc Zero Carbon Bill and Emissions Trading Scheme) Local government

Local Government is facing increasing pressure to make important climate change related decisions. According to a recent report by the World Meteorological Organisation, the past four years were the warmest on record and extreme weather had an impact on lives and sustainable development on every continent. Formulating ways to develop cities and communities in an environmentally conscious way that also integrates climate change adaptation is of the highest importance.

In this FYI we briefly comment on some recent examples of the pressure on local authorities to respond to different facets of climate change. It is clear that local authorities more than ever need robust information and a deep understanding of their responsibilities in this fast-changing area.


Waste is often an over-looked sector, but has big impact on Councils - as we have recently seen. In early April, a large storm washed out rubbish from an old landfill on the West Coast, and was initially dubbed “potentially the biggest eco-disaster since Rena spill” by environmental groups.[1] Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage stated that local councils were ultimately responsible for the site.[2] Although Minister Sage noted that government assistance was available if required in this case, funding has not yet been provided and Westland District Council, Department of Conservation staff and contractors are dealing with the clean-up alongside volunteers.[3]

This came just a year after high seas from ex-Cylone Fehi tore through an old coastal landfill at a Greymouth Beach, spilling tens of thousands of plastic bags and other items onto the coastline.[4]

Events like these are at risk of occurring more regularly due to climate change causing more frequent and intense storms and flooding. Local authorities will likely be primarily responsible for dealing with the aftermath of washed-out waste.

A Local Government New Zealand report shows there are 110 closed landfills around the country that could be exposed with sea level rise (see here for the full report). Minister Sage is now seeking information about the level of risk of similar landfills that could be exposed to river flooding.[5] Assessing the risk of waste that could be washed out will be vital in planning to prevent similar events occurring.

In the long-term, transitioning away from a system that creates landfill waste is a difficult task. For example, Auckland Council has a Zero-Waste recycling policy that aims for the region to become zero-waste by 2040. However, an Auckland gardening institution is seeking to prevent Auckland Council from developing the proposed Western Springs site into the first central city recycling area.[6] This is symptomatic of the challenge for local authorities to both respond to adaptation needs.

Thames-Coromandel District Council voted against climate change declaration

Local authorities are well aware of the pressures they face due to climate change. A Local Government New Zealand document urging Central Government to act on climate change has been signed by 60 mayors and Regional and District Council chairs since it was released in 2017. The declaration asks Central Government to prioritise developing and implementing a transition plan for a low carbon and climate change resilient country.

In a controversial decision, Thames-Coromandel District Council voted against signing it. While the Council indicated it would continue to take action in response to climate change, it did not want to sign the declaration, citing the risk of unknown financial and legal consequences.[7] This perhaps highlights the challenge for local authorities in navigating the difficult challenges of preparing for environmental changes while managing their liabilities.

Zero Carbon Act update

The Zero Carbon Act may establish some of the mechanisms local authorities are looking for to provide more direction on climate change response, by including provision for adaptation plans. The Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw, promised that the Zero Carbon Act is “on track to still go through the Parliamentary process this year” at an insurance industry summit hosted by IAG recently.[8] The delay likely results from bipartisan negotiations about the content of the legislation, with Minister Shaw noting that it has “to be legislation that lasts if we're to provide certainty that our emissions will stop consistently rising and start consistently falling".[9]

As well as provisions for adaptation to climate change, the Act is expected to include measures to limit emissions. It has now been reported that Labour and NZ First have negotiated a crucial element of the Zero Carbon Act, the different targets for long-lived gases (eg carbon dioxide) and short-lived gases (eg agricultural methane).[10]

We will continue to track the proposed legislation’s progress throughout the year.

Climate change risk assessment panel appointed

A national risk assessment expert panel has been appointed to create the framework for New Zealand’s first National Climate Change Risk Assessment. This framework is due to be produced by mid-2020 and will prioritise effective adaptation action that will feed into a national adaptation plan and provide information that local authorities need to make planning decisions.

Interim Climate Change Committee releases its reports to Government

The ICCC has been asked to provide independent advice and analysis on two key questions:

  1. how surrender obligations could best be arranged if agricultural methane and nitrous oxide emissions enter into the Emissions Trading Scheme; and
  2. planning for the transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2035.

The Committee delivered its reports at the End of April and they will be released once the Government has had the opportunity to consider them and prepare a response. While market players will ultimately do the heavy lifting in response to these goals, the role of Local Government is essential. Local authorities need to have effective policies to nudge stakeholders and drive technology innovation towards achieving these goals before market dynamics can take over and drive down the costs.