The Climate Council spent a sunny Wednesday cruising around Sydney Harbour with a media cohort. Sounds like fun, but the intent is much less rosy. The organisation is pointing out all of the infrastructure and building assets that will be underwater from sea level rise in the coastal city – one of the most vulnerable in the country – if climate change is not addressed.

One-in-a-hundred year floods will happen in Sydney nearly every day by 2100 if the high end of climate change projections is realised. The problem is most of our buildings and infrastructure have been built for a stable climate system with known ranges of variability. According to the sobering report, Counting the Costs: Climate Change and Coastal Flooding, this climate system is no longer stable.

More than $226 billion in Australian commercial, residential, rail, road and industrial assets is at risk from climate change-induced sea-level rise, the report states, with close to 250,000 residential properties and 8600 commercial buildings vulnerable, as well as ports, power stations, hospitals, and water and waste facilities.

On a global scale, losses from flooding is expected to reach $US1 trillion a year without adaptation measures, though these are just direct costs.

“The indirect costs may be even more substantial; these include economic impacts down supply chains, competition for capital in rebuilding after the flood, and the social costs of environmentally induced migration,” the report states.

Report author Professor Will Steffen said the world was beginning to pay for its failure to tackle climate change.

“We are already seeing sea-level rise, warming oceans and the increasing extreme weather. In the US the cost of Hurricane Katrina resulted in $US100 billion in damages and about 2000 fatalities,” Professor Steffen said.

“The potential threats to Australia, where the majority of us live on the coast, are disproportionately large. We’re talking about the loss of beaches, property, infrastructure and commercial assets worth billions to our economy.”

Queensland’s property prices already impacted

Queensland was revealed as another highly threatened region, with property prices in Brisbane already seeing the effects of flood risk. The report said properties in the city are discounted by 5.5 per cent for each metre a property lies below the defined flood level. If sea level were to rise 0.5 metres rise, 5.1 per cent of inner city properties values could be affected, up from the current 3.6 per cent affected by the current sea level.

In Southeast Queensland, 35,200 residential buildings are now exposed to a one-in-100-year coastal flooding event, with damages of $1.1 billion expected. By 2030, with an additional 0.2 metre sea-level rise, the number of residential buildings at risk will increase to about 61,500 and cost $2 billion, if the same planning and building regulations used today are kept.

Too late to stop

The report says we need to tackle the root cause – carbon emissions – but a level of sea level rise is “locked in” and smart adaptation measures are crucial.

In a separate media statement Ritesh Prasad, a senior investment analyst at Colonial First State Global Asset Management said it was imperative that resilience be built into low-lying infrastructure projects to protect against sea-level rise.

Brisbane airport was deliberately built at 4.1 metres higher

“As long-term investors in critical infrastructure assets, we must take climate change consideration into account when making investment decisions. For instance, the new parallel runway at Brisbane airport was deliberately built at 4.1 metres – above minimum required engineering standards – in order to accommodate rising sea levels and coastal flooding,” Mr Prasad said.

“Ignoring the impacts of climate change on infrastructure assets in Australia is a potentially expensive mistake – both for investors and for the community.”

The Netherlands gets it, of course

Countries like the Netherlands are already responding through changes to planning regulations, where coastal design and planning is now based on a one-in-10,000-year extreme event, such that the likelihood of flooding in any 100-year period is only about one per cent.

The report recommends Australia instigate a coordinated national planning framework integrated across federal, state and local governments with clear allocation of responsibilities.

But Queensland and NSW have their heads in the (shifting) sand

The Queensland government, however, recently removed sea level rise from its state planning policies, as did the New South Wales government. In NSW, the former Labor government’s sea level rise planning benchmarks, based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data, were rejected, and decisions devolved to councils.

“There is considerable uncertainty in projections of future sea level rise which means that the NSW Government does not consider it appropriate to recommend specific statewide projections for use by councils,” a government statement said. “Councils need the flexibility to consider local conditions when determining local future hazards. The Government is not intending to release a new sea level rise policy statement.”

Key findings of the report:

  • Sea level has already risen and continues to rise due to climate change. Climate change exacerbates coastal flooding from a storm surge as the storm rides on higher sea levels.
  • Australia is highly vulnerable to increasing coastal flooding because our cities, towns and critical infrastructure are mainly located on the coast. Australia’s infrastructure has been built for the climate of the 20th century and is unprepared for rising sea level.
  • Coastal flooding is a sleeping giant. If the threat of sea level rise is ignored, the projected increases in economic damage caused by coastal flooding are massive.
  • Rising sea levels pose risks for many of Australia’s species and iconic natural places, such as Kakadu National Park and the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Rising sea level is eroding the viability of coastal communities on islands in the Torres Strait and the Pacific, and in low-lying areas of Asia, increasing the likelihood of migration and resettlement.
  • We need deep and urgent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions this decade and beyond if we are to avoid the most serious risks from rising sea levels and coastal flooding.
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