In brief - Climate change and rising sea levels require a national response

In April 2012, the Federal Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency released a report, Coastal climate change risk - Legal and policy responses in Australia.

Coastal climate change poses significant risk to settlements

Coastal climate change (CCC) risks relate to inundation of settlements, with household damage, disruption to service delivery, loss of natural ecosystems, reduced asset life from accelerated erosion and degradation of coastal land, loss of public and private land and greater expenditure on asset repair and maintenance.

Awareness of CCC risks is a work in progress. There is considerable debate in the community as to the likelihood of the risks eventuating, the degree of affectation if the risks eventuate and whether climate change is a result of human activity or whether it is due to cyclical patterns.

State and local governments currently responsible for climate change risks

Under our government structure, it is up to the states and local government to deal with CCC risks. This has resulted in a lack of uniform policy. A number of legal challenges on planning appeals show that there is a lack of consistency in standards and decision making. Planning for emergency management requires national rather than local responses.

The Federal Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency recently commissioned a report to inform the Coasts and Climate Change Council of the current extent and status of state and territory laws and policies addressing CCC risks, particularly as they relate to settlements. The council will advise the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency on the potential for the Federal government to provide national leadership in this policy area.

The 89-page report was released in April. It covers the following:

  • existing CCC policies
  • how CCC policies are given legal effect
  • who is responsible for making and implementing CCC policies
  • what risk protection standards are being used
  • how CCC risks to existing settlements are being managed
  • national approach to CCC risks

Analysis of climate change policies and practices of states and territories

Within the report is a detailed examination of the policies and practices of the states and territories for dealing with CCC risks. The report notes that although all states have planning legislation, none specifically reference climate change in the principal legislation.

However, New South Wales does have the Coastal Protection Act 1979 which requires coastal plans for land development proposals to address CCC risks. 

Lack of consistency in CCC risk protection standards

The report concludes that there is no national consistency in risk protection standards or risk disclosure requirements related to CCC risk management. The lack of well developed policy dealing with CCC threats to existing settlements, including planning for emergency response to CCC risks, will create uncertainty as the increasing impacts of CCC are felt.

Not surprisingly, the report recommends that there should be a national approach. This approach could include engagement with state and territory governments on the benefit of a consistent approach and engagement with the wider community on the options for managing CCC risks to existing settlements.

Development of policy options on coastal climate change

The report also discusses the development of policy options, including:

  • guidance on the scope of issues that a well developed CCC policy should include
  • clearer delineation of roles and responsibilities for CCC risk management
  • national standards such as a national approach to setting sea level rise benchmarks
  • guidance on the relative weight that CCC risks should be given in land use planning decisions

Government to respond to report on coastal climate change risks

We will await a response to the report from government. We should assume that any planning application for coastal development will, over time, be increasingly required to address CCC risks.

Hopefully the report will lead to a national policy providing greater certainty than we have at present. This will assist planning teams to anticipate and plan for development approval requirements arising from coastal climate change risk policy.

This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2024.

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