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Preparing for coastal change: A summary of coastal hazards and climate change guidance for local government

Note: Updated Coastal hazards and climate change guidance was published in early 2024. The 2024 guidance revises the 2017 guidance.

Preparing for Coastal Change is a summary of the Ministry’s Coastal Hazards and Climate Change – Guidance for Local Government in New Zealand released in December 2017.

This document summarises the 10-step approach developed in the guidance to help local government and others assess, plan for, and manage the increasing risks facing coastal communities. It is intended for a wide audience.

The Ministry has also prepared a series of fact sheets to accompany this summary, which provide further information on elements of coastal processes discussed in the guidance.


Since 2001, the Ministry for the Environment has provided guidance on how to adapt to the risks from coastal hazards caused by climate change, particularly those associated with sea-level rise. The previous guidance, published in 2008, has been widely used by local government, and also by others involved in providing services and infrastructure to coastal areas. The Ministry also provides climate projections for New Zealand, a manual on climate change effects and impacts assessment, and tools for estimating the effects of climate change on flood flow.

The Coastal Hazards and Climate Change guidance (released together with this summary) is a major revision of the 2008 edition. It updates scientific understanding and the legal framework. It introduces new material on hazard, risk and vulnerability assessments, and collaborative approaches to engaging with communities. The 2017 edition also explains adaptive approaches to planning for climate change in coastal communities. References cited in this summary can be found in the reference list of the full guidance.

Why is this guidance required?

Hazard risk is compounding in coastal areas, because hazard impacts are occurring more frequently as seas rise, while at the same time coastal development and property values are increasing. Sea level is expected to keep rising for at least several centuries, posing an ongoing challenge for us and future generations to create more sustainable coastal communities.

Coastal hazards can have impacts on a wide range of our social, cultural and economic values, as well as affecting our natural and physical environment. Acceptable solutions for adapting to the changes will vary from place to place, and for some communities will be made more complex by greater risks, greater vulnerability, and a lower ability to cope. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Local government faces the enduring question of how to achieve the aspirations of local communities while making (sometimes unpopular) decisions that will enable them to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.

The guidance developed by the Ministry supports local government in this complex role.

Who is the guidance for?

This document summarises the step-by-step approach developed to help local government (and others) assess, plan for and manage the increasing risks facing coastal communities. It is intended primarily for local government and other users of the full guidance, such as those who provide services and infrastructure to coastal areas and work with local government including engineers, planners, asset developers, lawyers, insurers, community-engagement facilitators, councillors and government officials. Property owners and coastal communities may also find information in this document useful.

The full guidance is a technical document. It contains details about how to apply a riskbased, adaptive planning approach, along with additional information, case studies, and tools and techniques.

It is targeted at local government functions dealing with coastal and estuarine areas – those already affected by coastal hazard risks arising from climate change, and those potentially affected in the foreseeable future. The council functions include policy, planning, consenting, civil defence and emergency management, transport planning, asset development/management, and building control.

Adaptive planning

The planning approach in the guidance is new. It is being recommended to local government by the Ministry for the first time.

The approach differs from previous editions, and from current coastal hazard management practice, in two significant ways – first, in how it deals with uncertainty and risk, and second, by placing community engagement at the centre of decision-making processes (see figure 3).

The approach is called dynamic adaptive pathways planning. As its name suggests, it identifies ways forward (pathways) despite uncertainty, while remaining responsive to change should this be needed (dynamic).

In the approach, a range of responses to climate change are tested against possible future scenarios. Pathways are mapped that will best manage, reduce or avoid risk. A plan is developed, with short-term actions and long-term options, and includes pre-defined points (triggers) where decisions can be revisited. This flexibility allows the agreed course of action to change if the need arises – such as, if new climate change information becomes available.

By accommodating future change at the outset, this approach helps avoid locking in investments that could make future adjustments difficult and costly. As such, it assists both longer-term sustainability and community resilience.

The dynamic adaptive pathways planning approach is a powerful process for managing and adapting to climate change. It recognises that, first, climate change effects vary from place to place, and second, that decision-makers face unavoidable uncertainty about ongoing sealevel rise. It is usually not possible, practical or sensible for them to wait until uncertainties are reduced before making decisions.

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