06 Mar 2020

Local government looking in the wrong place on climate change

During recent local body elections, many local authorities declared climate emergencies. Some have also published climate change response declarations and appointed climate change champions. 

These declarations and other public statements mostly talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

These local authorities are missing the point.

We know New Zealand, like every other country, must find ways to reduce the level of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. This will reduce global warming and lessen climate change. This includes burning less fossil fuels, like coal and oil, to power our transport and industries. For New Zealand, it also means reducing emissions from agriculture, particularly methane from ruminant animals (mainly cows and sheep) on which our agriculture depends. 

In reality, local authorities can do little to mitigate climate change. Such things need national (or international) action, such as:   

• changing rules and incentives so coal fired boilers are replaced by other means of generating heat for dairy factories or hospitals; or 

• making vehicles that don’t burn petrol or diesel more acceptable and obtainable; or

• setting up incentives for farming practices which do not emit so much methane.

Local authorities are responsible for issuing permits for activities like building and (for regional councils) discharges to the environment. By law, this permitting of discharges does not, and cannot practically, include greenhouse gases or vehicles. 

They are also service providers for transport services (roads), waste collection and disposal, stormwater drainage, and (for towns and cities) water supply, wastewater collection and treatment. 

To provide these services, local authorities raise taxes (through rates) and spend money on roading, rubbish disposal, recycling, pipe networks and water treatment plants. Many services have been put next to coastlines or rivers, just where they can be damaged by climate change events like more extreme storms. 

Issuing permits for construction, includes where people build houses and other buildings. 

If local authorities want to be smarter about climate change impact, they need to decide how best to spend ratepayers’ money on retaining critical infrastructure services. 

Otherwise we can expect to see more damaged roads, water supplies and landfills.  

Local authorities also need to exercise more caution about how and where they will permit buildings in future. Otherwise buildings permitted on sandbars, eroding riverbanks, and beachfronts will end up being swept away in the next major storm event. Visible reminders of this already are Ruby Bay’s already breached sea defences in Tasman, and the sea-damaged Cape Palliser road in South Wairarapa. 

Along with property losses will go local authority owned roads and water pipes.

They also need to consider all those buildings they have already permitted. Do these permits come with an obligation to defend permitted buildings against floods, storms or coastal storm surge events? At what point do local authorities say ‘enough’ and stop fixing damaged services for vulnerable areas? 

Rather than making sweeping statements and wasting effort on things they have little means to alter, local authorities need to give more attention to the very real threats to services from climate change. This means clearly communicating these to their communities and agreeing with ratepayers how their hard-earned rates money should be spent so communities can rely on critical infrastructure services. 

More attention should be given to adapting rural and urban localities to the reality of climate change, which local authorities have the power to do, instead of climate change mitigation which is mostly outside their control. 


Steve Vaughan

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