Recent developments


In 2009, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts handed down its report to the Australian Government: Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now.38 This report was based on an 18-month inquiry, which received 100 written submissions and 180 exhibits, and held 28 public hearings around Australia. The report noted that there is limited national collaboration and cooperation to achieve consistencies, efficiencies and agreements on issues such as variation in planning laws, capacities of local councils, monitoring coastal habitat change and legal liabilities. It made 47 recommendations, including:

  • improving research, and the use of research, on climate change and its impacts in the coastal zone (including sea level rise, extreme sea level events and ocean acidification)
  • improving mechanisms for considering adaptation strategies and practices to promote resilience to climate change (including better risk and vulnerability assessment, building adaptation skills for professionals and communities, improving information accessibility and sharing, building professional and community networks, meeting human resource needs, and improving disease mitigation)
  • addressing the many uncertainties around insurance, planning and legal matters relating to the coastal zone—these are sources of much conflict between developers, local councils and advocates of better environmental management
  • improving governance arrangements (including improving collection and use of information; encouraging research on alternative approaches to governance; raising community awareness of the issues facing the coastal zone; developing an intergovernmental agreement on the coastal zone, to be endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments; improving longer term strategic planning; and developing a national coastal zone policy and strategy, a national catchment–coast–marine management program and a national coastal council)
  • improving mechanisms for achieving sustainable coastal communities and managing environmental impacts (including establishing a set of national coastal zone environment accounts; collecting better information on demographic trends and visitation rates; focusing on climate change impacts on biodiversity in Caring for our Country; focusing the National Reserve System on high-biodiversity coastal habitat, and expanding reserves to include better buffer zones and habitat connections; applying the EPBC Act to address cumulative effects of coastal development; using the management of the Great Barrier Reef and Victoria’s coasts as case studies for integrated coastal zone management; ensuring that Ramsar wetlands—and Kakadu National Park, in particular—have effective plans to deal with climate change impacts; developing a national shorebird protection strategy; ensuring that natural resource management bodies include coastal and marine priorities in their planning; and ensuring that there are mechanisms to identify, register and manage Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural heritage in vulnerable areas).

The Australian Government has noted, accepted or accepted in principle most of these recommendations.39 The quality and timeliness of actions will be critical if existing challenges to coastal sustainability are to be addressed and looming ones prepared for.

Following this inquiry, a Coasts and Climate Change Councilp was established in late 2009 to engage with communities and stakeholders and to advise the Australian Government on key issues. The council provided a report to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Populations and Communities in December 2010, with the recommendations that the Australian Government:

As a matter of urgency define and progress a 10-year national agenda to ensure that Australia is positioned to address the significant near, medium and long term risks facing the well being of our coastal regions from the impacts of climate change.

Take a leadership role in driving the science and information base for decision-support tools; developing national standards for risk assessment; tackling legal reform to enhance national consistency and to reduce liability risks; and in the provision of technical support for local governments who are at the cutting edge of impacts on communities, property owners and businesses.

Recognise the need to improve collaboration and delivery of outcomes across a range of federal, state and local government agencies and in doing so, align adaptation to climate change in coastal regions with national micro-economic reform, social equity, regional development and population sustainability agendas.

Continue the appointment of the Coasts and Climate Change Council for at least 12 months to assist in communicating the issues facing Australia from the impacts of climate change on the coast, engaging with a wide range of stakeholders and community groups on their issues and needs, and providing advice to the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency on ways to improve coastal adaptation to climate change.

As a result of this report, the term of the council has been extended to December 2011. Its focus will be on advising the government on how to prepare coastal communities for the impacts of climate change.

Building on the reports by the House of Representatives Standing Committee, and the Coasts and Climate Change Council, the National Sea Change Taskforce published a 10-point plan for coastal Australia in 2010 (Box 11.2). Although this plan focuses on governance issues and management of infrastructure, the same principles are relevant to environmental governance and management of environmental assets. Furthermore, social and economic problems are likely to reduce the ability of local governments to manage the natural environment strategically. This illustrates a key observation about coastal governance: that environmental, social and economic management cannot be considered independently of one another (see also Section 4 on resilience).

Box 11.2 Abbreviated version of the National Sea Change Taskforce’s 10-point plan for coastal Australia23

  1. Adopt and implement the recommendations of the coastal inquiry conducted by the bipartisan House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts.
  2. Introduce a new funding formula to enable coastal councils to respond effectively to the social and economic needs of coastal communities and to provide regional facilities and services.
  3. Provide funding for coastal councils to undertake natural resource management activities in coastal areas.
  4. Develop a national growth management policy to better coordinate the planning and provision of infrastructure in regional and rural areas, including rapidly expanding coastal communities.
  5. Ensure that the Australian Bureau of Statistics collects accurate and consistent data on non-resident populations in coastal areas, to enable more effective allocation of resources to meet demand associated with tourists, non-resident workers and part-time residents.
  6. Assist coastal councils to address the social and economic needs of ageing populations and to meet the shortfall in aged-care accommodation and services in these areas.
  7. Introduce a consistent national response to the legal and insurance risks associated with coastal planning and the impact of climate change, to assist coastal councils to implement plans for adaptation and coastal infrastructure protection in response to rising sea levels.
  8. Declare 2012 as the Year of the Coast.
  9. Initiate a collaborative national approach to address the shortage of affordable housing in coastal communities.
  10. Review current governance and institutional arrangements for the coastal zone.

We are not in a position to provide detailed comments on the effectiveness of these approaches. The recommendations of the various inquiries discussed above are based on a much more rigorous and detailed process than we could carry out. We note, however, that the overpowering weight of opinion and evidence is that major steps need to be taken very soon to address governance arrangements for Australia’s coasts. Without these reforms, there are high risks that uncoordinated and nonstrategic development will lead to continued degradation of environmental, social, economic and cultural assets of the coasts. This is likely to make coastal communities and ecosystems vulnerable to shocks and surprises that may be both highly undesirable and irreversible.

Cork S (2011). Coasts: Recent developments. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b659bdc758b