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The World Bank says we’re heading for more heatwaves, so why are we unravelling efforts to protect vulnerable communities? AAP

World Bank calls for greater climate preparedness - in Australia, planning unravels

Turn Down the Heat - a new report from the World Bank - stresses “no nation will be immune to the impact of climate change” and argues compellingly the necessity to hold warming below 2 degrees. It paints a dramatic scenario where there is “no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degree warmer world is possible” and “communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruption, damage and dislocation”.

Our own experience in Australia with extreme weather suggests we should take a precautionary approach for managing environmental risks. Instead, three state governments - Queensland, NSW and Victoria - are rapidly unravelling decades of urban and environmental policy. The majority of the Australia population is concentrated in these three states, and this is exactly where we need to be taking responsible action in minimising risk to our local communities.

A perfect storm is looming over environmental management and planning for climate change. Through COAG, the Australian Government has begun negotiating how to devolve environmental responsibilities to the sub-national level.

State governments on the eastern seaboard have virtually cancelled climate change policy and have seriously cut back funding for environmental programs. Recent local council elections have seen a shift to conservatives and the deconstruction of coastal planning policy, including any long term considered response to planning for sea level rise and storm surge.

On the one hand, we are facing significant environmental change increasing risks to communities, livelihoods and essential infrastructure. On the other, all three levels of government are abandoning their responsibilities.

Some developers must be rubbing their hands with the opportunity to build on those lands subject to future inundation or environmental risk. The land is cheap today, gone tomorrow.

Such short-term expediency will be at enormous cost to local communities and is nothing more than an abrogation of collective responsibility. Furthermore, recent experience has shown the liabilities will land on the Federal Government’s doorstep as the insurer of last resort (if not legally, certainly politically).

The current planning systems is simultaneously under review by these same states, with the aim to “cut the green tape” and soften urban growth boundaries. Transparency and accountability in land use planning decisions will be vital.

This is not a sustainable pathway from any perspective. A more integrated response - better linking land use planning, emergency management and climate change - is required to provide more certainty for investment, community well-being and natural resource management.

Recent inquiries following extreme weather events provide insight into future actions. Suggestions include:

  • making better connections between natural resource management and urban and regional planning, so risk management can be done across landscapes
  • a framework for integrated regional planning
  • an adaptive and systems approach to urban and regional planning.

Effective community engagement is essential in all these processes to build understanding and local capacity and importantly long-term investment in research on the twin global challenges of urbanisation and climate change.

The Prime Minister’s White Paper on Asia refers to the Asian Century and urbanisation. Similarly Ban Ki-moon talks about the Urban Century. Furthermore, RIO+20 agreed that “we recognize that if they are well planned and developed including through integrated planning and management approaches, cities can promote economically, socially and environmentally sustainable societies”.

As a highly urbanised nation in the Asia Pacific region we are strategically placed to share skills and knowledge in urban management and climate change. This is the time for us to be harnessing these skills and leading in excellence in research and practice in urban management in the context of climate change.

The Australian Government has shown great leadership with the carbon price and engagement with the cities agenda. Any renegotiation of environmental management with sub-national governments must support innovation and green growth at the regional and local level. States have to be held to account for planning for risk and climate change, particularly for coastal communities.

Now is the time for an Australian Sustainable Development Commission to provide stewardship of these critical issues beyond the next election. All parties agreed to this proposition in the Sustainable Cities Parliamentary Inquiry 2005. It should be dedicated to better linking research and policy development for sustainable urban and regional futures over the medium to long term.

This is not more government, but instead more effective government. It will help us plan for climate change as part of the broader agenda on sustainable development.

We are at the threshold of becoming global leaders in managing urbanisation and climate change. Let us invest in this opportunity for our environment, our economic future and community wellbeing and make a valuable and meaningful contribution to managing risk in Australia, and the greater the Asia-Pacific region.

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