Finding opportunity in adaptation

Our climate is changing. How we approach and adapt to the meet the unpredictable is a key focus for WSP.

What we know is that effective adaptation requires an understanding of how risks interact as a starting point. Decisions should be based on careful consideration of the cross-cutting nature of risks, and the trade-offs between the actions that we take.

Here we look at how climate change is reshaping the New Zealand summer, the tools we’re using to predict the impact it will have and the opportunities it presents – if we’re prepared to change our mindset.

WSP has been exploring deeply how our clients and the communities they serve can prepare and adapt for the future climate. As the days lengthen and temperatures rise, our thoughts turn to what the summers of the future might look like.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and NIWA, predict more frequent extreme weather events, prolonged periods of extreme heat, and the increased risk of drought in New Zealand. The time lag between increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, and their impact on climate and weather patterns means that change is already with us. Even if global efforts to decrease carbon dioxide emissions succeed, we must prepare.

Climate model outputs are based on emissions scenarios – the IPCC explored four pathways; the optimistic RCP 2.6 that expects near term efforts at mitigation to succeed in reducing and maintaining CO2 below current levels; two stabilisation scenarios (RCP 4.5 and RCP 6); and the chillingly termed ‘business as usual’ scenario, RCP 8.5, which assumes limited reduction in global fossil fuel use and consequent increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, current mitigation efforts make the higher emission scenarios much more likely.

Models of all the RCP scenarios have outcomes which change weather patterns and the climate in New Zealand. If we assume we are tracking in line with RCP 2.6, then we might expect that average annual temperatures will increase by at least 0.7°C by 2040, with greater impacts at higher elevations. Tracking towards RCP 8.5 will result in up to 3°C increase by 2090, with significant impacts on our urban, rural, and natural habitats. Everything will change.

Equally important is the frequency of hot days, defined as those with temperature above 25°C. The most optimistic scenarios predict 40% more hot days by 2040, with up to 100% more hot days by 2090. The number of dry days are also expected to increase, particularly in the north and east of the North Island, and inland in the South, resulting in dry areas becoming even drier still.

Knowing the consequences of these changes in climate and weather patterns, and exploring questions to account for unexpected outcomes has become an essential part of business planning. With an increase in summer temperatures it is anticipated that demand for electricity will grow with higher air conditioning usage. Longer and hotter summers will increase the number of people suffering from heat-related illness.
Design approaches will need to mitigate heat exposure and cool areas in a cost-effective manner; incorporating natural solutions will be key. Interventions such as greening roads, and using trees to provide shade in pedestrian areas and parks will ensure that people will still be able to enjoy outside spaces, in both urban and suburban environments. Trees clean our air and provide microclimates which will also help to combat urban heat island effects.

While these are practical solutions, we also need to change our strategic thinking. Our communities now expect greater proactive action on all fronts, as evidenced by the environmental protest activity we have witnessed this year.

Zoe Burkitt is Work Group Manager – Archaeology and Heritage. She has a strong scientific interest in trends in sustainability and climate change, and their impacts on global policy.