The impacts of climate change are increasing and, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are appearing earlier and more severe than expected. In Western Australia (WA) for example, climate change has caused increased bushfire risk, intense heatwaves, declining rainfall in the South-West, and rising sea levels. Climate-induced extreme weather events have not just been limited to WA. Just in the past three years, severe floods have been experienced in New South Wales, Eastern Australia as well as in the Kimberley region of WA. Cyclones have ravaged the Northern Coast of WA and bushfires have become more frequent, intense and destructive all over the country.

Recognising that action needs to take place to adapt to, mitigate against, and reduce the future impact of climate change, the WA government has recently taken further steps to mandate its commitment to having net zero emissions by 2050. First, the government released its initial Climate Adaptation Strategy (Strategy) which bolsters the existing policy framework, and second, it announced its intentions to introduce climate change legislation to enshrine its goals into law.

Climate Adaptation Strategy

On 23 December 2022, the WA government released its initial Strategy which provides the foundation upon which a more fulsome strategy will be released in 2023. The Strategy builds on the Western Australia Climate Change Policy released in November 2020.  The Strategy also points out that work is now underway on the development of the Sectoral Emissions Reduction Strategies to provide robust and credible emissions reduction pathways for WA.

Described as Climate Resilient WA, the Strategy identifies four ‘core directions’ to accelerate immediate adaptation action and bolster the state’s resilience to climate change. The Strategy directions are: (1) produce and communicate credible climate information; (2) build climate capability in the public sector and strengthen accountability; (3) enhance sector-wide and community partnerships to build a united front against climate change and to coordinate action among numerous sectors, communities and areas; and (4) empower Aboriginal people to share their knowledge, participate in the climate adaptation process and support the net zero transition in their communities.

Direction 1: Produce and communicate credible climate information

The first direction highlights the importance of WA’s climate adaptation decisions being informed by high-quality, up to date, reliable data which is readily accessible. The Strategy acknowledges that ‘knowledge is power’ and the data and information needed for good decision making is lacking, including for long term adaptation planning. Recognising that producing climate change projections requires significant scientific and technical expertise, the WA government is partnering with various institutions and other jurisdictions, including the Climate Science Initiative, to produce a large volume of scientific climate data and translate the science and research into usable information.

Communicating the information produced to the public will be the next challenge under this direction. The scientific climate data will need to be translated by experts into information which can be understood and applied by the executive, industries and other stakeholders. The climate information will be the most powerful when it becomes public knowledge.

Direction 2: Build climate capability in the public sector and strengthen accountability

The public sector will lead climate capability development given its role in developing and updating policy, regulation and guidance to incorporate climate risk and resilience into existing policies and processes.  Furthermore, the public sector is the largest coordinator of public resources and services, which are being increasingly stretched in the face of climate disruption. The Strategy acknowledges that climate adaptation needs to be systemically embedded into government policy, decision-making and planning including budget and procurements practices.  To do this, the WA government is developing a Climate Risk Framework which will set out the expectations for the public sector and state-related agencies to integrate climate change risks into decision making.

WA has also introduced a state infrastructure strategy through Infrastructure WA, called Foundations for a Stronger Tomorrow, which guides infrastructure planning in the long-term (to 2042) taking into account challenges such as climate change. The infrastructure strategy identifies more than 70 projects which are recommended to ensure WA’s existing and future infrastructure will serve communities in ways which are relevant now, and in a future in which the environment may be quite different. One of those recommendations surrounds climate-induced coastal erosion, which is being accelerated by rising sea levels and changes to wave and wind patterns. With 80% of the WA population residing within 10km of the coast, and 55 hotspots covering 20,000 km of WA’s coast being identified as being at high risk of physical infrastructure being impacted by coastal erosion by 2035, the Strategy reiterates the importance of building infrastructure resilience.

Direction 3: Enhance sector-wide and community partnerships to unite and coordinate action

While local governments and communities, industries and businesses, institutions, homes and individuals are beginning to adapt to climate change, action will be most effective if it can be coordinated and distributed evenly. The WA government acknowledges it has an important role to play in investing in and collaborating on local or regional-scale adaptation projects, such as the Regional Climate Alliance Program which facilitates the development and implementation of climate change adaptation initiatives which are run by regional or local groups.

These partnerships and financial support initiatives are even more integral in rural and remote communities as those areas are recognised as being on the frontline of climate change impacts. Lack of resourcing, declining populations, decreased climate resiliency and financial limitations are significant barriers to climate adaptation in these regions.  Engagement with local government, Aboriginal people and the community is seen as crucial in developing plans to ensure local knowledge is integrated into state-wide adaptation planning.

The Strategy also highlights that the State Government can provide and communicate climate science, guidance and support tools to local and regional adaptation planning – for example, adaptation plans for the health sector and the emergency management sector to combat climate change are currently being developed.  The Strategy also recognises that there is merit in developing adaptation plans for other key systems such as water, small-to medium enterprises, natural environment and the built environment.

Direction 4: Empower and support the climate resilience of Aboriginal people

The fourth and final direction set out in the Strategy recognises the importance of meaningful engagement with Aboriginal communities along the journey of climate change adaptation. Aboriginal people have an abundance of knowledge and expertise in caring for Country which should inform WA’s Strategy. The Strategy also recognises that Aboriginal communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. Due to their strong connection with Country, the destruction of natural environments and cultural sites have devastating impacts on the world’s longest living culture. Communities are also less resilient to these events, due to already having difficulties accessing essential services. The Strategy recognises the need to enhance the climate resiliency of Aboriginal communities, whilst empowering and supporting them to lead climate action planning based on their knowledge of Country.

The Strategy also identifies several immediate priorities to strengthen adaptive capacity.  These relate to:

  • enhancing basic rights of access to housing, food and water;
  • improving the resilience of existing housing and community infrastructure;
  • building respectful, trusting partnerships to share and weave together Indigenous and Western knowledge systems; and
  • providing sustainable and flexible government funding to support Aboriginal-led climate adaptation action.

Other Australian jurisdictions' climate adaptation strategies

All states and territories have their own climate adaptation strategies which recognise the imminent need for climate change-related action. With each of the states and territories being geographically dispersed and having different industries, priorities and weather, each state and territory will need to adapt in a way which is representative of that. That is why the jurisdiction-specific strategies are an important tool to leading Australia to its overall nationally mandated target of having net zero emissions by 2050.

While the strategies differ in some ways, they all share common themes. Firstly, all of the strategies recognise that the first step along the journey to net zero emissions is the creation and disbursement of high-quality, easily accessible information regarding climate change. All of the states and territories have committed to producing, recording and making accessible climate change data which measures the projected impacts of climate change, as well as the benefits to be gained from any initiatives proposed. It is this data which will inform decision making.

It is also widely accepted that change needs to occur at the executive level first in order for it to successfully and efficiently flow down through the remainder of the public. State, local and regional governments will play an integral role in setting a good example, developing effective frameworks for decision making and encouraging and funding initiatives which will coordinate and unite action.

Further, infrastructure resiliency is recognised as an extremely important investment to ensure that both existing and future infrastructure is climate change proof in all the jurisdictions. For example, Queensland is focusing on forward-thinking, sustainable land use planning, the Northern Territory has developed the Darwin Living Lab to produce resiliency data and inform future urban design, and South Australia is focusing on the development of green infrastructure, such as expanding its hydrogen industry.

Climate Change Legislation

On 24 January, the WA government announced that it is committed to developing climate change legislation, making it the third state (after Victoria and Tasmania) to legislate its net zero by 2050 target.

While a draft bill isn’t expected to be released until late 2023, the WA government has announced that the bill will:

  • give statutory force to the requirement that the government sets interim emission reduction targets to act as milestones along the journey to net zero emissions;
  • create climate accountability among the executive, with the Minister for Climate Action being required to report to the WA Parliament annually on the state’s net emissions and progress towards its targets;
  • set out a framework within which the government can develop policies and programs which will support the state’s climate goals; and
  • focus on developing the right structures for emissions reduction, as opposed to creating any enforceable obligations for industry stakeholders to reduce their emissions.

The government believes that increased confidence in the state’s climate adaptation intentions will drive investment towards clean energy infrastructure and technologies in WA. The McGowan government has assured the public that it will be committed to an effective consultation process in relation to the proposed legislation in due course.

Following the WA government’s announcement of the draft bill, critics have questioned the ability of the state to meet its targets given that WA is one of just two jurisdictions in Australia to have experienced a rise in emissions since 2005 (which is largely attributable to the continued growth of the oil and gas, mining and agriculture sectors) and the continued demand for traditional sources of energy notwithstanding the recent acceleration of the energy transition.