11 Coasts | Key findings

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.

11 Coasts

Key findings

Variations in climate, and changes in the size and composition of the population around Australia’s coasts, have been major drivers of pressure on the coasts—for both the natural and the built environment—over the past decade.

Concerns about how to deal with the pressures caused by these drivers and how to prepare for future climate change have been the catalysts for adaptation responses.

The major pressures on natural and cultural heritage, marine and terrestrial biodiversity, and ecosystem processes along Australian coasts are similar to those in previous reports on the state of the environment.

They include urban expansion in capital cities and major regional coastal cities; modification of coastal habitats by urban and commercial developments, and nearshore mining and dredging; changed flows of rivers into estuaries and coastal environments; disturbance of acid sulfate soils; loss and fragmentation of native vegetation; increasing use of coastal areas for food production (aquaculture); fishing and intertidal harvesting; rapidly growing numbers of invasive species and pathogens; tension between the potential economic value of land, including areas that are suitable for intensive agriculture, and its conservation; modest budgets for management of reserved lands; degrading conditions that affect buildings (e.g. wind, salt, inundation); low levels of recognition and understanding of what is culturally significant; and decline in connections between Indigenous people and coastal places.

Some trends in land use and management practices have reduced some pressures.

These include expansion of conservation and Indigenous areas; decline in the extent of native forest managed for wood production and a corresponding increase in the extent managed for conservation; and improvements in land-management practices that have reduced the flows of sediments and chemicals to the coast during major rainfall events.

The greatest reductions in native vegetation extent have been in eastern, south-eastern and south-western Australia.

Impacts on the coastal strip are highly variable around Australia’s coastline. The extent of native vegetation ranges from very heavily cleared, with less than 10% remaining, in parts of Victoria and South Australia, through 31–50% remaining in large parts of the south-western and north-eastern coastal areas, to 71–100% remaining for most of northern Australia. Many species of plants and animals are threatened by activities associated with Australia’s coastal-based population.

All chapters of this report cite examples of promising responses to coastal challenges by governments, working individually and together, but outcomes for some major issues are still far from ideal.

There is significant uncertainty about how species and ecological systems will be affected by climate change. Local governments are expressing concern about the lack of guidelines, standards and national strategic approaches to address coastal development, growing populations and environmental impacts. The recent Hawke Report, reviewing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), recommended a range of changes to the Act that would allow it to be applied more strategically and at ecosystem and landscape scales. Many of these recommendations have been accepted by the Australian Government. It remains to be seen whether action is sufficient and soon enough to allow assessment and successful management of the cumulative effects of small developments along the coastal strip.

Debate about coastal governance and management took an important step forward with a 2009 report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts.

The report, Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now, noted that there is limited national collaboration and cooperation to achieve consistencies, efficiencies and agreements on issues such as variation in planning laws, capacities of local councils, monitoring coastal habitat change and legal liabilities. The report made 47 recommendations to address these issues. Most of these recommendations have been noted or accepted in principle by the Australian Government. As with the responses to the review of the EPBC Act, the quality and timeliness of actions will be critical if existing challenges to coastal sustainability are to be addressed and looming ones prepared for.

Recent research comparing Australian coastal governance with examples elsewhere in the world concluded that the ability to adapt to emerging pressures, especially climate change, is low and declining in many parts of Australia.

Recommended remedies include allocating authority and resources between levels of governance according to their effectiveness at each level (rather than trying to manage everything centrally); strengthening development rules and incentives to encourage relocation before irreversible problems arise; allowing for uncertainties by building flexibility into rules and incentives so that they can be adjusted when knowledge and circumstances change; transferring public and private benefits, costs, risks, uncertainties and responsibilities from governments to beneficiaries of development; and viewing catastrophes as opportunities for learning and change, not signals to automatically rebuild. There is potential for these issues to be addressed in the responses to the key reports mentioned above, but this will require strong leadership from both government and other sectors.

The major emerging risks that remain incompletely addressed for Australia’s coasts are those relating to climate change, especially sea level rise, and demographic change. The future of coastal Australia will depend largely on how rapidly these changes occur, how extreme they are, and how Australians prepare for and respond to them.

Although coastal environments are facing major pressures, awareness is growing that ecological, social, economic and cultural issues are interlinked and cannot be addressed separately. The future of our coasts depends on whether government and governance arrangements can be developed that allow a much more strategic approach to managing coastal resources, over spatial scales that match the scale of the challenges. Desirable futures are most likely if major reform of coastal governance is achieved in the next decade or sooner, which is possible, but not guaranteed.