Australia's coasts and climate change

Adapting to coastal climate change

Australia is a predominantly coastal society. About 85 per cent of the population lives in the coastal region and it is of immense economic, social and environmental importance to the nation.

Australia is a predominantly coastal society. About 85 per cent of the population lives in the coastal region

The Australian coast is a dynamic place and in the last 50,000 years humans have witnessed major changes in sea level, habitats and the shape of the shoreline from great storm events. Over the last 6000 to 7000 years Australia's coasts have been relatively stable. Since 1788, settlements have been built along the coast in expectation that sea level would remain broadly unchanged.

But Australia's coasts are now changing. A new climate era, driven by global warming, will increase risks to settlements, industries, the delivery of services and natural ecosystems within Australia's coastal zone. It is important that these risks are understood. The risks of sea level rise are not confined to the coast itself. Flooding may impact on areas some distance inland, for example along estuaries, rivers, lakes or lagoons.

The risks from climate change in the coastal zone are large, increasing, and in some areas will be felt in the near term. While the impacts of climate change will materialise gradually over the next century and beyond, by taking action now we have time to develop a well considered, well managed, and staged adaptation plan to reduce risks and avoid creating new risks. There is a large risk in the coastal zone to buildings and other infrastructure constructed in the past when the implications of climate change were less well known.

Businesses, communities and governments all have a role to play

States, territories, local government, industry and communities will play a vital role in on-ground coastal adaptation action. In particular government roles in planning and setting benchmarks will be central to risk management and in managing the large number of public assets in the coastal region.

The Australian Government has responded to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts report on climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities. The government agrees with the major theme of the report, of the need for national leadership, and intends to work with state, territory and local governments to develop a national coastal adaptation agenda.

At a local scale, strategies to protect, accommodate or retreat will need to be developed as sea level is projected to continue to rise for several centuries. Avoidance of future risk is the most cost-effective adaptation response in most cases and decisions on future development, particularly in areas highly exposed to the impacts of climate change, should not increase risk.

The Australian Government will invest $3.2 million to help demonstrate how coastal communities can adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change.

Natural ecosystems can provide valuable benefits, including buffering many of the risks associated with a changing climate in the coastal zone. Planning will need to take into account maximising ecosystem resilience, allowing for ecosystem movement and making explicit decisions about tradeoffs.

Sand carting

Preparing for a changing climate

Preparing our coasts for a changing climate is likely to require further work in areas such as:

  • developing standards and benchmarks

  • providing information to help assess risk

  • auditing infrastructure at risk

  • developing agreed risk allocation frameworks

  • on-ground demonstrations of adaptation options

  • building local capacity to deal with coastal climate change.

Government actions

The Australian Government is taking steps to support adaption to the impacts of climate change. The Australian Government is supporting work on:

State, territory and local governments

State and territory governments are responsible for the planning frameworks that guide the development of our cities and towns, with much of the day to day decision making devolved to local governments.

Most state governments have established sea level rise policies, and a number of local governments have already taken the lead on this issue and are already responding to the challenge.