Yet reducing emissions is only part of the climate story: we must also plan for how we adapt to the impacts of climate change. How we adjust to rising sea levels, prepare for heatwaves, and manage changing rainfall patterns is what makes nations resilient in the face of climate change.
The floods that devastated north Queensland in December 2023, northern NSW in 2022, and 2020’s Black Summer bushfires show that Australia needs to step up its conversation about how it plans to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
But in Australia, where climate change has been a longstanding political issue, legislation on climate adaptation has been slow.
As the Australian government prepares to release its issues paper for its first national adaptation plan in the coming months, it’s a good time to reflect on why Australia has lagged on climate adaptation legislation — and what’s needed to make its plan a success.
Australia’s lagging, but the plan is afoot
National adaptation plans (NAPs) are a key tool for identifying country-level priorities for
climate adaptation. They were developed as a mechanism to accelerate adaptation planning at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP16 in 2010. Since then, around 70 countries have developed one.
While the most developed countries (including Finland, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and New Zealand) and around 40 developing countries (including Chad, Fiji and Sudan) have developed plans, Australia’s progress on climate adaptation has been slow.
Under the Morrison Coalition government in 2021, Australia did submit a national climate resilience and adaptation strategy to the UNFCCC. But it was never legislated and consisted mainly of existing initiatives.
The Albanese Labor government made a major commitment to climate change adaptation in its 2023-24 budget, with a significant focus on completing a national climate risk assessment and national adaptation plan.
That plan is underway: with consultations in 2023, the government is set to release an issues paper in early 2024. This will support broad public consultation throughout 2024, and an anticipated NAP completion in time for the COP29 conference in Baku in November.
Three key reasons for slow progress
Australia has lagged on climate adaptation because climate change and climate science have been longstanding political footballs.
We got off to a good start with the 2007 national climate change adaptation framework agreed upon by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), which was followed by significant investments in the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. Yet, with a change of government, climate change became a marginalised issue for years.
When former prime minister Scott Morrison revealed his 2021 climate adaptation strategy, h ewas criticised for engaging multinational consulting agency McKinsey — which has advised 43 of the 100 biggest corporate polluters — to do the modelling rather than Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO.
Climate adaptation has not been a priority due to other policy issues. But Australia’s slow progress with developing a NAP rests partly on the myths that a focus on adaptation reduces any ambition to reduce emissions, and that adaptation is mainly a local issue, best dealt with at the local government level.
These are both incorrect: adaptation and mitigation are both core climate actions, and all levels of government have a role in climate adaptation.
These assumptions are now changing. There are plenty of opportunities for a range of stakeholders to lead in climate adaptation. Many state and local governments have, in fact,
already developed climate adaptation plans and strategies, signalling an increasing understanding that urgent climate adaptation is needed.
Why adaptation plans matter
Critics of the NAP have questioned whether the Albanese government’s multimillion-dollar commitment is worth the investment. But there are several ways in which a truly national plan — as opposed to only local and state strategies — could benefit Australia.