Trouble for coastal communities


Climate change

Gold Coast community

Credit: Donald Y Tong/Wikimedia

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Thousands of Australian homes are at risk of damage or submersion, according to a new report detailing the impacts of climate change on our coastal communities.

Currently, 85 per cent of Australians live within 50 kilometres of the coast. The new government report has predicted that if the water level was to rise by 1.1 metres, up to 247,600 residential buildings worth more than $63 billion dollars could be affected by flooding and erosion by 2100.

Coastal services, industry and infrastructure, could also be at risk. Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Penny Wong, noted that many airports and ports in low-lying areas of the coastal zone would be particularly threatened.

"Sea level rise, more intense cyclones and ocean acidification will potentially increase the capital and operating costs...quite significantly by mid century,'' she said.

According to Michale Nolan, from global consultancy firm AECOM, this damage to infrastructure could account for 40 per cent of the economic impacts of climate change.

Andrew Ash, Director of the CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship said that the report "makes sobering reading in the context of the risks to infrastructure alone."

"[It] also helps to make the case for more urgent and proactive adaptation to reduce the risks posed by climate change through strategies such as planned avoidance," he said.

Australia's distinctive coastal eco-systems could also be adversely affected by the rising sea levels. Kakadu National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay and Fraser Island are all World Heritage sites which fall within the coastal zone.

Coastal environments likely to be most at risk from climate change include estuaries and associated wetlands, coral reefs, constrained tidal flat communities and beaches where there is a lack of sediment replenishment.

In response to the report, a Coasts and Climate Change Council chaired by respected environmentalist Tim Flannery has been announced, and a forum will also be held in early 2010 to bring together all levels of government to develop a strategy for coastal adaptation.

The Council is likely to recommend changing the way buildings and infrastructure are designed and rethinking the way vulnerable coastal areas are developed.

"In most cases, considering climate change impacts when designing new infrastructure will be cheaper than reacting to impacts when they occur later," said Nolan.

"This can be done through materials choice, design standards, maintenance regimes, technology and planning."

Government legislation will also play a role. Already, the NSW departments of Planning, and Environment, Climate Change and Water are drafting policies to discourage "the intensification of development in coastal risk areas" and require councils to consider ways to reduce the number of people living near the coast.