Part 5: Councils' activity on climate change

Insights into local government: 2019

Councils are, in many ways, at the forefront of responding to climate change. Communities are demanding that more needs to be done to manage the effects of climate change.

In this Part, we discuss what councils said about their climate change activities in their 2018/19 annual reports and what climate change actions they have taken more generally.

We discuss Waikato Regional Council's climate action committee and Environment Canterbury's climate change integration programme. We also comment on the role of audit and risk committees and what, in our view, councils should consider for their future accountability documents.

Councils disclosed a broad range of climate change activity

In our report on councils' 2018-28 LTPs, we found that most councils were deferring making decisions about how to respond to the effects of climate change because there was too much uncertainty.

Many councils assumed in their 2018-28 LTPs that, in the next 10 years, the effects of climate change will not significantly affect their communities and that there will be no major natural hazard events.

Our review of councils' 30-year infrastructure strategies found that councils have a limited understanding of the risks natural hazards pose and how climate change could affect their infrastructure assets. This means that councils have a limited ability to:

  • advise their councillors of these risks;
  • communicate these risks to their communities; and
  • make informed decisions about how to manage their assets in response and what it will cost.

We are pleased to see that councils are giving greater consideration to climate change effects. In their 2019 annual reports, most councils disclosed that they had carried out some activity related to climate change during the year.

Declaring climate emergencies

In the 2019 calendar year, 16 councils declared climate emergencies, and six of them mentioned this in their annual report. Whanganui District Council declared a climate emergency on 11 February 2020.

Some of these climate emergency declarations came as a direct response to submissions from the public to prioritise climate action. However, several councils noted that there were no inherent statutory or legal implications associated with the declaration of a climate emergency.

Councils said that making these climate emergency declarations signalled to the community that they recognise the importance and urgency of addressing climate change. They also said that the declarations acted as a mechanism for the council to centralise its climate change work and report back to councillors on progress.

The implications of declaring a climate emergency on council decision-making are not yet clear. However, we expect that declaring an emergency would result in some tangible response to accelerate council actions or programmes relating to climate mitigation and/or adaptation in the form of governance, management, and prioritisation of council activity and investment.

Climate change strategies and policies

Four councils reported that they had consulted on, or adopted, a climate change strategy or policy. Ashburton District Council adopted a climate change policy in May 2019 to:

  • enable the Council to respond to climate change in a more integrated manner to ensure the sustainability of the Council's assets and services;
  • enhance the resilience and preparedness of households and businesses; and
  • manage the Council's carbon emissions.

The policy has six principles to guide the Council's decision-making:

  • kaitiakitanga/stewardship;
  • anticipatory governance;
  • equity/justice;
  • informed decision-making;
  • work as one; and
  • resilience.

Integrating climate change into council decision-making

Several councils describe how they currently, or plan to, consider the effects of climate change into their decision-making.

Environment Canterbury set up a climate change integration programme to:

  • increase the visibility of council staff's climate change work to councillors, the executive team, and the community;
  • break down silos within the Council; and
  • ensure consistency in the Council's use of Representative Concentration Pathways scenarios and its input into science modelling.

The climate change integration programme has two main objectives:

  • robustly and visibly incorporate consideration of the effects of climate change into advice by council staff that informs decision-making by councillors; and
  • carry out activities that educate the community about climate change.

Environment Canterbury is considering how to incorporate information into its LTP to meet potential reporting requirements under the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019 (the Zero Carbon Act). This will include incorporating the results of its organisational climate change risk assessment, which is currently in progress, into its planning for the 2021-31 LTP.

Environment Canterbury convenes a regional climate change working group for Canterbury. The group includes territorial local authorities and Ngāi Tahu. Its work programme includes developing a climate change risk assessment in order to develop an understanding of risks throughout Canterbury. The group also advocates to central government, highlighting the leadership role that local government is taking with climate change.

Emission reduction targets

A small number of councils noted their emissions reductions targets in their annual reports. The targets were variable – carbon neutral by 2030, carbon neutral by 2040, carbon zero by 2030, and reducing emissions by a percentage each year.

Collaborating across councils

Several councils in four regions are collaborating on climate change.

The four Southland councils – Southland District Council, Invercargill City Council, Gore District Council, and Environment Southland – jointly commissioned an independent assessment of the regional impacts of climate change for the Southland region.

The Wellington Region Climate Change Working Group was set up to enable a collaborative regional response to climate change issues. Its members are all nine councils in the Wellington region and three representatives from Ara Tahi, a leadership forum of Greater Wellington Regional Council and its six mana whenua partners.

It's an exciting opportunity, this climate forum is the first of its kind in New Zealand, it's a community-lead initiative that's allowing for community involvement, community engagement in climate change in a way that we haven't seen before.

Chris Cameron, Nelson City Council climate change champion.

Dedicated staff and funding

In September 2019, Carterton and South Wairarapa District Councils created a new role – climate change advisor. The district councils are planning to release a climate change strategy in mid-2020 and then develop a more in-depth list of actions.

In its annual report, Nelson City Council noted that it had approved funding for various climate change initiatives, including appointing a dedicated climate change staff member, setting up a climate forum and taskforce, and measuring and reducing the Council's organisational greenhouse gas emissions.

In May 2019, the Hawke's Bay Regional Council's Coastal Hazards Joint Committee recommended that a coastal contributory fund be established to help meet the future costs of constructing infrastructure, such as sea walls, to manage climate risks.

Some councils have made changes to their governance structures

As well as what was reported in councils' 2018/19 annual reports, a small number of councils had established climate change committees for the 2019-22 triennium at the time of writing this report.

Waikato Regional Council Climate Action Committee

We spoke with the chairperson of Waikato Regional Council's Climate Action Committee (the Committee). We wanted to understand the Council's reasons for establishing the Committee and what role the Council expected it to play in decision-making.

The Committee has two main objectives:

  • receive scientific evidence and matauranga Māori to inform strategic leadership on how the Waikato region could mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change; and
  • inform the development of objectives for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, share information, and facilitate collaborative action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the effects of climate change.

The Committee has five members and a quorum of four. It meets quarterly and reports to Waikato Regional Council, with the power to make recommendations that relate to any one of the eight scopes of activity set out in its terms of reference. Its recommendations inform how the Council sets its strategic direction on climate change.

The eight scopes of activity relate to four areas:

  • developing a comprehensive risk assessment and action plan for the region;
  • advising on actions to deliver on responsibilities that will arise from the future Climate Change National Adaptation Plan to be developed under the Zero Carbon Act;
  • ensuring that evidence and guidance on climate change informs the Council's work programmes and that decisions explicitly consider the effects of climate change; and
  • enabling collaboration.

The Council noted to us the importance of council officials/senior management, councillors, and the chairperson of each council committee having a common understanding of, and approach to, climate change so that their advice is consistent when they advise the full Council.

One lesson the Council stressed is that focusing council business on climate change needs to be embedded in a council and not be treated as an "add-on". Council staff and councillors need to have a base-level understanding of climate change to achieve this.

The chief executive has a critical role in being the "glue" between the planning and doing of a council through the tone that they set.

Preparing for future accountability documents

Increasing the visibility of council climate change work

Our general observation is that many councils are giving greater attention to climate change in their governance and decision-making – regardless of whether they declared a climate emergency. This is particularly the case for regional councils and unitary authorities given their responsibility for managing natural hazards.

We commend this effort and see benefit in councils improving the visibility of their work on climate change. Providing this information helps communities to improve their understanding of the actions that their council is taking to manage the risks and opportunities that a changing climate presents. This is important when dealing with an issue such as climate change where the nature, severity, and urgency of the effects are unknown.18

In our report Matters arising from our audits of the 2018-28 long-term plans, we said that, for the 2021-31 LTPs, councils need to comprehensively discuss resilience19 and climate change issues with their community. This discussion should cover both financial and non-financial effects.

Council staff and councillors have an important role in helping their communities to understand the risks of climate change. This includes discussing what risk communities are prepared to accept and what they are prepared to pay.

Transparency about current understanding of risks from a changing climate

It is important that councils are transparent with their communities about their current understanding of the risks from climate change. Councils should explain that their understanding will evolve over time. Councils should increase dialogue with their communities and improve the information about climate change that they provide.

Information helps communities hold their council to account, communicate their expectations, and engage in future council decision-making processes, such as the LTP process.

However, in our report Matters arising from our audits of the 2018-28 long-term plans, we said that it makes little sense for all councils to individually consider how to improve their reporting on climate change issues.

We said that there is the need and opportunity for increased leadership on deciding what data is needed, which organisation will collect it, its quality, and what councils need to disclose in future accountability documents, including their LTP. We recommended that central and local government both continue to consider how they can provide increased leadership on these matters.

Council audit and risk committees have a role to play in addressing climate change effects

As discussed in Part 4, an important role of audit and risk committees is to assist and advise councillors on risk management. This supports councillors to provide assurance to their community.

Risk is the effect of uncertainty on achieving a council's objectives. Climate change poses risks to council business, and council business affects the climate. A council's audit and risk committee should consider what effect a disrupted climate might have on the council achieving its objectives – in particular, its ability to deliver services to the community.

Audit and risk committees and other council committees, as appropriate, should also consider the implications that might arise for their council from potential reporting obligations under the Zero Carbon Act.

The Zero Carbon Act enables the Minister for Climate Change or the Climate Change Commission to request that a reporting organisation (which includes councils and council-controlled organisations) provide information about its governance, risk identification, and management as it relates to climate change.

The intention is that any information gathered from reporting organisations will inform the development of the national climate change risk assessment and national adaptation plan.

18: The criteria nature, severity, and urgency are the basis for the National Climate Change Risk Assessment. See

19: The 2009 UNISDR Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction defines resilience as "[t]he ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management". See United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (2009), 2009 UNISDR Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction, at