BRUCE THOM.  Climate change adaption: perspectives from Canada and England

Australia can learn lessons from other countries who take very seriously the importance of addressing now the various complex challenges of climate change impacts on environmental assets and the lifestyles and livelihoods of citizens. We have no national plan to mitigate the threats and impacts of natural disasters and extreme weather events under emerging conditions of the new climate era. Two recent initiatives from the UK and Canada provide directions a future federal government could follow building on current work especially by some state governments.

I have just had the opportunity of diving into two very recently released reports related to climate change adaptation at a national level. They both deserve a read and are relevant to future adaptation policy consideration at a federal level in Australia.

One report is specifically related to coasts: “Managing the Coast in a Changing Climate” from the UK Committee on Climate Change (October, 2018). It focusses on how climate change will exacerbate the already significant exposure of the English coast to flooding and erosion.

The second report is more national in scope and details how an applicant in Canada can seek support under the Canadian “Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund” (DMAF) which formally opened for business last year. This fund is aimed at building resilience through infrastructure investments to help reduce risk associated with climate-related hazards including those in coastal areas.

Turning first to the UK report. The Committee responsible for the report was only tasked with looking at England’s coast. Wales was mentioned in places, but there was no consideration of Scotland or Northern Ireland. This may seem strange, but in the UK environmental management is divided between these “provinces” with the Environment Agency (EA) in England serving as the lead agency for sea flooding and coastal erosion for English and Wales coasts. EA sits within the national Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). It is somewhat analogous to OEH in NSW in the federated system of Australia, but there are differences. The Committee was independent and supported by consultants (mainly Jacobs) and a range of agencies including EA. Their report even hints at what may happen if and when the UK exits the EU!

The Committee makes it very apparent that hard choices will have to be made in the future given the natural drivers for change with global warming and with population growth. Professor Jim Hall, the lead author, stated: “Many organisations and people will be involved in restoring a resilient coastline, but central government has a particular responsibility to ensure that risks are realistically assessed and to provide the frameworks and targets that will drive change”…”The impacts of sea level rise will be with us, and increase, for many years. Our responses need to face up to these challenges now”. Reference to the role of the central government is also relevant in Australia.

The Committee is of the view that the current approach to coastal management in England is “unsustainable in the face of climate “change”. It goes on to demonstrate that some communities and infrastructure are likely to be unviable in their current form. They put forward a case for coastal adaptation requiring a long term commitment and proactive steps to inform and facilitate change in social attitudes. A sea level rise of at least 1m is accepted as almost certain at some point in the future. Property numbers and coastal assets at risk are listed in general terms, and it is noted that the public “do not have clear and accurate information about the coastal erosion risk to which they are exposed, nor how it will change in the future”. Moreover, coastal management in England involves a complex patchwork of legislation with a variety of organisations with different responsibilities. Of interest is their concern that while “Shoreline Management Plans” (2nd generation) based on sediment compartments or cells may provide long-term plans, they are not statutory. They do not align with time or spatial scales of other key policy instruments, and are not being used in a third of Local Plans.

The England report makes for salutary reading on several fronts. It reminds me of all the work that went into the Australian Government First Pass coastal climate change reports of 2009 and 2011, as well as the George Report to the House of Representatives in 2009 entitled “The Time to Act is Now”’. All this work was undertaken at a time when we had a Department of Climate Change in Canberra, designed to assist in the evolution of a national approach to climate change risk. Yet successive federal governments have neglected their specific recommendations, and to a degree the broader call for continued federal engagement in adaptation action. The report also alerts me to difficulties we face in New South Wales in the implementation of the Coastal Management Act 2016, and the Coastal Management SEPP 2018. The policy settings are nearly there, but funding and capacity to develop integrated Coastal Management Programs is challenging; the English experience informs me of just how much effort is required to achieve the objects of coastal reforms in NSW.

Canada offers another type of experience we in Australia could emulate given similar history as a federated nation. The Canadian Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF) has arisen from a lengthy discussion of how to strategically address at a national level the challenges of climate change. There is acceptance that the impacts of climate change are already evident across Canada. Like Australia, it is experiencing significant weather-related events or disasters triggered by natural hazards. In response, the Government of Canada “has developed the DMAF to invest in public infrastructure to mitigate the potential economic, environmental and social impacts of climate change and strengthen our resilience to disasters triggered by natural hazards and extreme weather events”.  This is a stunning piece of public policy.

A fund has been established to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects through Infrastructure Canada, including natural infrastructure, to enable communities at provincial or local levels, to better manage risk. Coast and flood hazards are part of the mix, and I am aware of one coastal city that has already prepared a major application for support.  What is fascinating to me given the Australian Government’s reluctance to engage in pre-disaster planning, is that the Canadian Government has earmarked $2billion over 10 years for the DMAF. There is a minimum of $20 million for any one DMAF project. Partnership funding is expected, and an applicant must be a legal entity capable of entering into legally binding agreements.

We face enormous hurdles in terms of Treasury commitment, and different state interests demanding post-disaster funds. Much of this was discussed in the Productivity Commission Reports of 2012 and 2014. So the problems facing investment to mitigate impacts in this country are not new. Canada has shown not just the urgency with which we need to face the challenges of adaptation in the new climate era, but how it can be accomplished.

Bruce Thom, Chair, NSW Coastal Council, and Member Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

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