Variations in climate, and changes in population size and composition around Australia's coasts have been major drivers of pressure on Australian coasts over the past decades, including both natural and built environments. Concerns about how to deal with the pressures caused by these drivers, as well as how to prepare for possible future climate change, have been the focus for adaptation responses in the past decade. Some trends have acted to reduce some pressures. These include expansion of conservation and Indigenous areas, decline in the extent of native forest managed for wood production and a corresponding increase in the extent managed for conservation, and improvements in land management practices that have reduced the flows of sediments and chemicals to the coast that were characteristic of major rainfall events in the past.
There are also examples of promising responses to coastal challenges by governments, working individually and together, but outcomes in relation to a number of major issues are still far from ideal. There is significant uncertainty regarding how species and ecological systems will be impacted by climate change, and local governments are expressing concern about the lack of guidelines, standards and national strategic approaches to addressing coastal development, growing populations and environmental impacts. The recent Hawke report recommended changes to theEnvironment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) that would allow it to be applied more strategically, and at ecosystem and landscape scales. Many of these recommendations have been accepted by the Australian Government. It remains to be seen whether action is sufficient and soon enough to allow assessment and successful management of the cumulative effects of small developments along the coastal strip.
The 2009 report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts, Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now, noted that there is limited national collaboration and cooperation to achieve consistencies, efficiencies and agreements on issues such as variations in planning laws, capacities of local councils, monitoring coastal habitat change and legal liabilities. It made 47 recommendations to address these issues. Most of these recommendations have been noted or accepted in principle by the Australian Government. As with the responses to the review of the EPBC Act, the quality and timeliness of actions will be critical if existing challenges to coastal sustainability are to be addressed and looming ones prepared for.
Recent research comparing Australian coastal governance with examples elsewhere in the world has concluded that, in many parts of Australia, the ability to adapt to emerging pressures, especially climate change, is low and declining. Recommended remedies include: (a) allocate authority and resources between levels of governance according to their effectiveness at each level; (b) strengthen development rules and incentives to relocate as an unwanted threshold is approached; (c) allow for uncertainties by enabling rules and incentives to be changed when circumstances change; (d) reassign public and private benefits, costs, risks, uncertainties and responsibilities from governments to beneficiaries of development; and (e) institutionalise catastrophes as opportunities for change, not signals to rebuild. There is potential for these issues to be addressed in the responses to the key reports mentioned above, but this will require strong leadership from both government and other sectors.
The major emerging risks that remain incompletely addressed for Australia's coasts are those related to climate change—especially sea level rise—and demographic change. The future of coastal Australia will depend largely on how rapidly these changes occur, how extreme they are, and how all Australians prepare for and respond to these risks. Desirable futures are most likely if major reform of coastal governance is achieved in the next decade or sooner, which is possible but not guaranteed.