The need for a strategic regional approach to climate change adaptation with appropriate funding is clear. The 2022 floods in Queensland and NSW, 2020/21 fires across the east coast, and ongoing coastal erosion and inundation around Australia, demonstrate the increasing and wide-scale risks faced by communities. However, action on adaptation is typically still undertaken at the local government level, when coherent, state-based or federal action is needed to address these challenges.

In Queensland, significant progress has been made in coastal adaptation planning by coastal councils through the QCoast2100 process. Councils are demonstrating real achievements in setting adaptation pathways, in particular engaging with communities and identifying areas of focus for future funding. However, this process has highlighted the complexity inherent in adaptation planning as well as some of the challenging decisions which will need to be made soon.

Between 2017 and 2021, Aither, alongside project partners BMT and Ethos Urban, worked with six different Queensland coastal councils as part of the QCoast100 process. As part of this process Aither undertook cost benefit analyses of potential adaptation options to protect communities from the effects of coastal hazards. A key finding of the analysis was the value of nature-based solutions, such as dune revegetation and beach nourishment. These options often delivered greater net benefits than options such as seawalls or planning restrictions in a range of diverse locations around the Queensland coast.

Adaptation options present specific coordination challenges

Communities around the coast place a high value on recreation, access to beaches and maintaining environmental outcomes. Nature-based solutions such as beach nourishment or dune revegetation therefore often delivered the greatest benefits as they protect valuable properties while ensuring protection of recreational and environmental benefits. However, even for individual locations there was significant uncertainty over the availability and costs of sand supplies required for nourishment. This uncertainty over sand supplies could affect the ability of local councils to undertake valuable beach nourishment activities.

If every coastal council in Queensland is planning to undertake large scale beach nourishment at popular beaches, the risks to sand supply and cost are further exacerbated. Beach nourishment is also likely to be a popular adaptation option for many beaches in NSW. Without guidance and decision-making at the state and federal level, it is likely that inequitable outcomes will occur, with some communities able to maintain their beaches at the expense of others.

Hard decisions will need to be made

In other locations there were no feasible adaptation options that could be undertaken, and communities will need to be relocated to areas outside the coastal hazard zones, possibly to different areas of the state. These are hard decisions that need to be undertaken in close collaboration with the community, and which will likely require support from state governments given the high economic and social costs of relocation.

Investments in adaptation across the state will require difficult decisions. Hard decisions will need to be made about which assets can be saved, which will be let go and, in some cases, who will need to relocate. Making these decisions will require guidance at the state and federal level, a consistent approach that considers the equity implications of actions, and significant investment in adequate data to ensure transparent and equitable decision-making.