Meaningfully addressing climate change requires long term thinking at relevant scales, new land use planning approaches, and objectives able to be implemented at site, project and household scales.

Protection of the atmosphere and biosphere, including the underpinning processes on which life depends, is arguably the most important issue facing human civilisation. It is thus strange that these issues are largely ignored in the way land is planned, used and managed. Faster development, jobs, and “business as usual” have become the focus of planning, even as buzzwords such as sustainability, liveability and urban greening permeate the discourse. Until recently, strategic land use planning documents in NSW rarely acknowledged climate change.

The scientific evidence on climate change is unambiguous and overwhelming. Risks are large. The economic and social costs of not acting are vast. Not changing or adapting are not options – planning must face the questions of what changes must be made, when and how these should happen, and who is responsible.

While everyone has a role in responding to climate change, planners can contribute more than most. Determining what happens where, when, and how at different spatial scales is what land use planning is primarily about. Foreseeing and directing a better future will shape whether human settlements are haphazard and accidental, or healthy and liveable.

Priority issues and the planning process

Planning is about anticipation, understanding and thinking ahead. It is the process of recognising and evaluating options, followed by actions to create a desired future. An essential part of the puzzle is identifying and prioritising relevant issues and setting clear objectives.

Probably the most important issues facing planners for the next three human generations are:

  1. keeping our climate liveable and productive
  2. maintaining biodiversity and ecological systems on which life relies
  3. providing for human health and well being

These functional issues link closely with more generally accepted land use planning issues, such as provision of housing, transport, urban amenity, public spaces and avoiding land use incompatibility.

In prioritising these functional issues, land use planning must consider the following elements:

  1. climate change mitigation – slowing and ultimately stabilising and reversing the rate of global warming, through measures such as transport and energy efficiency, native forest protection and enabling appropriate technological innovation.
  2. adapting to effects and risks – through spatial location, built environment standards, and financial and risk management measures.
  3. climate change evolution – implementing processes and systems of personal, organisational and societal behaviour that accommodate evolution of biological and natural ecological systems.

Integrating site and global scales

Planning scales are important. Scientific understanding of planetary warming is best communicated at global and national scales. However, impacts and actions become tangible at regional and local scales. Natural ecosystems, such as forests and oceans, are both significant carbon sinks and potential emitters that operate at landscape and regional scales. Individual organisms (including humans) function at local, site and micro scales.

There is no “best” spatial scale to address climate change, as this must happen at all scales simultaneously. However, actions at the site and household scale are essential. This is the scale of the individual land parcel, the development proposal, where energy is used, biodiversity is lost and carbon is emitted.

Goals and objectives for spatial plans

Current spatial planning systems are not fit for purpose in dealing with systemic issues at the forefront of addressing climate change. 

Integrated spatial and financial planning is required to respond to climate change challenges as outlined in the framework in the accompanying figure. 

This must be complemented by appropriate goals, strategic land use objectives and standards:

Mitigation goal:

  1. progressively reduce net carbon emissions from land use change to zero.
  2. facilitate fossil fuel emissions reduction by adapting land use and transport
  3. identify land use objectives and standards to mitigate climate change impacts (especially for electricity generation and rural land)

Adaptation goal:

  1. identify and manage risks associated with climate change in land use decisions (especially urban heat and cooling, sea level rise, flood and bushfire hazard, and weather extremes)

Evolution goal:

  1. recognise that global and national scale aspirations and targets require application at the local and site scales
  2. link carbon emissions to land, its use and management, with a price on carbon emissions implemented on a site or project scale
  3. Uncouple regulatory planning systems from “land use” and “development”, and focus on “impacts” of change and management of activities
  4. support long term spatial planning (30 – 50+ years) that supports measurement, pricing and management of carbon emissions at site and household scales

Figure – Integrated spatial and financial planning framework for climate change

Goals can be implemented through an integrated spatial and financial planning framework (see above), with specific objectives including:

  • measuring embodied and operational fossil fuel energy in land use.
  • conserving carbon and protecting biodiversity in managed carbon sinks and natural areas
  • providing selective transport connectivity that supports active local zero carbon accessibility, shared regional public transport networks, provides intelligent road congestion and encourages household transport budgeting
  • implementing building and infrastructure standards for design efficiency, durability, adaptability and carbon offsetting for a 50+ year design and management life
  • identifying site carbon budgets for heat, carbon emissions, sunshine and shade, and offset based approval conditions
  • enabling household and industrial consumption budgets and circular economy measures linked to building and infrastructure design and land use approvals

Taking the next steps

Plentiful and affordable housing or the most vibrant commercial centre has no value if the planet is not safe and healthy to occupy.

Moving from aspiration to action is urgently needed. Shaping carbon neutral land use and development requires dealing with systemic issues, and rethinking planning systems and priorities.

Starting with the right framework for applying climate change goals and objectives in strategic planning and carbon neutral development is an important first step. This can create institutions and approaches that link land use, financial measures and households together in an integrated way.


Martin Fallding, Land & Environment Planning

Martin Fallding is a strategic and environmental planner and principal of Land and Environment Planning consultants. His work focuses on writing and reviewing strategic land use planning and policy documents. More by Martin Fallding, Land & Environment Planning

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