We have culturally fixed ourselves on the hull of the status quo, like barnacles on a sinking ship when it comes to climate change

Aaron Hawkins is Mayor of Dunedin and a member of the National Council of New Zealand Local Government.

OPINION: In 2022, the only certainty is climate change. It is the greatest existential threat facing communities and addressing it cannot wait until tomorrow.

Local councils are ready to play their part, but to do this we need the support of our communities and central government partners.

Internationally, it is local and subnational governments that are leading the way on climate action, in the absence of leadership from nation states.

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Aotearoa needs to be much more ambitious in its zero carbon goals, but we won’t achieve them without the support of local government.

How we plan our towns and cities and how we transport people and goods are essential functions of climate advice and action.

About half of the carbon mountain comes from our transportation network. It’s frustrating because we have appropriate alternatives, but we’re culturally fixed on the hull of the status quo, like barnacles on a sinking ship.

We need local leaders to be brave and invest in cycling, walking and public transport. The government’s emissions reduction plan, due in May, must give this more weight in Waka Kotahi’s investment decisions.

But politicians are cowardly people. We respond to public pressure, so we need communities to help us by creating a mandate for change.

Participation in local democracy favors older residents, and while climate action is by no means a generational divide, the school strike movement has been hugely influential in nudging us in the right direction on Dunedin City Council.

The dissatisfaction around the Three Waters reform is largely about asset ownership and governance, but my biggest concern is the impact on the planning system.

We need to design our cities to reduce the need to travel. One of the main ways to achieve this is to build higher density development around urban and suburban centres. This compact urban approach is the greatest contribution that planning can make to reducing emissions.

The risk is that we lose the ability to do that and end up taking direction where it’s most efficient for infrastructure entities to put pipes into the ground.

Regardless of our mitigation efforts, the damage we have already caused has caused disruption for years to come.

Coastal erosion impacts in the Napier-Hastings area are most evident in Haumoana.


Coastal erosion impacts in the Napier-Hastings area are most evident in Haumoana.

Rising seas, coastal erosion and flooding pose serious threats to the Kiwi summer we know and love. The main areas where councils are looking at risk include holiday homes at Haumoana in Hawke’s Bay, cribs at Taylor’s Mistake in Christchurch and singles at Onaero Beach near New Plymouth.

Here in Dunedin we are actively working on a coastal plan for the area between St Kilda and St Clair beaches. It’s an important recreational asset for the town, but more importantly, it’s an eroding line of defense for some 10,000 low-lying residents.

More broadly, we are considering an increase in insurance premiums. It is of great concern that within the next 15 years, residents of many coastal regions may no longer have access to affordable home insurance. By 2050, at least 10,000 homes in our largest cities will effectively be uninsurable.

Motueka students participated in School Strike 4 for the Climate last year.


Motueka students participated in School Strike 4 for the Climate last year.

Public infrastructure is also exposed. The impact on fare bills is likely to be significant as councils find ways to protect $14 billion worth of roads, community assets and facilities exposed to rising sea levels.

On this front, we anticipate the National Adaptation Plan later this year. Like the Emissions Reduction Plan, it will only succeed if we invest in its implementation. This investment will need to be significant and beyond what local communities can manage on their own.

A much more ambitious approach, from across government, is the least our communities deserve.

These are national level plans, but the reality of climate change is that the impacts will be felt locally. Collective action at the local level is needed if we are to achieve zero carbon goals and adapt effectively to climate change.

We have seen this through the ongoing pandemic response and how councils and their communities are bogged down to respond to natural disasters.

If we are to have any hope, we need to build on this way of working and keep it in mind when making plans on how to tackle climate change.

Whether you are a voter or a candidate, climate change must be a key election issue this year. Because the decisions we make today will have a profound effect on our increasingly uncertain future.

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