[UPDATE 14 November 2009] 5 November 2009 – The recent report on sea level rise from the House of Representatives committee on climate change has one very clear message – the impact of climate change and rising sea levels is happening now and urgent action is needed. In particular, swift and decisive action from the Federal Government. This is no surprise to property professionals who spoke to The Fifth Estate on the subject, many of whom fear a crisis is on the horizon.

The report, Managing our Coastal Zone in a Changing Climate: the Time to Act is Now, is the culmination of a comprehensive inquiry by the committee. It calls for insurance and legal issues relating to climate change impacts on the coastal zone to be addressed and for building codes to be updated to ensure homes are more resilient.

It also recommends an agreement between federal, state and local governments to define their roles and responsibilities in coastal zone management.

[A new report on the threats of rising sea levels, Climate Change Risks to Australia’s Coast, by the Department of Climate Change, was released on 14 November. To view the executive summary click here]

Property industry needs to get serious

Projected sea level rise on the Gold Coast – AECOM research

Property developers are certainly being forced to face the reality of sea level rise and climate change.

As are property owners. In NSW draft policies announced yesterday at a meeting of coastal councils by the departments of Planning, and Environment, Climate Change and Water will force councils to prevent development in areas expected to be affected by sea level rise and estuary flooding. Properties already located in such areas are likely to be devalued.

Gabrielle Kuiper, until recently sustainability manager with property group Investa and now environment director with VicUrban, says developers, like everyone else, are struggling to keep up with the escalation in climate change. But it is well and truly time to get serious about the issue.

While at Investa, Kuiper ran a series of workshops on climate change for development managers.

“First and foremost I wanted to make them aware of how serious the situation is – climate change is no longer a long term problem, it is very much a short term issue that is with us right now. The science over the past two years is showing much faster change than the last IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report predicted. Things are accelerating rapidly,” says Kuiper.

“And with the number of court cases we’ve seen recently, property companies can no longer plead ignorance on climate change. It is risk that must be considered just like asbestos or tobacco smoking or any other risk that organsations have to take into account.”

In addition to presenting the latest science on climate change in the workshops, Kuiper incorporated data and research from leading organisations, including some policy information from the UK Government’s planning department.

“From a planning point of view the principles in the UK government’s Supplement to Planning Policy Number 1 – Planning and Climate Change emphasise that climate change should be considered in everything we do – just like OH & S [occupational health & safety]. Climate change must have equal or higher billing,” says Kuiper.

With 80 per cent of the population living in the coastal zone, Australia is particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion and inundation that accompanies sea level rise, the government report says. Around 711,000 addresses located within three kilometres of the coast and less than six metres above sea level are likely to be at threat.

None of the findings in the report are a surprise to planners and sustainability practitioners. The current ad hoc approach to sea level rise at both state and council level is a major concern.

CSIRO projected departures from the 2030 global-mean sea level. For more information visit https://www.cmar.csiro.au/sealevel/sl_proj_regional.html

The wide variation in benchmarks for sea level rise in state government policies highlights the inconsistencies.

The Victorian government has set its benchmark sea level rise at 0.8 metres by 2100, NSW 0.9 metres, SA one metre, while in Queensland the jury is still out. The WA policy provides a benchmark of 0.38 metres when assessing the potential for erosion on sandy shores.

Meanwhile local councils are making policy on the run, according to submissions to the inquiry.

Industry experts and practitioners agree there is an urgent need for support and leadership from the Federal Government. Many see a future littered with lawsuits from disaffected residents whose properties have been impacted by erosion and storm damage, as well as escalating insurance costs. Not to mention the loss of habitat for both humans and other species.

James Rosenwax, principal, environment and ecological planning for design and planning firm AECOM (previously EDAW), says that unless the Federal Government steps in and provides leadership the situation is going to get much worse, and fast.

The Gold Coast with a 1 metre (dark blue) and 3 metre (light blue) sea level rise

“There is currently no real approach to sea level rise in Australia. We have still got our heads in the sand. People are starting to understand the complexity and seriousness of the issue but until we see things happening around us we don’t really act,” says Rosenwax.

But now things are happening so fast authorities are floundering.

“Councils don’t know if they’re liable for decisions they’re making right now – certainly not for decisions they made several years ago.

“At Collaroy Beach [on Sydney’s northern beaches] the council approved all this land for development years ago. They didn’t know then what was going to happen with sea levels and storm surges,” says Rosenwax.

“We need to adopt nationally consistent benchmarks on sea level rise rather than the ad hoc approach we currently have. And we need an over-arching taskforce for all coastal councils for dealing with the issues that are common to all of them.

“They must also be provided with advice and resources to cope. It is simply not fair that coastal councils should have to deal with this alone – take Pittwater Council in Sydney for example – it has an enormous area of coastline to deal with and a limited rate base.”

AECOM has been involved with coastal climate change mitigation and adaptation projects around the world. The company recently ran an intern program specifically looking at creative solutions to sea level rise on the Gold Coast in conjunction with Gold Coast City Council.

The results will provide a blueprint for future coastal development on the Gold Coast (see our story on this).

According to Damian Thompson, principal of design with AECOM, the outcomes were innovative and cutting edge. Of the 300 international applicants for the program 24 of the best and brightest of the world’s design and planning students were selected.

“The nature of the study is to be provocative and creative. The group came up with a designed response that could adapt over time and that provided resilience, both social and structural,” says Thompson.

The AECOM Gold Coast intern program developed a multi-layered, tiered plan to lift development above rising sea levels and storm surge

The final result involved lifting up the Gold Coast foreshore and creating a multi-layered, tiered landscape with a lattice of walkways and bridges. Working on the assumption that sea levels would rise 43 centimetres by 2057 and 1.40 m by 2107 (based on IPCC estimates), many of the existing buildings on the foreshore would disappear.

The canal system behind the Gold Coast would also widen and water-based transport on the canal strip would increase substantially.

“In the design, the edges of the foreshore were fortified and storm barriers created as adaptive measures. It was apparent that some of the private property on the foreshore would have to go but on the positive side the density at the core of the coastal zone would be much higher density. This is a better outcome for dealing with the expected population growth on the Gold Coast,” says Thompson.

At the same time the land on the edges of the shore would become a flexible and adaptive public zone.

“Essential to the plan was the concept of the city as a closed loop. It becomes self sufficient, providing its own energy and every available space such as rooftops put to practical use, including the growing of food,” says Thompson.

He says that many of the ideas from the intern program have been put to use in AECOM’s landscape plan for the Southport Broadwater Parkland project and they will also be used to plan future development on the Gold Coast.

Landscape can provide solutions

Catherine Nielson – “unlike buildings landscape has a regenerative capacity and should be considered more in climate change measures”

Catherine Nielson, national project manager for the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA), told The Fifth Estate, the report highlights issues landscape architects have been grappling with for some time. She would like to see much greater emphasis placed on landscape in the built environment.

“We must focus on the underlying causes of these impacts. Number one of course is climate change but in addition the recent approach to development has left little room for landscape. Too often we see in new developments, such as the McMansion syndrome, that landscape is the last thing to be looked at. And unlike buildings, landscape has a regenerative capacity – something which is vital to coastal development,” says Nielson.

AILA is currently involved in a number of projects on climate change. One of these is a one year project, the Climate Change Adaptation Tool (CAT), which involves reviewing global climate adaptation tools for use in urban environments.

The project is being led by AILA with funding from the Australian Commonwealth Department of Climate Change. The CSIRO is contributing scientific advice and the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) is providing global reach and awareness.

Another project, The Climate Change Adaptation Skills for Professionals program, is part of a government initiative. It is a three year program which aims to increase the knowledge base of landscape professionals regarding climate change.

As part of the program, AILA is developing a set of landscape principles based on sustainable practices that will be integral to the professional training of landscape architects. These will increase landscape architects’ expertise in assisting the private sector and governments develop adaptive responses to climate change impacts.

“These principles have always been an intrinsic part of the way landscape architects work but now, instead of it being a woolly concept, sustainability is explicit in everything we do. They will also be written into our awards this year so that every project must address sustainability as an integral part,” says Nielson.

Key recommendations

The government inquiry generated a high level of interest from the Australian community, with over 100 written submissions and 180 exhibits. The Committee heard from over 170 witnesses at 28 public hearings held around Australia. The report’s 47 recommendations include:

  • a call for national leadership
  • a COAG Intergovernmental Agreement on the Coastal Zone, which defines the roles and responsibilities of the three tiers of government involved in coastal zone management
  • urgent inquiries into legal and insurance issues relating to climate change impacts on the coastal zone
  • improved emergency management arrangements in the event of a climate change related coastal disaster
  • an awareness campaign to alert coastal communities to the key challenges facing the coastal zone
  • a study into the vulnerability of the Torres Strait to the impacts of climate change
  • a comprehensive national assessment of coastal infrastructure vulnerability to sea level rise
  • establishment of a system of national coastal zone environmental accounts, expansion of coastal
  • areas protected within Australia’s National Reserve System, an increase in the number of coastal
  • wetlands classified as Ramsar sites and implementation of a National Shorebirds Protection Strategy
  • establishment of a National Coastal Zone Database to improve access to information

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au

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