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

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.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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For National what counts as a 'long term threat' is the chance that a particular corporate sponsor might cancel a free cabinet knees up at a swanky Wellington restaurant the week after next...

9000 homes, replaced for $3 billion = $334k build costs for each house, sounds about right.

You have to be pretty dumb to want to build anything that low in the first place, sadly the world is full of dumb people, as in the case of Nick Smith with his special housing areas. LOL even a simple risk matrix can show just how dumb that is.

There is a problem, no doubt about it. And it will be an expensive one to remedy/remediate. Wright's observation that the number of houses involved is more than the Chc Red Zone is very useful perspective. A 1.5m rise quadruples the exposure. (And that is big time.) But I think there is another perspective missing in her Report. There are 1.8 million dwellings in New Zealand, being added to at the rate of about 26,000 per year. So we are talking about 0.5% to less that 1.5% of all dwellings, and we have 25 to 75 years to adjust. That won't reduce any risks or costs, but they will be spread out over a very long time frame. I kind of agree we have more urgent issues to address, right now. (Including the Chc rebuild.) People and markets have an inherent ability to adjust over decade timeframes. The main benefit about learning of these issues is for future buyers. Yes, some floodplain values will decline (even to zero), but that should be an expected response. There is no good reason I can see to socialise those costs.

Except (There is no good reason I can see to socialise those costs.) that is indeed however the expectation of the present home owners. ie they fight councils trying to put warnings on their properties as it depresses the value. The next purchaser will then have a claim on the council (rate payer) as they were not warned!

For new homes, if they are built in areas too low then that does indeed increase future costs/losses.

Lets also step outside of homes, what about farming? given 1m sea rise by 2100 (say) what is the impact to farming? on top of that the amount of climate change that will go with a 1m rise would seem to have a quite significant on farming as well.

How much coast would we have to sea wall? well $5000 a linear metre x how many metres (assuming a 2m wall). Also life of sea wall, 50 years? that is some replacement regime you have to keep up, and each 50 years add another 1 metre.

15,000km coast line, how much of it would have to be walled? 1000km? 1000x1000x$5000= 5billion

Who is going to be paying? If its say Wellington, well Wellington ratepayers clearly. Kapiti? one long beach, ouch, rinse and repeat. How about foxton? (I think that's low lying?) small place, abandon it? a new SH1 then? Wanganui? abandon it?

that is indeed however the expectation of the present home owners. ie they fight councils trying to put warnings on their properties as it depresses the value.

I do so wish you would get your facts straight first.

I am a planner. I have worked with many of these homeowners. I have read the technical/scientific reports on which the hazard projections were made. I have also read peer reviews on those technical reports by other experts. The science in both the Kapiti and Chch cases was not robust enough for the purposes of planning under the RMA. In both cases, if it (the science/technical reports) had ever got to Environment Court - they would likely have been rejected by the Court (deemed to be not-fit-for-purpose). That is why both councils withdrew those hazard determinations from their District Plan change processes..

Residents have every right to expect good science and good application of the law.

AND they should not be denigrated by folks like you who haven't got a clue.

Kate, I had a discussion with an ex neighbour earlier this year. That person being a very high profile yachting personality that I would have thought would be in the conservative camp when it comes to things like rising sea levels. But he backed up an observation I have made, that the tides in Auckland are now 100mm higher than they were 30 years ago. My observation was the peak tides of the year being 3.7m instead of 3.6 when grew up there. He said it is the mean high tide that is higher. We could be sinking also, but I don't think so.

Perhaps they are. But the projection the PCE is talking about is for 30cm (or 300mm) over a 50 years period. Whereas your friend has observed 100mm over 30 years - which would only equate to 300mm over the next 90 years.

In other words, unless we do experience a far more rapid trajectory soon, then there is indeed a great deal more time to adapt.

Geologically, some areas of NZ are sinking - some are rising. Again, these historical geological trends are often not being picked up in the current technical models, whereas they need to be.

The point is, the science employed in terms of such regulatory projections needs to be far more multi-disciplined in its formulation. Presently, there seems to be a very small contingent of consultancies in NZ doing work for local authorities in respect of coastal analysis - that needs to change, a much wider and more diverse knowledge base (including local knowledge) needs to be brought to these questions and considerations - and all the assumptions made as part of these considerations need to be made explicit/revealed .. not hidden away in complex (and often inaccessible) formula/data/mathematical workings.

Perhaps? I took my information from the tide charts, something I have followed for that long.

What if the rises are exponential, just like the man made inputs that allegedly cause it? A simple doubling would make 100mm in 15 years, then next in 7.5, the next in 3.75. 300mm in a generation.

You're actually supporting my point. The observational record over many decades does not indicate that exponential function to date. To be sure, we might see this sort of exponential/dramatic increases in the not too distant future, but until we do see them, we have time to be more pragmatic, less alarmist.

This is the point the PCE is making - we need to do certain things, but we don't need to flag/tag whole neighbourhoods as doomed based on 'worst case scenarios' - which up until now are what in the main have been used.

"The Australasian region has four very long, continuous tide gauge records, at Fremantle (1897), Auckland (1903), Fort Denison (1914), and Newcastle (1925), which are invaluable for considering whether there is evidence that the rise in mean sea level is accelerating over the longer term at these locations in line with various global average sea level time-series reconstructions. These long records have been converted to relative 20-year moving average water level time series and fitted to second-order polynomial functions to consider trends of acceleration in mean sea level over time. The analysis reveals a consistent trend of weak deceleration at each of these gauge sites throughout Australasia over the period from 1940 to 2000. Short period trends of acceleration in mean sea level after 1990 are evident at each site, although these are not abnormal or higher than other short-term rates measured throughout the historical record."

Cherry picking again, when you use a global set, yes there is some acceleration.


"Not only will there likely be nonlinear response to thermal expansion of the oceans, when the ice sheets become major contributors to sea level rise, they will dominate the equation. Their impact could be tremendous, it could be sudden, and it could be horrible."

Hmm... Journal of Coastal Reasearch vs some eco loon crack pot website. I'll go with the Journal on this one.

Both are correct. Four sites is not global. Your link also suggests that there may have been some recent acceleration.

Oh balls both are correct. As usual SkS is alarmist clap trap. Since when was "horrible" a scientific term? Did you read the last sentence of the abstract?

As for those scary, horrible, ice sheets:

AR5 Ch 12 table 12.4:
"Exceptionally unlikely that either Greenland or West Antarctic Ice sheets will suffer near-complete disintegration (high confidence)"

The article is 5 years old and uses data that is 15 years old and is a few sites (and not globally), also its using gauges where more modern methods are satellite and highly accurate, so classic cherry picking on your part.

Data was until 2010 so more than 100 years. Paper still being cited this month so still relevant to realists.. And of course timescale includes the 25% of post industrial CO2 emissions added this century. Just inconvenient to your world view. Here some more data for you.

"Without sea-level acceleration, the 20th-century sea-level trend of 1.7 mm/y would produce a rise of only approximately 0.15 m from 2010 to 2100; therefore, sea-level acceleration is a critical component of projected sea-level rise. To determine this acceleration, we analyze monthly-averaged records for 57 U.S. tide gauges in the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) data base that have lengths of 60–156 years. Least-squares quadratic analysis of each of the 57 records are performed to quantify accelerations, and 25 gauge records having data spanning from 1930 to 2010 are analyzed. In both cases we obtain small average sea-level decelerations. To compare these results with worldwide data, we extend the analysis of Douglas (1992) by an additional 25 years and analyze revised data ofChurch and White (2006) from 1930 to 2007 and also obtain small sea-level decelerations similar to those we obtain from U.S. gauge records."


If you read the comments the paper is cited as past works. When you look at more modern papers with better instruments (satellites) and globally you see an accelerating rise.

math, a paper on the methods used,

"It appears that a wide set of methods are in use, varying from simple methods, such as moving averages or linear trends, to complex approaches such as extended multiple regression methods based on generalized additive models"

Watson paper, "These long records have been converted to relative 20-year moving average water level time series and fitted to second-order polynomial functions to consider trends of acceleration in mean sea level over time. "


"For example, if one is interested in trend estimates for the full sample period, one should not choose moving averages since the method does not yield information for the final years of the data (due to the window chosen). Consequently, short-term predictions are not generated either. Furthermore, the method is not statistical in nature and uncertainties are not provided. "

So when you look at the method and compare it using San Fransisco the Watson linear method is a poor method. The SKS paper shows more advanced math which shows up the trend for global warming as there is also less noise.

If moving averages aren't to your taste then just use the Houston paper also pasted above as it uses least-squares quadratic analysis.
So you choose to ignore satellite data when it comes to hottest year evah! but prefer satellite data when compared to century plus tide gauges. That would be cherry picking?

No, I do not choose to ignore valid data. 97/98 was caused by an exceptional el nino, which looks to be repeated this year, but probably bigger. You cherry picked an old paper on a limited subset of data with a poor mathematical model. Even that showed some acceleration in the last years despite the chosen method partially negating it to try and claim no accelerating sea rise globally, friad not.

Geez mate, there are two papers posted - using different methods and different geographic locations...

As for "Limited subset of data" BS.

1. "four very long, continuous tide gauge records, at Fremantle (1897), Auckland (1903), Fort Denison (1914), and Newcastle (1925), which are invaluable for considering whether there is evidence that the rise in mean sea level is accelerating over the longer term at these locations in line with various global average sea level time-series reconstructions."

2. we analyze monthly-averaged records for 57 U.S. tide gauges in the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) data base that have lengths of 60–156 years.

- Your whackjob SkS team crap on about "horrible" ice sheet collapse and the IPCC completely contradict this but lets just ignore that.

And the good old IPCC - AR5 Ch13:

"Chapter 3 concludes that the GMSL trend since 1993 is very likely higher compared
to the mean rates over the 20th century, and that it is likely that GMSL
rose between 1920 and 1950 at a rate comparable to that observed
since 1993."

Note the word "comparable" As usual boring nothing we haven't seen before. Sea level rise during an inter glacial. Get over it. How this equates to SkS "horrible" in green whack job fantasyland I don't know.

"Projection of future sea level change relies on the understanding of present sea-level trend and how it has varied in the past. Here we investigate the global-mean sea level (GMSL) change during 1993-2012 using Empirical Mode Decomposition, in an attempt to distinguish the trend over this period from the internannual variability. It is found that the GMSL [Global Mean Sea Level] rises with the rate of 3.2 ± 0.4 mm/yr during 1993-2003 and started decelerating since 2004 to a rate of 1.8 ± 0.9 mm/yr in 2012. This deceleration is mainly due to the slowdown of ocean thermal expansion in the Pacific during last decade, as a part of the Pacific decadal-scale variability, while the land-ice melting is accelerating the rise of the global ocean mass-equivalent sea level. Recent rapid recovery of the rising GMSL from its dramatic drop during the 2011 La Niña introduced a large uncertainty in the estimation of the sea level trend, but the decelerated rise of the GMSL [Global Mean Sea Level] appears to be intact."


"There are growing indications that sea level rise by the end of this century will approach or exceed 1 metre."


4mins in, great exponential graph, but its all worth watching.

and maybe do the free course,


There does seem to be evidence that there is an acceleration in the rate of rise of sea level.

Rubbish, the science on CC and from that sea level rise is absolutely sound. However from my reading of the kapiti case it seemed pretty clear for kapiti at least the effect of that rise did not seem to have been robustly / correctly applied. This is a failure of the council and its "experts" to do their job properly. Thus then xposing the rate payers to huge potential costs, a failure of application not the science behind it..

I agree with David. I really don't know why the PCE thinks, "there will be a very strong case for assistance -- some sort of compensation".

This is wrong - and we should not be setting up any such expectations.

The Building Act 2004, sections 71-74, provide for caveats on property titles where building work is carried out on on land subject to natural hazards. Such a caveat extinguishes any responsibility from that authority which granted such building consent. I think the problem in the Chch Red Zone was that the hazard was not recognised (and the titles not notated with the caveat) when the homes were built.

In other words, our legislation has improved more recently such that the risk has been legally transferred to the title owner. It then becomes a matter between an owner and his/her insurance company.

Now we need to improve the robustness of the science in determining whether land is subject to a hazard. The problem in both Kapiti and Chch, where they have run into problems lies with questionable (i.e., overly precautionary) assumptions being used in the various formula for making these hazard projections. Bill English refers to this as "speculative" - and he's pretty much on the mark there. There are unnecessary costs in being both overly cautious as well as in being not cautious enough. Finding that pragmatic, 'sweet spot' between the two is the way to go. That's what I think BE is trying to say - but he's just not saying it very well.

Much of the red zone doesn't have any sea level issue. The issue of liquefaction and lateral spread is quite a different one.

Yes, but liquefaction/lateral spread (called subsidence in the Building Act) is one of the natural hazards referred to in the legislation. Hence, given the subsoil was known at the time of sub-division/settlement of that area as being subject to liquefaction - were the existing legislation in place at that time, it is likely under the RMA that sub-division would not have gone ahead. However, even if it had, then when building on that land known to have one or more of the natural hazards referred to in the Building Act, all of the property titles would have been notated (the caveat would have been placed on them) and the owners thereby would have had to assume all of the risk.

As it was, I don't think these legislative provisions were in place at the time and/or if they were the hazard was not recorded. Hence, there is an argument for the Government action taken in respect of compensation.

To my mind, if we get our planning right in future, these same issues should not arise.

I can't really say whether or not deciding to red-zone (and hence allow no re-builds) was actually the right one - as perhaps people should have been given more choice in the matter.

I think we should put a zero value on these properties after they have gone under water, let the market decide wether they think sea levels are going to rise ( i personally thinks it's bullsh@#$t). In our are our regional council is busy telling us that we live in a floodplain and will be wiped out by a 100 year flood, we are still waiting with our boats ready.... It's funny they are not dropping our rates.) We are also experiencing a huge el nino which is supposed to bring a big drought, and yet in the North Island we are getting a lot of rain. Our climate is definitely changing...... to one that is filled with propaganda and scare mongering.

If you think the North island is getting a lot of rain I suggest you look at the daily soil moisture report published every day at 4pm. Other than 2 areas in the Hawkes Bay/east coast large tracts (ie Bay of Plenty/Coramandel/Northland are already drier than the average for this time of year. The South island is way drier than the average, and drier than this time last year (which was itself a bad drought year on the East coast of the South island).
Alternatively you could keep looking out the window and tell yourself you are an expert on climate based on what you see every day.....(which seems to be about the limit of the average deniers analysis).

If you didn't listen to the propaganda would you know it was happening? That's a fair question. That's my point climate change is the least of our worries. The real rising tide in the world is skyrocketing debt and terrorism. Rest easy, you could be dead or broke before your feet get wet.


"yr never too old to learn" - How true. The Commissioner taught me something yesterday: that the rocks I have been fishing off, for near three quarters of a century, are rising at exactly the same rate as her sea! I'm sure I will meet Mr Spock and Dr Who down there one morning too.

Aahhhh a 75 year old. Fits the demographic then.

Be interesting to see what your younger relatives think of your position 20 years down the line.

"Alternatively you could keep looking out the window and tell yourself you are an expert on climate based on what you see every day.....(which seems to be about the limit of the average deniers analysis)." Seems to be a lot of those people here based upon the likes his post received.

South Dunedin has a massive wall to the sea, the one opening at St Clair could easily be raised if necessary.

The harbour sea level doesn't fluctuate as much as the open sea as the time taken for water to flow in out the length of the harbour smooths out the tides. Even so a harbour wall along Portsmouth drive also wouldn't be that expensive.

The real problem for South Dunedin is rain and not the sea.

Unfortunately the surrounding hills all divert water into the area before it goes into the sea. Solving that issue for high rainfall events is more important as it is unlikely sea water is going to make it over the 10m high dunes along St Kilda beach... Unless it is a nearby Tsunami in which case everywhere low lying is screwed.

Yes, my understanding too is that the problem there is a freshwater, not saltwater one. I've always felt the increased storminess (higher rates of rainfall over shorter durations) was going to be a lot more of a problem for NZ than SLR.

NBR has a good write up on the apparent misinterpretation of what the PCE has said - and in particular that the governing legislation (NZCPS 2010) does not call for 'worst case scenario' SLR planning - and indeed it is 'worst case scenario' (i.e., overly precautionary projections) that many of the current consultancies (and hence local authorities) are using;

Reactions differ to Jan Wright’s urging of cautious examination of sea rise

Ask yourselves, if there was a 5% chance that in 100 years time your property might be affected by SLR - should we write it off now and prepare you for re-location/retreat?

Kate seems to me "a 5% chance that in 100 years time" would be extremely optimistic. Its seems highly likely given medium range scenario's that you would be affected. Why would you plan to build on ground which is likely going to be problematic?
Also to deny the problem is going to cause re-insurance problems. Really as far as I can tell the risk industry will determine who will build where if we do not take a sufficiently precautionary approach

Kate seems to me "a 5% chance that in 100 years time" would be extremely optimistic.

That 5% chance within 100 years is what Tonkin & Taylor recently calculated under a worst case scenario for thousands of properties in Chch.

It's not an optimistic, or under precautionary projection - rather it's a worst case scenario projection - i.e., overly precautionary.

You are right, sufficiently precautionary is what is needed - not worst case scenario. This is the point made by the PCE in her latest report.

I do note that Tonkin and Taylor doubled their previous estimate of sea level rise. That makes a medium case scenario very difficult to predict.

However present global emissions are increasing at the worst case scenario level. If that continues then sea level rise does indeed look to be in the region of the worst case. The Q is then who will wear the losses? All the rate payers because the council failed them or the specific homeowner because the greedy fought the council and the council gave up because of the costs. Strikes me as one huge can kicking event.

Do the predictions take into account the current global slowdown and the reduction in emissions from unsustainable economic growth?

Consider the leaky homes fiasco, no one left to carry the can but the council, or the homeowner, this is just a rinse and repeat.

From a rate payer perspective however if there is a 95% chance then this should be clearly stated so the losses are not socialised.