Planning for climate change

Associate Professor Nicole Gurran and her colleagues at the Planning Research Centre are helping coastal councils prepare for climate change. They are identifying its potential effects on growing coastal areas and helping them address these concerns through policy and planning.

When it comes to sea change destinations, few towns rival Byron Bay. Its desirability has led to steep population growth and an evolving set of challenges for the Byron Shire Council. The resources available to a Council like Byron Shire are limited whereas the expectations of sea changers are sometimes high. Add to this challenges on the land brought about by weather and ocean, and as Byron Shire are discovering, the planning and policies of the past are not quite up to the task.

The unpredictable nature of the ocean and weather, combined with the desire for people to live on, or as close as possible to the dunes has led to legal stoushes over who is responsible for damage to private property and how planning policies are going to address future climate change.

Byron Shire Council is not the only coastal Council dealing with these issues.

Beach erosion

In 2005 the National Sea Change Taskforce, a group of local coastal Councils, foresaw challenges due to growth through burgeoning sea change populations and climate change. They approached Associate Professor Nicole Gurran and her colleagues to investigate the problems and propose policy and planning changes.

“When they approached us, the Councils knew climate change may have implications for them but they did not really know what the issues were, let alone how to solve them. Our initial work involved investigating what the issues were before we could set about providing direction” said Gurran.

Even though they had not been able to elucidate all the issues themselves, the Councils were acting with considerable prudence when it came to planning for climate change.

“At the time we were doing this work – between 2005 and 2008 - the general focus of the climate change discussion was on greenhouse gases. The councils were concerned about the effects of things like erosion. In this sense the Councils were ahead of the game even though they had not fully appreciated all the issues”, said Gurran.

The Council areas were all affected by sudden population growth, had few resources and environments that could not cope with rapid change. The study looked at environmental concerns and also addressed potential social and economic implications of climate change.

“We were given the chance to flesh out the social issues of climate change. In these areas there are a lot of people in low socio-economic groups. These people are living in fairly modest homes, retirees living in caravans, for instance. So, if better building standards were put in place what social effect does this have? People living in these areas can’t always afford to put physical precautions in place”, said Gurran.

They study found that people living in these areas are more likely to be older, less affluent and often facing unemployment. The cost of preparation for and adaptation to climate change may be beyond them.

This study had considerable influence at Federal and State level, including the Upper House Inquiry into the Impacts of Climate Change on the Coast, led by Jennie George. The study has helped raise the priority of climate change planning in these areas, as well as contributing to an increase in Government funding.

The National Sea Change Taskforce approached the Centre again this year and asked them to build on the 2008 benchmarking study. The new study has included an audit of new and emerging responses to climate change in local Council areas, gathered through a survey of “sea change member councils”.

“In this new phase we are putting a lot of work into looking at what Councils are doing about climate change and what they are planning to do in the future”, said Gurran.

Gurran also notes there is still much to do.

“Councils are in a difficult position. This is a moving beast. Things are changing constantly. There is concern that they could be sued for inaction but also perceived over-reaction to the potential effects of climate change. Hopefully this work will continue to have an effect on planning systems and influence policy for these Councils”.