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Climate heats up but planning laws frozen

March 4, 2022

RESIDENTS of 'Millionaires Row' on the Gold Coast could be future climate refugees if planning laws fail to keep pace with the changing climate, a Bond University researcher says. 

Mark Ellis is researching the relationship between increasing climate risk and coastal development in Australia, and how local councils are responding.

Mr Ellis says multimillion-dollar beachfront properties currently protected by sea walls will likely be among the hardest hit by increasing storm surges. 

“These people who have bought multimillion-dollar properties are now living in climate hazard zones on the beaches,” he said.

“This has been confirmed by the recent IPCC report on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

“Planning policy is not keeping up with the increasing change to the climate that‘s bringing more frequent and intense weather events like the ones we have just experienced all along the east coast of Australia.” 

Mr Ellis says where climate risk has been written into council policies it is based on old climate data that has changed significantly in the past decade. The Gold Coast City Council’s ‘three-point plan’ references a report from 1970.

“For local councils which have had policies of planned retreat – reducing development in coastal areas of greatest risk – changes of government have led to those policies being ignored or replaced with engineering alternatives,” he says.

“There‘s no doubt that policies of planned retreat are politically unpalatable, but many of these areas will continue to be eroded and flooded over and over again. 

“Further climate change impacts could potentially render some parts of the east coast unlivable. Where are the coastal residents going to move? Many people could become climate refugees.” 

Ellis says one of the critical issues is that responsibility for climate adaptation in planning has been pushed from Federal and State governments to local councils over time, but many still don’t factor climate risk into their policies. 

Within the ongoing entanglement of climate change and coastal planning policy, environmental protection, housing policy, political posturing, and court challenges driven by private property rights, councils sometimes can only condition developments instead of restricting housing in at-risk locations. 

“And what‘s the solution to that? Do we keep throwing money at the problem with costly sand renourishment programs, building and maintaining walls and other engineering options, or do we need to move these people away from the places they have made their lives and homes? 

“One of Gold Coasts council‘s adaptation principles is to keep people safe – prioritise higher risk areas and get the land use strategy right to limit future exposure in areas of unacceptable or intolerable risk. How are they benchmarking this risk?” 

Mr Ellis says land-use planning needs to be at the forefront of the deep structural change required to address the many climate risks impacting cities and towns.

“We need a considerable mind-shift in how to address long-term climate risks – including the need to update the building codes to consider increasing climate resilience and act on introducing a climate-conscious planning system for current and future generations”.