Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts Committee Report

This report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts, Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate, is an important contribution to the national debate on climate change. It was a privilege to be a member of the standing committee in its inquiry and to participate in the report, which the House should note is a bipartisan report. I commend the member for Throsby for her role as chair of the standing committee and the member for Moore for his role as deputy chair of the committee. Before I note some of the key features of the report, I would like to thank the very hardworking secretariat, who assisted in the production of this report. I thank the secretary to the inquiry, Julia Morris; the research officers for part of the time of the inquiry, Sophia Nicolle and Adrienne Batts; and administrative officers Kane Moir and Jazmine Rakic, who also served for part of the time of the inquiry. Most particularly I would like to thank the inquiry secretary, Dr Kate Sullivan, who was with the inquiry for the entire time that it was conducted and who worked tirelessly, putting in some extraordinary hours, I would have to say, in the production of the report. I pay direct tribute to her because the high quality of the report is in no small part due to her efforts as well as, of course, the efforts of all members of the committee.

This report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts, Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate, is an important contribution to the national debate on climate change. It was a privilege to be a member of the standing committee in its inquiry and to participate in the report, which the House should note is a bipartisan report. I commend the member for Throsby for her role as chair of the standing committee and the member for Moore for his role as deputy chair of the committee. Before I note some of the key features of the report, I would like to thank the very hardworking secretariat, who assisted in the production of this report. I thank the secretary to the inquiry, Julia Morris; the research officers for part of the time of the inquiry, Sophia Nicolle and Adrienne Batts; and administrative officers Kane Moir and Jazmine Rakic, who also served for part of the time of the inquiry. Most particularly I would like to thank the inquiry secretary, Dr Kate Sullivan, who was with the inquiry for the entire time that it was conducted and who worked tirelessly, putting in some extraordinary hours, I would have to say, in the production of the report. I pay direct tribute to her because the high quality of the report is in no small part due to her efforts as well as, of course, the efforts of all members of the committee.

The report deals at considerable length with the science that underlies observations of climate change that have occurred around the world and the science that underlies the now accepted means that are going to have to be employed to reduce carbon emissions. One of the reasons that the committee saw it as necessary to deal at some length with the science of climate change is that, regrettably, throughout the Australian community and among the members of this parliament there are still people referred to popularly as climate change sceptics and perhaps referred to in more pejorative terms by some. These are people who do not wish to accept a very clear consensus that has formed among scientists around the world as to the reality of climate change and, most importantly, the contribution that human activity has made to the occurrence of dangerous climate change. If members of the parliament or the public were looking for a very fine summary of the current state of the climate science, this report would be a very good place to start.

The report goes on to explain that what is needed in relation to dangerous climate change is mitigation, in the sense of reducing carbon emissions. That is, of course, the matter that is being debated in the chamber as we speak, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation that will be introducing an emissions trading scheme to Australia following on from the example of emissions trading schemes having been introduced throughout the developed world already. The report talks about the need for mitigation, but that is not the focus of this report. Its primary focus is adaptation measures. In other words, the focus is on what can be done by, in particular, the national government and also by state governments, local governments, industry and householders throughout Australia to adapt to the climate change which is already occurring and the climate change which is inevitable even if Australia and the rest of the world—because it is a global effort that is required—are able to bring emissions down to lower levels than they are at presently. That is for the simple reason that has been explained by other speakers in this debate and by countless others: that carbon emissions remain in the atmosphere for some hundreds of years and we are going to experience temperature rises and the other effects on climate which have been identified even if emissions can be brought down.

The report notes in particular the direct physical effects that are likely to occur on the Australian coast as a result of climate change, pointing notably to the risks of sea level rise and noting for every state the number of coastal buildings—houses, commercial properties and public infrastructure—that are going to be placed at risk by the projected sea level rise. There is not agreement on the projected sea level rise that is likely to be experienced by the end of the present century, but there is agreement that it is likely to be substantial. There is a possibility that it will be measured in metres rather than centimetres but, at present working on the basis of a sea level rise of around one metre—and different states have adopted different predictions—potentially hundreds of thousands of properties will be affected. I want to bring that home more locally for my state and my electorate, which is to say, as noted in the report, that some 80,000 coastal buildings and infrastructure in Victoria are at risk from the projected sea level rise. Bringing it home a bit more locally still, in my electorate there are some 11,000 homes which would be affected by inundation if there were to be the Victorian projected sea level rise of 0.8 metre by the end of this century.

What we are talking about is not merely a higher high tide. We are talking about increases in storm tides, storm surges and flooding from heavy rains, the effects of that on communities, and more of what could be called ‘specialised effects’ like increased salinity in wetlands. The report speaks at some length of the effects that will be felt on the Kakadu National Park as a result of rises in sea levels caused by climate change, which will lead to increased salinity, which will lead to a complete alteration of the ecosystem in that vast and beautiful park. There are other climate change effects which will also have an impact on the coast: warmer seas, more acid seas, and the report deals at some length with the projected disastrous effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef.

In essence, the report calls for national leadership. It calls for action now, and it identifies the areas in which there can usefully be national leadership—noting areas like mapping, increased research, leadership in strategic and, to some extent, statutory planning, law reform and a national effort in relation to the insurance problems which are identified in the report. The response yesterday, at least publicly, by some members of the opposition was regrettable. I would point particularly to Senator Abetz, whose response to this report was about whether there was a need for speed to act on coastal erosion. He said:

That is something that is going to have to be taken into account for future planning but, having said that, I assume it’s not going to be happening overnight, so we’ve still got some time.

I need to say to Senator Abetz and to other members of the opposition—or to any members of the public who might be thinking that—that, as the subtitle of this report suggests, the time to act is now, and the sooner we act the lower the costs will be to the Australian community.

The report deals with the problems that were identified for us not merely by members of the public who made submissions to this inquiry but also by the Insurance Council of Australia, which provided helpful and detailed material to the committee about the unavailability of insurance in parts of Australia from the risks of events caused by climate change. They are described differently but usually as things like ‘storm surge’, ‘land slip’ and ‘sea level rise’—and of course it is a major problem when general property insurance is no longer available to property holders around Australia because of the identified risk, and the insurance industry has identified very, very high risks. We then have a problem as a community because our system of property holding depends in part on the availability of insurance. That is why one of the recommendations that the committee has made is for an inquiry by the Productivity Commission into the insurance difficulties that are being encountered in relation to dangerous climate change events.

The other matter that I want to draw attention to is the detailed consideration of statutory planning that has taken place to quite different degrees in different states. Members would appreciate that planning controls are likely to be very useful in terms of recognising the future effects of climate change and, as far as it is possible to achieve it, ensuring that the possibility of sea level rise in land that is close to the coast, particularly low-lying land that is close to the coast, is taken into account in making decisions about development and building in such areas. The committee looked at the planning regimes that exist presently in all Australian states and territories, and I can exhibit a little bit of state pride in saying that the committee singled out the work that has been done by the Bracks and Brumby Labor governments in Victoria over the last 10 years to develop a Victorian coastal strategy, which is entitled the Victorian Coastal Strategy 2008. The committee commended the Victorian Coastal Strategy—I do not have time to go to the detail of it—as an excellent model in the way in which it had identified the characteristics of a sustainable coastal community. The committee identified the Victoria Coastal Strategy as setting out a very useful policy framework and detailed actions that might be taken by state and local authorities. The committee in particular singled out the Victorian Coastal Strategy for the integrated approach it takes to coastal governance.

I mention this not merely to say it is terrific that the Victorian coast will now have the benefit of some integrated planning but to make the point that national leadership and national coordination of approaches to a common problem that is shared right around the coastline of our vast country is required in order to avoid reinventing the wheel, where one state, in this case Victoria, has progressed greatly and has developed a model of governance and a model for planning control that are able to be followed by other states. I hope that it is going to be possible through national coordination, through COAG processes and through leadership shown by the national government for strategies, planning controls and governance arrangements that have already been developed to be rapidly applied in other states and territories so as to avoid them needing to reinvent the wheel. In particular I draw attention, and the report notes this, to the adoption by the Victorian government—it is now written into all planning schemes that apply to the Victorian coast—of a requirement that all development and planning decisions have to take into account a projected sea level rise of 0.8 of a metre by 2100. That has major consequences for decisions on where to build and how to build, and it is going to ensure that, whatever the position that was placed in Victorian planning schemes before, there will be consideration of that in future.

The Prime Minister noted today, following on from a major speech that the Prime Minister gave to the Business Council of Australia in Sydney last night, that the national government will be progressing through COAG a national approach to climate change effects on our coasts as part of a national emphasis that is now to be given to the development of some strategic priorities for urban planning in relation to cities. As I said earlier in the speech, these are the adaptation measures that the committee has recommended be adopted.