The impact of wild weather events in 2023 has exposed the glaring fact that our old and ageing infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle New Zealand’s changing climate.
It’s clear that extreme weather events once considered unimaginable, or written off as a one-in-one-hundred-year occurrence, will strike with greater frequency and ferocity.
Where possible, our infrastructure must be designed to withstand them.
Our existing infrastructure, designed for a climate in another age, is no longer fit for purpose. Planning and building new infrastructure must now be done with climate resilience and sustainable development front of mind.
In Auckland, the city’s existing infrastructure has struggled to cope with the wild weather bombs we have endured. Flooded motorways, busways, and suburban streets have become a common sight. Culverts, curbs, and channels in our suburbs, for a start, are not built to handle the massive volumes of water we’re now seeing. We need to build back better and design infrastructure with climate change and sustainability as the top priority.
We need to incorporate greener, more permeable environments with porous surfaces in our urban areas. This may include, for instance, using designs like grass swales that manage water runoff, filter pollutants, and increase rainwater infiltration. The elephant in the room is we can’t keep building where we’ve been building and this must be faced by planners.
Constructing new developments with climate change-friendly designs will often be easier than retrofitting ageing infrastructure in existing communities. However, we must address the challenges in upgrading our tired infrastructure.
The time to mitigate tomorrow’s disasters is now. Climate change is no longer a can to be kicked down the road, and we must make serious decisions to solve tough problems if we are to adapt to the new normal. Building infrastructure that is resilient and sustainable must be a priority.
The forthcoming Climate Adaptation Act is the third part of the Resource Management Act reform underway. It will start putting requirements on all infrastructure to take into account obligations around climate change and its effects. But this legislation won’t be seen any time soon, certainly not before this year’s election. It’s coming, but we should be doing it now, not waiting for it to be mandated.
After this year’s devastating weather disasters, there is a gathering view that New Zealand’s susceptibility to these events is likely to have increased as a result of climate change. There is a school of thought that intensification and population growth has been contributing factor, but cities much larger than Auckland overseas have kept better pace with protecting their infrastructure from the changing climate. The reality is that where the majority of intensification has occurred, there had been upgrades to the stormwater facilities and they performed well.
New Zealand was already ranked by Lloyd’s of London as second only to Bangladesh for vulnerability to natural hazards in terms of average annual losses in relation to the size of the economy. Some of that risk we can protect ourselves from, earthquakes and volcanoes are a tougher challenge.
It’s time for the impact of climate change to be taken seriously, and this means objectively reviewing where our critical infrastructure links are located and making plans to ensure they can continue to function in the longer term. These are big decisions.
We urgently need the Climate Adaptation Bill to provide the foundations for us to change our planning policies to match today’s weather patterns, or we put the future of our communities at risk.
We also need to have an honest conversation about building residential housing and other public infrastructure in areas that are at risk of extreme weather. There are existing settlements where the weather could compromise transport and infrastructure connectivity in the long term.
It’s time for central and local governments to recognise the urgency of this legislation and demonstrate the leadership needed to address climate change.
The strong financial support for communities to build back better after cyclone damage is welcome, but alone it is not enough — we need a long-term response that will mitigate the risks of extreme weather and ensure the sustainability of our infrastructure.
New Zealand’s transport infrastructure has taken a hit in recent years, with extreme weather events wreaking havoc on state highways and local roads. It seems clear that emergency works budgets will need to increase significantly to keep up with the rising frequency of these climate change-related events.
We can’t afford to just be reactive any more — proactive planning is necessary to address the heightened risks to all of our transport infrastructure.
To tackle this issue, Infrastructure New Zealand is finalising a plan to identify what’s holding the sector back from taking action on climate change. Knowledge transfer is critical, and we need to share innovations that reduce carbon emissions and revolutionise infrastructure delivery as a sector. We also support the wider adoption of infrastructure sustainability rating tools across a range of projects.
It’s time for the infrastructure sector to step up and prioritise sustainable infrastructure.
We can’t afford to wait for the next disaster to strike — let’s take action now to build a resilient and sustainable future for New Zealand.
· Nick Leggett is CEO of Infrastructure New Zealand.
· Infrastructure New Zealand is an advertising sponsor of the Herald’s Infrastructure report.