Australia: Coastal Buildings And Infrastructure: An Increasingly Risky Business

Last Updated: 16 November 2009
Article by Dariel De Sousa

On 26 October 2009, the bipartisan House Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts (Committee) presented its report on the inquiry into climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities –"Managing our Coastal Zone in a Changing Climate: the Time to Act is Now". There are a number of findings and recommendations in the Committee's report that indicate that development and re-development of coastal buildings and infrastructure will become more risky and expensive. We discuss a number of these findings and recommendations below.

Impact of sea level rise on coastal areas

The Committee's report notes that the impact of climate change on the coastal zone –particularly, sea level rise –will affect most Australians because 80% of the population lives along the coast and approximately 711,000 addresses are within 3km of the coast and less than 6m above sea level. The report also refers to the threat that sea level rise and coastal storm surges poses to Australia's physical infrastructure, much of which is concentrated in the coastal zone.

Regarding the actual degree of sea level rise Australia's coastal areas can expect, the Committee noted the variation at the state level regarding projected climate change impacts. For example:

  • The NSW Government recently released a Draft Policy Statement on Sea Level Rise, which identifies sea level rise projections of up to 40 cm by 2050 and 90 cm by 2100.
  • The Victorian Coastal Strategy provides a policy of planning for sea level rise of not less than 80 cm by 2100.
  • Queensland's State Coastal Management Plan states that, in assessing coastal erosion prone areas, 30cm rise in sea level over a 50 year planning period should be adopted.

The Committee recommended consideration of the benefits of adoption of a nationally consistent sea level rise planning benchmark. It also made reference to the 'Bruun rule', which estimates that each 1 centimetre of sea level rise results in around 1 metre of coastal recession.

New development

A key principle that emerged from the Committee's report regarding new development in coastal areas is that future harm should be prevented. More specifically, the point was made that development that does not properly address climate change risks should be prevented.

While the Committee neither endorsed nor rejected this view, it was suggested that developers could be required to indemnify purchasers of new development in coastal areas for 10 years following the release of the land. An alternative suggestion was that developers could be required to insure the property, although the availability of insurance in such areas is likely to decrease as the effects of climate change become more pronounced.

Existing development

The future loss of people's homes to the sea as a result of coastal erosion and inundation was a major issue raised with the Committee. The point was made to the Committee that personal responsibility for climate change risks would probably rest with prospective purchasers, who could make appropriate inquiries to assess those risks. In this regard, the Committee noted a proposal for the implementation of harmonised legislation across all states requiring mandatory disclosure of all known and predicted risk data by state and local governments to property purchasers during property conveyance and title search processes.

Coastal infrastructure

The Committee noted that major initiatives relating to climate change adaptation risk assessment and infrastructure are currently underway. Given that much of Australia's infrastructure is in the coastal zone, the Committee recommended that the federal government ensure that a comprehensive national assessment of coastal infrastructure vulnerability to inundation from sea level rise and extreme sea level events be undertaken. In addition, the Committee recommended that the federal government consider establishing a separate funding program for infrastructure enhancement in coastal areas vulnerable to climate change.

Building standards for coastal areas

The Committee's report notes concerns that the Building Code of Australia does not adequately ensure that buildings are designed and built to withstand high wind and water damage. In response, the Committee recommended that the Building Code of Australia, including cyclone building codes, be revised with the objective of increasing resilience to climate change. The federal Department of Climate Change noted that funding had already been provided to the Australian Building Codes Board to review and, as appropriate, revise the BCA to ensure that the risks of future climate change are recognised in building practices and possible climate change adaptation measures are considered.


The Committee's report also addresses the question of insurance policies for buildings, development and infrastructure in coastal areas. The Committee recommended that the Productivity Commission be requested to undertake an inquiry into the projected impacts of climate change and related insurance matters, with a particular focus on:

  • insurance coverage of coastal properties, given the concentration of Australia's population and infrastructure along the coast
  • estimates of the value of properties potentially exposed to this risk
  • insurance affordability, availability and uptake
  • existing and emerging gaps in insurance coverage, with a particular focus on coverage of coastal risks such as storm surge/inundation, landslip/erosion and sea level rise
  • the need for a clear definition of the circumstances under which an insurance claim is

payable due to storm surge/inundation, landslip/erosion and sea level rise, as well as due to permanent submersion of some or all of the land

  • the possibility of a government instrument that prohibits continued occupation of the land or future building development on the property due to sea hazard
  • gaps in the information needed to properly assess insurance risk and availability of nationally consistent data on climate change risks
  • possible responses to withdrawal of insurance for certain risks or regions, noting the increased burden this could place on government and taxpayers

Liability for coastal hazards

Responding to concerns regarding liability of parties involved in adapting to the effects of climate change in coastal areas, the Committee recommended that the Australian Law Reform Commission undertake an urgent inquiry into liability issues including:

  • clarification of liability issues with regard to private property holders acting to protect their properties from the impacts of climate change
  • legal issues associated with the impacts of climate change on existing developments, as opposed to planned new developments
  • mechanisms to ensure mandatory risk disclosure to the public about climate change risks and coastal hazards

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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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