Australia: How town planning can respond to the rising challenges of climate change

HG Alert: 15 October 2013
Last Updated: 17 October 2013
Article by David Nicholls, Michele Muscillo, Olivia Williamson and Robyn Lamb

Climate change and coastal management are hot topics of discussion and research around the world.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released on 27 September 2013 concludes that human influence on the climate system is clear and global warming is unequivocal. The conclusions contained in this latest IPCC report are relevant to future development and re-development, particularly for coastal communities.

In Queensland, the State government has been reviewing its coastal management policies and legislation. Earlier this year the Coastal Protection State Planning Regulatory Provisions (SPRP) were released and are expected to remain in force until the new single State Planning Policy (currently in draft form) is finalised, which is expected to be later this year. Furthermore, the State has now released for consultation the Draft Coastal Management Plan (Draft CMP) which is open for submissions until 21 October 2013.

The IPCC's Working Group I Report

Between 23- 26 September 2013, IPCC Working Group 1 meet in Stockholm to finalise a report assessing the physical science evidence for climate change and its causes. The full report will be published online in January 2014, however a summary for policy makers was released on 27 September 2013. This summary, which is approved by all member countries of the IPCC (including Australia), included agreed statements on key findings and uncertainties including:

  • Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evidence from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming and understanding of the climate system.
  • Global mean sea level will continue to rise during the 21st century and will very likely1 exceed that observed during 1971-2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets.
  • It is very likely that sea level will rise in more than about 95 percent of the ocean area. About 70 percent of the coastlines worldwide are projected to experience sea level change within 20 percent of the global mean sea level change.

The contribution from Working Group I is the first of four reports which will collectively comprise the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report. Having finalised the physical science basis document, further contributions will be finalised by IPCC Working Group II (due to meet on 25-29 March 2014) dealing with the impacts, adaptation and vulnerability relating to climate change and Working Group III (7-11 April 2014) assessing the mitigation of climate change. The Fifth Assessment Report is expected to be finalised in November 2014 and will replace the last comprehensive assessment of scientific knowledge on climate change undertaken in by the IPCC in 2007.

Impact of the IPCC's Report

The IPCC report warning about sea level rise is relevant to Queensland, a state where most people live near the coast. It prompts the question, how will town planning respond to the rising challenge of climate change and its implications for sustainable development?

While the IPCC assessments are relevant to policy formulation, they are not policy –prescriptive. It will be up to Federal, State and Local Government what actions to take in the wake of the latest IPCC report. The IPCC however is calling for all levels of government to take the findings contained in the report seriously.

Although climate change implications on sustainable development are more likely to feature in the IPCC Working Group III report to be finalised next year, it is prudent to be alive to the contents of the latest IPCC report and its potential to inform the review of planning regulation which is currently occurring in Queensland. The scientific findings and predictions detailed in the report are likely to underpin how areas and infrastructure at risk are identified. For example, the technical guide published by the State Government used to determine coastal hazard areas currently relies on the sea level rise projections in the 2007 report of the IPCC.

The findings in the latest IPCC report are therefore relevant in the context of the draft Coastal Management Plan which is currently available for public comment.

Draft CMP

The existing Queensland Coastal Plan is a two part document comprised of a policy and a State planning policy. The Coastal Protection SPRP came into effect on 26 April 2013 and, amongst other things, suspended the operation of the State Planning Policy for Coastal Protection (SPP 3/11). The State's intention is that coastal management will be dealt with by the final version of the Draft CMP, which will be a draft statutory amendment to the existing coastal plan; operating in tandem as one of the parts of the new single State Planning Policy.

The Draft CMP is essentially a policy document for managers of coastal land and waters. It does not specifically deal with land use planning or development which is regulated under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009.

The Draft CMP is mainly directed towards owners of private coastal land and managers of State and local government-controlled land (e.g. Councils), as the entities responsible for managing public coastal land and beaches. It provides guidance for planning, managing and sustainably using coastal land and resources within the coastal zone, including resource allocation decisions, certain works and matters such as public access to beaches.

The key management issues identified in the Draft CMP are:

  • Maintaining coastal landforms and physical coastal processes;
  • Nature conservation;
  • Maintaining access to coastal resources for indigenous cultural activities;
  • Public access;
  • Use of coastal resources (land and quarry materials);
  • Management planning; and
  • Knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Information and forms for making a submission in relation to the Draft CMP are available on the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection's website. Submissions must be made by 5pm on Monday, 21 October 2013.


Scientific findings from the IPCC Working Group I report on anticipated sea level rise and other weather phenomenon will undoubtedly underpin the adaption and use strategies for land on the coast.

Previously the State Government has relied on IPCC findings to inform coastal management use strategies (for instance, to underpin the coastal hazard area criteria and mapping). Given that the timing of the latest IPCC report and finalisation of the draft CMP coincide, it seems evident that Queensland coastal planning will draw on the latest work undertaken by the IPCC. Land use and development decision making within the coastal zone however is not limited to only state planning policies. The conclusions of the latest IPCC Working Group will also be relevant to the preparation of new local planning schemes for areas along the coast. For instance, how the projected average sea level rise will inform appropriate setback distances and acceptable planning timeframes for development immediately adjacent to coast lines.

HopgoodGanim's Planning and Environment and Climate Change teams are monitoring the compilation of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and amendments to Queensland's policies and legislation in relation to coastal management with interest.


1In the Summary for Policymakers, the following terms are used to indicate the assessed likelihood of an outcome or result: virtually certain 99-100% probability; very likely 90-100%; likely 66-100%; about as likely as not 33-66%; unlikely 0-33%; very unlikely 0-10%, and exceptionally unlikely 0-1%.

© HopgoodGanim Lawyers

Award-winning law firm HopgoodGanim offers commercially-focused advice, coupled with reliable and responsive service, to clients throughout Australia and across international borders.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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David Nicholls
Michele Muscillo
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