From our Chair: Climate change at the heart of all we do

It’s a year since Environment Canterbury declared a climate-change emergency. Jenny Hughey explains what the council has been doing.

Jenny Hughey

Environment Canterbury Chair Jenny Hughey

The formal declaration of a state of climate emergency across Canterbury was one of the most serious, and colourful, moments in the regional council’s more than 30-year history.

A year ago on Thursday 16 May 2019, at 11.49am, Environment Canterbury became New Zealand’s first council to proclaim such an emergency, formally dedicating itself to consideration of climate change at the heart of all it does.

The declaration highlighted that all the work Environment Canterbury does – from freshwater management to biodiversity and biosecurity, transport and urban development to air quality, and also regional leadership – has a climate change focus.

Currently, under the Resource Management Act, regional councils are required only to adapt to climate change, not mitigate it – that responsibility is the Government’s, but could change. Even in ‘adapt mode’ many of Environment Canterbury’s existing policies and plans already contribute to reduced emissions.

In declaring the climate emergency, the Council noted it would continue to show leadership on climate change and do so without adding new programmes at ratepayers’ expense. It also gave staff a clear mandate to continue and enhance that work.

Climate change actions to date

That work included setting up a climate change integration programme in the Long-Term Plan 2018-28, ensuring climate change was actively considered across workstreams, increasing visibility of the science and what we know about the impact of climate change on Canterbury, and liaising on the issue with iwi and regional partners, other local authorities and central government.

Find out more about climate change in Canterbury.

Minimising our carbon footprint

As an organisation, we have also made significant progress in addressing our own greenhouse-gas emissions, with our Christchurch building receiving a “market-leading” energy efficiency rating of 5.0 out of 6 in the year to February on the National Australian Built Environment Rating System New Zealand.

The building’s features include 184 solar panels which can generate more than 55,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

There has been a 26% reduction per staff member in emissions since 30 June 2010. We now have access to electric and hybrid vehicles and hope to have half our fleet hybrid or long-range electric by 2022. Carbon emissions from air travel across the organisation are offset via our own biodiversity programmes.

According to a Madworld report in 2019, our gross emissions were 2253 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent, compared with removals of 7883 tonnes of CO2-equivalent through our efficiency efforts and from forestry planting across 2700 hectares.

Protecting Canterbury from the changing climate 

The changing climate will pose many risks to life and livelihood in Canterbury. In recent years we have seen how occasional, but extreme, weather events have had huge effects on residents and infrastructure around the South Island.

The driest parts of our region, along the Marlborough coast and across much of the Canterbury Plains, are expected to get even drier. North-westerly storms are predicted to become more intense, with torrential alpine rainstorms turning our braided rivers into roaring rapids, fuelling landslides and causing widespread erosion.

Canterbury’s coastal communities will be threatened by sea-level rise this century and our productive and protected land jeopardised by the arrival and spread of new, exotic weeds and pests from warmer climates.

All these eventualities have to be planned and prepared for, and Environment Canterbury will remain in the vanguard of these climate change efforts.

One example is the $40 million Waimakariri River flood protection project, completed late last year. The network of floodgates and stopbanks will protect half a million people and $8 billion of community and business assets from a possible “super flood”.

The last major flood was in December 1957, when parts of Coutts Island in Belfast and Kainga were swamped by river flow peaking at 3990 cubic metres per second (cumecs). The protection scheme has been designed to defend Christchurch from a flood of as much as 6500 cumecs.

Protecting biodiversity and biosecurity

Environment Canterbury’s leadership of biodiversity and biosecurity programmes is also underpinned by climate-change concerns.

Canterbury’s distinct braided rivers and unique wetlands face many challenges. The rivers form a vital ecological link and provide an abundant food supply and nesting grounds for 26 species of native birds – most classified as threatened and facing increased pressures due to river system change.

Wetlands are also ecosystems at risk nationally and regionally, degraded by draining, damming and diversion affecting their ability to sequester carbon, cleanse freshwater and mitigate flooding, as well as impacting on biodiversity and mahinga kai.

With biosecurity, we are putting greater emphasis on the risks of new pests establishing in Canterbury. Warming temperatures, changing soils and new land uses mean new weeds especially, will be able to gain a better foothold across the region.

Read more about our contributions to protect Canterbury from Climate Change.

Finding suitable alternatives

More broadly, we have to curb reliance on fossil fuels and find environmentally suitable alternatives, such as electricity and hydrogen, to power our public transport.

When my predecessor Steve Lowndes retired as chair of this council late last year, he highlighted some of the big changes on the way. He was optimistic we would be able to deal with the “pressing issues” of climate change and sustainability.

I share his confidence. As a community, and as a council, we are taking some bold steps to ensure we are in a better place to cope with the changing climate and the tests it will set us. But there will always be a need to do more.