Climate change - impact on coastal areas

COUNCIL — Thursday, 1 December 2011]
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Hon Lynn MacLaren; Hon Donna Faragher; Hon Dr Sally Talbot; Hon Philip Gardiner

CLIMATE CHANGE — IMPACT ON COASTAL AREAS

Motion

HON LYNN MacLAREN (South Metropolitan) [10.08 am] — without notice: I move —

That the house —

(a) notes the steps that other Australian states have taken to plan for climate change in coastal
areas; and

(b) calls upon the Western Australian government to urgently update its planning rules for the
Western Australian coast to take account of the projected impacts of climate change.

Members may recall that a few weeks ago we debated a similar issue. Hon Sally Talbot moved a motion
condemning the government for entering its third year of office without delivering on its 2008 election promise
to introduce a climate change adaptation and mitigation strategy. The motion was defeated, and instead Hon
Helen Morton moved an amendment, and the house passed a motion noting the progress in relation to the CCAM strategy. I am sure I am not alone in remaining totally in the dark as to the nature and extent of the progress that has taken place. This might be an opportunity for the government to put that progress on the record.

Those members who were present in the house on 9 November and heard the debate on the amendment to the motion will recall that I argued for urgent action to address the projected impacts of climate change on planning along our coast. The science is marching ahead of us and I have some updates for the house today. At that time, I argued for modern and proactive strategies to guide the state’s planning regime for coastal areas. Coastal local councils are on the frontline in confronting this task and have to deal with those impacts whether we like it or not. Local councils are under-resourced to do so and lack certain powers to do what they need to do. To indicate that help is required in that area, I would like to review what local councils are doing. I encouraged the government at that time to take up the challenge in a systematic and pragmatic way. I listed five key points on how to do that, which include adopting an integrated regional approach involving all levels of government, including federal, state and local; encouraging community and stakeholder participation; and adopting the precautionary principle in planning decisions since the avoidance of future risk is the most cost-effective adaptation response.

I remind members that not that long ago the city of Byron Bay experienced a very difficult and prolonged legal
case involving a house right on the coast; the local government struggled to deal with that problem. I am trying
to avoid that in this case. I called for the government to set clear parameters around liability because that was the key factor in that case in Byron Bay. Who was liable? Was it the local council that permitted the house to be built there? Was it the state government that permitted zoning to include residential development in that area?

Perhaps it was the builders. Many people were involved in trying to determine who was liable. We can learn
from that experience and legislate to avoid it. I also argued that the government should properly resource
relevant authorities, which should then be required to implement the planning principles that provide for the
impacts of climate change. In Western Australia we already have a very creative local government sector that
has worked diligently to try to manage these issues; it is worth reflecting on the work that they have already
done.

Today I want to make a detailed case on the need for urgent action in terms of the motion before the house. I
want to talk about two things in discussing the need for this action. Many of us will remember “No man is an
island” from our days of studying the poetry of John Donne. In the end he says to ask for whom the bell tolls,
and the bell tolls for you. We in Australia qualify. We are an island and dramatically impacted by coastal sea
level rise and by other impacts of climate change. However, it has been a constant refrain from Liberal
governments that there is no point in Australia taking action to address climate change unless the world leads the way. Literally translated, that means that we do not have to take responsibility for our own actions because anything we do will be insignificant in the global scheme of things. I argue that the climate change bell tolls for all of us. With such a high proportion of our population in Australia living at or near the coast, we are among those who will be most affected by its impacts.

Another reason for the need to address this issue is that the Southern Ocean is warming. Research from 40 peer-reviewed publications was released only two days ago by the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. That research shows that the Southern Ocean is storing more heat than any other ocean; ice is thinning and sliding off the continent, which causes the sea level to rise. The ocean helps to absorb the earth’s excess heat and carbon dioxide, but there are side effects. Anyone who has been watching SBS lately will be very much aware of the costs of the acidification of the ocean. The ocean helps to absorb the earth’s excess heat and carbon dioxide, but when it becomes too warm to be an effective cooler, the chemistry of the water changes.

That chemistry can cause the outer layers of fish and the shells of sea creatures to dissolve. Eventually, a
threshold is reached at which time the sea becomes corrosive. Previously, it was thought that this threshold
would be crossed in 2050. Surprise, surprise; two days ago we learned that this has now moved to 2030. That is not far away; that horizon is right in front of us.

Other risks to our environment have been calculated in terms of how many dollars will be affected. If people
want to look at the economic impact of these changes and the economic risk to the coast, they should look no further than the assessment of the built environment along the coast. Nationally, we know that between 5 800 and 8 600 commercial buildings in costal regions are exposed to the combined impact of inundation and
shoreline recession at a mean sea level rise of 1.1 metres. Western Australia is planning for a sea level rise of
0.9 metres, but it is fair enough to take a precautionary approach and look at the impact of a slightly greater sea level rise. The value of these assets nationally has been calculated at between $58 billion and $81 billion. If we look at Western Australia, between 1 500 and 2 100 commercial buildings are exposed to a sea level rise of 1.1 metres. Replacement values are estimated at $12 billion to $17 billion. If we look at light industrial buildings, we see that between 3 700 and 6 200 are exposed to the combined impact of inundation and shoreline recession at a sea level rise of 1.1 metres. The value of these assets is between $4.2 billion and $6.7 billion. In Western Australia, if we look a bit more locally, 600 to 900 light industrial buildings are exposed. The replacement value of those buildings has been set at $700 million to $1.1 billion.

Between 26 000 and 33 000 kilometres of roads are potentially at risk from the combined impacts of inundation and shoreline recession. If we look Australia-wide, we see that Western Australia has the greatest length of roadway at risk. Between 7 500 and 9 500 kilometres are exposed, at a replacement value of between $8.7 billion and $11.3 billion. Much of the exposure is to unsealed roadway.

Finally, I want to look at the number of residential buildings along our coast. We know how much we love to
live on the coast. In Australia, between 187 000 and 274 000 residential buildings are in the area that will be
affected by a 1.1 metre sea level rise. The value of those assets is between $51 billion and $72 billion. In
Western Australia, approximately 20 000 to 30 000 residential homes are in that area, and replacement value of those assets is approximately $5 billion to $8 billion. For these reasons, if we look at the economic impacts
alone, the time to act is now.

Other states are well ahead of us. I have suggested in this motion that we look at what other states have done. Unlike other states, Western Australia has no coastal planning legislation. I provide a brief summary of the recent action taken by Queensland, for example. Queensland enacted the Coastal Management and Protection Act in 1995. In April 2011, the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management published the “Queensland Coastal Processes and Climate Change” report, which describes the physical processes — the waves, the tides and the tropical cyclones—that shape the Queensland coast and the impacts that can be expected as a result of climate change. The document outlines the advantages and disadvantages of a range of management options and some of the Queensland government initiatives that support better planning for the impacts of climate change. What did Queensland do? Earlier this year, the new Queensland coastal plan, representing the culmination of a three-year statutory review process of the existing state coastal management plan from back in 2001, was introduced. That plan includes a new statement of planning policy and coastal hazards guidelines. The guidelines assist in achieving relevant policy outcomes under the coastal plan and ensure that coastal hazard areas are accurately identified to inform development decisions in those areas.

Finally, Queensland’s plan also includes coastal hazard maps to be used for planning purposes. The maps are drawn using high-resolution digital elevation data, the latest aerial photography and precise local tidal information to identify areas that are likely to be at increased risk. These maps demonstrate the potential impacts of climate change and help inform disaster management planning. I know that Western Australia is some way down the path of mapping the coastline, and I hope that the government uses this opportunity to bring us up to date on the progress of the Western Australian coastal compartments mapping project, known as WA Coast. These are really good examples of how the other states are taking an integrated approach.

There is not enough time for a detailed comparison with every state, but I will quickly mention New South Wales. The “New South Wales Sea Level Rise Policy Statement” was released in October 2009. That statement adopts a projected increase relative to the 1990 mean sea level of 40 centimetres by 2050 and 90 centimetres by 2100, although it is acknowledged in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that a higher rate of rising sea level is possible. That is a similar projection to that which Western Australia made in its “Statement of Planning Policy No. 2.6”. I will go into detail about that policy, which we have been waiting for now for some time and which was supposed to be released by now.

I will now reflect on the general impacts of having a higher sea level. A higher sea level causes increased or
permanent tidal inundation of land by sea water. It also causes beaches, dune systems and, to a lesser extent, cliffs and bluffs, to recede and changes the way the tide behaves within estuaries, even resulting in salt water extending further upstream in estuaries. Rising sea levels cause higher saline watertables in coastal areas and increased coastal flooding—that is obvious—due to the reduced ability to effectively drain low-lying coastal areas. The New South Wales policy acknowledges that those physical changes will have an impact on not only our coastal ecosystems, but also access to and use of public and private lands. In addition, those changes will impact on historical and cultural heritage values, arable land used for agriculture—we depend heavily on that food bowl to feed Australia—fresh water access, public and private infrastructure, and low-lying areas of coastal land that are affected by flooding.

A rise in the sea level will also cause coastal hazards such as beach erosion during storms and coastal flooding. When the beach in Fremantle is eroded due to a storm, it takes quite some time to recover, and sometimes an interventionist approach is required to restore the beach as a buffer zone between the ocean and residences. The New South Wales government has a strong commitment to supporting local governments and the community to adapt to a rising sea level. It promotes a risk-based approach to managing the rising sea level and provides guidance to local councils to support their sea level rise adaptation planning as well as encourages the appropriate development on land that is projected to be a risk. The New South Wales government continues to provide emergency management support to coastal communities during floods and storms and up-to-date information to the public about the rising sea level and its impact. These are all things that Western Australia should be doing.

South Australia also has moved forward. The South Australian Coast Protection Board was the first Australian agency to discuss the impact of climate change on sea levels following the very first release of greenhouse gas predictions by the US Environmental Protection Agency way back in 1982, which is about the time I came to Australia. The South Australian Coast Protection Board created South Australia’s planning policy in 1991, which is called “Policy on Coast Protection and New Coastal Development”. That policy required future development to be safe from a rising sea level and is currently under review, but at least South Australia has something to start with.

The actions taken by the other states highlight the importance of having a well thought out planning framework
that prepares for the impact of climate change on our coastal regions. In June 2003, the Western Australian
Planning Commission released and gazetted “Statement of Planning Policy No. 2.6”. The policy was amended in 2006 and is currently under review again. We know that the sea level rise factor was updated earlier this year to 0.9 of a metre. We were anticipating that the revised policy would be released for public consultation but there is no sign of it on the horizon. In general, SPP 2.6 performed a useful job in the past, although there have been some significant exceptions. The policy is now out of date and is inadequate to deal with the challenges presented by the present and projected impacts of climate change on our coastal regions. I remind members that more than 80 per cent of our population lives on the coastal areas. The policy is fundamentally hampered by its status, because it is nothing more than a policy.

For a start, the current SPP 2.6 refers to the coastal zone management policy of Western Australia as providing a whole-of-government framework for setting strategies and plans for the coast. However, the draft of the policy was released in 2001 for public comment but a final version has never seen the light of day. As discussed at length in November, this government has failed to honour its promise to introduce a climate change adaptation and mitigation strategy, and so the state with the longest coastline in Australia has a grab bag of planning control policies, development control policies and guidelines for bits and pieces of the coast but no integrated planning framework or strategy for dealing with development on our coastal zones. That is only going to put people at risk and create uncertainty for developers, who will face an even bigger risk. We all know that developers want nothing more than certainty.

SPP 2.6 does not go far enough. I do not want to dwell much longer on it except to say that we look forward to its successor with eager anticipation. The most important point is that it is just a policy; it is not a statutory
planning framework. It will take us some way toward addressing what developers and others need to know about protecting our valuable public resources, but it will not do enough. As members can see, the other states are further down the road of doing more about this than Western Australia. Section 5 of SPP 2.6 sets out a number of laudable policy measures, but they are not mandatory.

A number of local governments, such as Busselton, Cottesloe and Mandurah, have already undertaken comprehensive vulnerability studies of the coastal zones in their jurisdiction. They have prepared plans for the management of those zones but there is no integrated and consistent approach to coastal planning and management for the state. I put it to members that we can do better than that. I am looking forward to hearing how the government intends to act on these matters. The science has been updated, and it is clear that we have lagged behind taking the necessary action. Local governments are getting funding from the federal government to do vulnerability studies, at great cost. The Town of Cottesloe, for example, has spent tens of thousands of its own dollars to try to identify how vulnerable it is to the impacts of coastal climate change. That is not good enough. The state government needs to support that council. We have a beautiful coastline for people to live on, and it is our responsibility to ensure that people are safe from the impacts of climate change and that the infrastructure that the public needs and that we provide, such as roads, sewers and water, is protected from the effects of climate change. We need better planning rules that can deal with that.

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