Three key reports released by separate bodies unanimously call for an urgent focus on mitigation measures addressing the impacts from climate change and natural disasters.
The outcry from those impacted by natural disasters such as floods and bushfires echoes long after the initial clean-up has occurred. The voices of multiple generations of people affected by disaster are increasingly being recognised by governments and agencies worldwide.
The Natural Disaster Funding Arrangements report, from the Productivity Commission, identified that:
“Government investment in mitigation is insignificant compared to post-disaster expenditure. For example, Australian Government mitigation spending was only 3 per cent of what it spent post-disaster in recent years. Mitigation expenditure by state governments is likely to be higher, but information on this expenditure is not comprehensive. Overall, the clear impression is one of insufficient investment in mitigation.”
That is, 97% of Federal ‘disaster money’ is spent on clean-up; not prevention.
In late February 2022, the Insurance Council of Australia released the Insurance Catastrophe Resilience Report: 2020-21 which considers what sort of policy responses (from an insurance industry perspective) is required by governments and the operational adjustments required by the insurance sector to better meet the challenge of natural disasters in the future. These policies include:
- investing in resilience, which should be data driven and independent of the political process;
- improving building quality standards and that the National Construction Code should be reviewed; and
- better planning.
Also in late February, the Sixth Assessment Report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released (IPCC Report) which reviews the Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerabilities associated with the climate crisis.
The report extols harsh new findings on the way current global warming levels are impacting natural and human systems, and on how our ability to respond will be increasingly limited with every increment of warming.
The authors of these three reports appear to be ‘singing from the same song sheet’ in that more must be done to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, hail storms and floods and manage their effects.
Is it simply a matter of changing policy or does legislation also have to be changed?
Below we consider five key themes of the IPCC report
1. Risks will be magnified if warming is unchecked
Natural disasters have substantially damaged ecosystems across the globe, and in some cases have led to irreversible losses such as species extinction. Humans are also impacted in a number of ways including heightened food and water insecurities and greater incidences of vector-borne diseases.
For example, on 3 March 2022, Queensland Health issued a public health alert following a confirmed human case of Japanese Encephalitis Virus in Queensland.
Queensland Health encouraged Queenslanders to take measures to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes, “especially given the recent flooding event which may lead to an increase in mosquito numbers in coming weeks”.
If global warming is left unchecked, these climate hazards will unavoidably increase.
2. Adaptation is hitting limits
The IPCC report said that much of the world’s current climate adaptation measures are not necessarily effective.
The IPCC also chorused that adaptation cannot prevent all losses, which are unequally distributed around the world.
Taking flooding as a current example, in the context of the these findings of the IPCC, it will be increasingly important for the community to play a role in determining what is an acceptable flood risk and pressing governments to better adapt to increased significant rain events, river and overland flooding.
There is unlikely to be a single solution to this issue but it will involve:
- more detailed hydrological modelling with a conservative freeboard;
- more back-flow prevention devices being installed (and analysis why some of these devices are effective and others not);
- infrastructure, such as levees or waterway armoury (which can include vegetation planting);
- back zoning and buy back of flood affected land; and
- greater regulation of building materials in flood prone areas.
Many of these measures can be applied to manage bushfire risk as well. Of course, the timing of these measures may be extremely slow to implement because planning and building legislation is not retrospective in effect.
That said, responsibility for overland flow at a more micro level is a somewhat unregulated issue. For example, the Local Government Act 2009 (Qld) could be amended (outside the planning framework) to give local government greater powers to direct a person to take action to reduce significant overland flow from that person’s property onto another.
Governments should also consider urban greening using trees and other vegetation. The IPCC reports that this vegetation can provide local cooling. Natural river systems, wetlands and upstream forest ecosystems may reduce flood risk by storing water and slowing water flow. Coastal wetlands protect against coastal erosion and flooding associated with storms and sea level rise.
We note the National Recovery and Resilience Agency was established by the Federal Government to work alongside communities to ensure they can face disasters. However, an analysis of the mitigation projects that have been funded by this agency are few and far between (if any). For example, following the Black Summer Bushfires in December 2019, telecommunications in Brisbane were strengthened and wildlife and habitat restoration programs established. Support for mental health, financial counselling, childcare subsidies and grants were also given but no broader mitigation strategies were rolled-out in Brisbane.
Planning, environmental and building legislation (including the Queensland Development Code and Building Code of Australia) and standards should be reviewed against this background.
Given the lag between the making of improved planning and building legislation it may be necessary for all levels of government to provide financial incentives or rate rebates. Rebates are usually for simpler items such as rain water tanks. Further, it may be necessary for local governments to lead by example with disaster resilience improvements to their assets.
It may also be appropriate for governments to harmonise with universities and technical development companies to research mitigation measures. This may range from underground water storage, plant selection to the impacts of works on widening waterways and the like.
When matters are being employed for research purposes which, if successful, will provide a wider community benefit, it may be appropriate for states to exclude these activities or development from approval requirements under the planning or environmental legislative regimes.
3. ‘Maladaptation’ can make things worse
The IPCC refers to evidence of adaptation actions that further deepen existing social inequities and lead to unfavourable outcomes – what is known as ‘maladaptation’.
Maladaptation can arise when measures are taken to adapt to changing climatic conditions but in fact lead to an overall, long-term negative outcome. One example in relation to floods would be when a levee bank is built to protect a town from rising river water by excluding water from one portion of the floodplain but instead exports the flood risk to neighbouring land, upstream and possibly downstream.
Taking the above example, to be truly adaptive to significant environmental conditions, levees should be considered as part of a suite of measures which may include dams and diversion drains as well as be supplemented by natural features and possibly wider areas of floodplain that are free from development.
It is important that local, state and federal governments are not moved by the crescendo of industry and community voices and then act for the sake of acting. Composed thought and strategy are imperative to ensure the most effective range of adaptation options are implemented.
4. Cities are a challenge and an opportunity
The IPCC Report states that more than one billion people in low-lying towns and cities around the world face hazards such as subsidence and flooding. Climate change impacts such as extreme temperatures also worsen ongoing problems in cities, such as air pollution.
In Australia, planning systems do not operate retrospectively. Improvements in development planning may only be achieved when development applications are assessed against legislation and planning instruments that recognise flood and fire constraints. Where residential uses have been historically established, there is little the planning system can do to mitigate their risk of flooding.
Despite that, the chant for urban adaptation and better planning and building mechanisms is becoming louder.
The IPCC report maps a wide range of options for urban adaptation. These include nature-based solutions such as planting trees upstream to slow excess river flows and shade homes in heatwaves, or restoring mangroves that protect communities from coastal flooding.
Whether some of these initiatives will be welcomed by the community in the short term would be interesting to see as it may materially change the amenity of the suburb or house prices.
The IPCC report also chimes for social policy measures such as insurance safety nets. In Australia, many are uninsured or underinsured.
Warren Entsch, Federal Member for Leichhardt, has been a vocal proponent for Northern Australia residents to be offered more affordable and accessible home and business insurance which has now come to fruition by the establishment of a reinsurance pool by the Federal Government.
The reinsurance pool will cover cyclone and related flood damage in Northern Australia from 1 July 2022 and is backed by a $10 billion government guarantee.
This will reduce insurance premiums across Northern Australia by over $1.5 billion for households, strata and small businesses over 10 years.
Mr Entsch is calling for the scheme to be expanded to other parts of the country given persistent extreme weather like the recent catastrophic flooding in Queensland and New South Wales which has made some places outside Northern Australia uninsurable.
5. The window of opportunity is rapidly closing
The IPCC report echoes the need to couple adaptation measures with greenhouse gas emission reductions to enable ‘climate resilient development’. This will require adequate financing, inclusive governance, transparency in decision making and the participation of an array of people: community members, experts, industry and government.
The swell of voices is becoming louder that more must be done proactively to ensure Australia is resilient when impacted by natural disaster.
While there may be a chorus of loud voices for planning change, the impact of such changes are not likely to be felt for some time but that does not mean that legislative and building improvements cannot be made. That said, it is clear that considering climate change impacts and risks in the design and planning of urban and rural settlements and infrastructure is critical for resilience and enhancing human well-being.
One aspect that is now centre stage is the need for the urgent provision of basic services (such as telecommunications and reliable internet service), livelihood diversification and flexibility in employment and flexibility in the ways people can work (e.g. work from home), as well as strengthening of local and regional food systems.
Inclusive, integrated and long-term planning (not just from a development perspective) from local, state and federal governments is important. Effective regulation and monitoring systems and financial and technological resources will foster urban and rural system transition.
Effective partnerships between governments, communities, and private sector organisations, such as insurance and development companies will enhance the adaptive capacity of vulnerable people. If these entities cannot harmonise, then all governments should consider major lifts in policy and legislative change.
Calls for better disaster mitigation have been building. Whether it reaches its crescendo in time for it to become a real issue in the upcoming election campaign, remains to be seen.
 Dated December 2014 but released in May 2015
 The Building Code of Australia is the ‘National Construction Code’, volume 1 and volume 2 (including the Queensland Appendixes) published by the Australian Building Codes Board.
 ABS data shows that 13 percent of households are uninsured in New South Wales while in Victoria this rate is just seven percent: Insurance Council of Australia, Insurance Catastrophe Resilience Report: 2020-21.
This publication is introductory in nature. Its content is current at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. You should always obtain legal advice based on your specific circumstances before taking any action relating to matters covered by this publication. Some information may have been obtained from external sources, and we cannot guarantee the accuracy or currency of any such information.