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The IPCC's fifth report: the time for adaptation is now

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the second part of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) - Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Unlike the first instalment of AR5, which reviewed the physical science basis of climate change, this report reviews research that outlines how climate change might affect ecosystems and societies. In Australia, most public and political discussion of climate change policy has centred on mitigation strategies – that is, how best to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions – rather than on the impacts that climate change could have, or how best to adapt to those impacts. AR5 makes it clear that climate change impacts are already being felt in Australia, and will become more severe in the future.  So what might AR5 hold for Australian policymakers?

Chapter 25  predicts a variety of impacts for Australia for the 21st century, summarized by eight key regional risks:

  • Constraints on water resources in southern Australia;
  • Increased effects to human health and infrastructure from heatwaves;
  • Increased damage to ecosystems, property and life from bushfires;
  • Loss of alpine ecosystems;
  • Increased frequency and severity of damage resulting from flood;
  • Increased risks to coastal settlements and ecosystems from sea-level rise;
  • Significant changes to coral reef systems as a result of ocean temperature and acidity changes; and
  • Significant reduction in agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin and other areas.

AR5 indicates that some of these impacts are already locked-in to some extent, whereas others may be reduced by ‘globally effective mitigation measures’ – which is IPCC-speak for significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions on a world-wide basis. However, even if this could be achieved, it is still likely that some impacts of climate change would be felt, making it necessary for Australians to adapt to those impacts. Adaptation to climate change is a different way of thinking about the problem – whereas mitigation hopes to prevent the problem, and requires global action, adaptation seeks to minimise the effects of climate change on people and the environment, and involves actions that can mostly be taken by a single country or region.

Although Australia is considered to have a high capacity to adapt to climate change, current progress in adaptation planning is relatively limited. Research efforts are led by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and the CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship program.  The NCCARF has highlighted the problem in a policy brief, saying that “In governance terms at least, adaptation is currently perceived as the poor cousin of mitigation. It is often siloed within a single department, and neglected elsewhere within government.”

To date, Australia’s response has been developed through the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG). In 2007, CoAG agreed on the National Climate Change Adaptation Framework, which focussed on research (‘Building and understanding adaptive capacity’) and suggested areas of potential action to reduce our vulnerability. In 2013, CoAG published ‘roles and responsibilities’ and priorities for adaptation, and the Commonwealth published a proposed National Adaptation Assessment Framework. Although these initiatives did not seem to lead to substantial action (outside of water management initiatives), there has at least been some discussion.

Response to the impacts of climate change – adaptation – is likely to concern all levels of government in Australia. For example, AR5 highlights that the seasonal range of some species is changing and that some crop yields are reducing. The Commonwealth may need to support agricultural adaptation through research and individual assistance; states and territories may need to invest in new transport infrastructure as productive areas change, and some local councils may face financial challenges if rates revenues from local agricultural industries decline.

In chapter 15 of AR5, the IPCC argues that national governments must co-ordinate responses to climate change, and form partnerships with sub-national and local governments and stakeholders. In 2012, the Productivity Commission report, Barriers to Effective Adaptation, highlighted a clear role for the Commonwealth in supporting state and local governments to plan and implement effective policies to adapt to climate change. The report noted that that there were significant governance issues in adaptation that need to be addressed. For example, although local governments are often on the front-line of responding to climate change impacts, the Commission noted that they often lacked financial resources or expertise to manage climate risks. In particular, the provision of information about climate change and adaptation was seen as a clear role for the Commonwealth, to enable effective adaptation at all levels of Government.

Although a collaborative approach to adaptation is indicated, the future of climate change as a CoAG issue is unclear; the former Select Council on Climate Change and the Standing Council on Environment and Water were both abolished in December 2013, with no logical successors apparent yet. Whether a comprehensive national climate change adaptation policy will materialise, or even be contemplated, remains uncertain.