Coping with ‘sea-change’ and climate-change futures

Published 08 September 2008

Land developmentA report prepared by researchers at the University of New England challenges governments to plan for a doubling of the population along the NSW North Coast within the next 20 years.

A continuation of the current trend of development, the authors say, would result in a growth of urbanised areas along the coastal strip between Tweed Heads and Yamba by more than 400 per cent between the years 2004 and 2050. This would be accompanied by a loss of up to 50 per cent of land currently used for agriculture, and a loss of about 18 per cent of the remaining coastal ecosystems – particularly littoral forest, and coastal heath and wetlands.

The report, Alternative Landscape Futures, presents a number of possible alternatives to this “current trend” scenario. These alternatives redesign the distribution of landscape change pressures to allow for more sustainable futures. They involve measures – in combinations of varying priority – aimed at limiting urban growth, protecting the coastline and its biodiversity, and protecting good agricultural land. (The photograph displayed here shows development on North Coast agricultural land.)

The authors – Professor David Brunckhorst and Phil Morley from UNE’s Institute for Rural Futures and the UNESCO Centre for Bioregional Resource Management – say that by focusing the majority of the predicted population growth further inland, around centres such as Murwillumbah, Lismore, Casino and Grafton, the loss of coastal ecosystems by 2050 could be reduced to about 5 per cent, and the loss of agricultural land to about 15 per cent.

“In all scenarios, population growth is the major driver of landscape change through urbanisation (and subsequent displacement of agriculture and environmental services),” the report says. The authors believe that, with the population of the Northern Rivers region of NSW heading towards one million by the year 2050, planning should begin immediately to shift the focus of urban development back to the inland centres.

Mr Morley explained that the three-year project, funded by Land and Water Australia, had involved the study of North Coast satellite images and census data from the past 25 years, the use of that information to analyse landscape development trends over that period, and the projection of those development patterns into the next 25 years. He said the study had shown that the strongest area of urban growth on the North Coast had been that closest to the Queensland border – “within commuting distance to the Gold Coast”.

Professor Brunckhorst emphasised the importance of this coastal region for the future of Australian agriculture. “It’s a major imperative in Australia – especially as we adapt to climate change pressures – to protect good agricultural land in areas of relatively good rainfall,” he said. He also pointed out the importance of the remaining coastal heath, forest and wetlands as a buffer against the rising sea levels and storm surges associated with climate change. “They’ve learnt in Louisiana and Florida that they shouldn’t have cleared coastal wetlands for development,” he said.

“It’s imperative that local, State, and national government planning and policy take a long-term regional view to adapt and prepare for climate change futures,” Professor Brunckhorst said. “Planning and acting now is likely to reduce vulnerability, potentially saving billions of dollars in damage and losses while protecting productive land and ecosystem services.”

“We expected the availability of water to be a major limiting factor in development,” he added, “but in fact it’s something that local governments seem to ignore when they give building approvals.” He pointed to the massive developments in south-east Queensland that have continued through a period of serious water shortage. “It’s the same in the Murray-Darling Basin,” he said. “In the past water has been ignored as a limiting factor in land use planning.”

The report, provided to Land and Water Australia in July, concludes: “Either through decisive, adaptive action, or by inaction, society is deciding today where we are headed in the future.”