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Imagining life beyond Auckland as a way to ensure its future

Dr Stephen Knight-Lenihan

· Auckland Climathon

In the lead-up to New Zealand’s September 2017 election politicians generally supported the idea of a cross-party agreement to address climate change. Those cheering included supporters of both the zero carbon legislation lobby and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s recent report on achieving Paris agreements on emissions reductions.


However, while we can drive solar powered electric vehicles, and plant lots of trees, Auckland also needs to account for the need to adapt to unavoidable climate change impacts.  


What might all of this look like?


Electric vehicles: great things. But most of those buying e-cars, mopeds, push-bikes and vans may not be those doing the bulk of the longer-distance commuting. Many people moving to the outer suburbs do so because houses are so expensive closer to the city. But they still have large mortgages. So investing in an electric vehicle – which are generally more expensive – is likely to be a low priority.  If e-vehicle purchases are by those who don’t commute much anyway, is it really going to help? Shifting the high mileage travellers into e-vehicles requires serious subsidies; so is this the best investment to reduce emissions? It pays to remember that while public transport is increasing, the bulk of investment remains in roads.


The solution is to invest heavily in public transport and get people out of cars, electric or otherwise.


Houses: all urban development should include emissions implication measures. Houses should be energy rated on the grounds that while New Zealand has an unusually high amount of its electricity generated by renewables, Auckland has currently less than the national average. Development will increase electricity demand, and (certainly in the short term) that demand will be disproportionately met by coal- and gas-fired systems. And that includes meeting extra demand from electric vehicles.


Transport is that part of the energy sector having the fastest growing emissions implications. As noted above, the rise of subdivisions outside central Auckland further contributes to transport emissions. These emissions, then, should be factored into the decision to grant or deny permission to subdivide. If this isn’t done, the implications for emissions reductions targets won’t be known – and therefore can’t realistically be achieved.


Meanwhile Auckland, being surrounded by water (only around 30% of Auckland Council’s area of responsibility is dry land), is exposed to climate change-exacerbated inundation. The combination of increasing bouts of intensive rain and associated flood events, with rising groundwater linked to sea level rise, means some coastal suburbs can’t remain. Unlike other similarly exposed suburbs such as Christchurch’s South Brighton or South Dunedin, what is exposed in Auckland are also those areas with the highest property values. It sounds uncaring, but poorer places are cheaper to shift. Well-heeled property owners will be more litigious and will argue ratepayers and taxpayers should protect their investments.


This moral hazard (socialising negative impacts and privatising benefits) will be partly addressed by how the insurance industry responds to climate change.


Auckland needs to plan for climate change now. This might include depopulating Auckland and moving south as part of a regional development network. Absurd? Such a step may be currently unimaginable, but perhaps it is ultimately unavoidable.



Dr Stephen Knight-Lenihan has a degree in Zoology and worked as an environmental consultant and journalist before gaining his PhD in Planning through the University of Auckland, where he has been working since 2010. His research areas include looking at how planning processes can address emission reductions while at the same time improving levels of adaptation to climate change impacts.




Zero Carbon Act NZ


Stepping stones to Paris and beyond: Climate change, progress, and predictability

Green Party climate protection plan

Ministry of Transport electric vehicles overview

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