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Climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities

CHAIR —We will resume our public hearing. I welcome Tanya Vernes, from the World Wildlife Fund Australia. Tanya is here to present on their behalf. Mr Paul Gamblin, the program leader, was to come along as well but unfortunately he has been taken ill and so he is not able to be with us. I am sure that Tanya will convey the concerns that Mr Gamblin would want to put before the committee.

As you would be aware, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts and the Minister for Climate Change and Water have asked the committee to examine the environmental impacts of coastal population growth as well as the impact of climate change on coastal areas and strategies to deal with climate change adaptation, particularly in response to projected sea level rise. The committee has also been asked to look at existing policies and programs related to coastal zone management, mechanisms to promote sustainable coastal communities and governance arrangements for the coastal zone.

Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House itself. In that regard, the giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. I now invite you to make an opening statement if you so wish before we proceed to questions and discussion.

Ms Vernes —Firstly, I want to acknowledge the Yawuru traditional owners whose country we are on. I would also like to thank the chair and the secretariat for the invitation to appear. As you said earlier, I will be presenting some information about the Kimberley. Also, Paul has asked me, as I think was organised with Julia earlier, to read out some information he has provided me with. He is also very happy to submit a supplementary submission if that is required.

I want to start by talking a little bit about climate change projections and the Kimberley in particular. There is a little bit of information that is still quite coarse information about climate change impacts in Northern Australia. The information that we had last year when we produced this document, which I can also provide to you—it is about assessing climate change in Northern Australia—is already outdated. The information is changing all the time, and the upper scale of the projections that we have in this document are now considered to be quite conservative. An important point to make for Northern Australia is that there is a lack of information on that fine scale data in terms of climate change.

First of all, I point out that there are about 100 million hectares of tropical savanna. It is the largest remaining tropical savanna in the world, so we have an incredible resource here. There are probably around 100 rivers between Cairns and Broome and most of them would be unmodified, I would say—that is, without dams. So we have a very intact ecosystem which is also a great carbon store. I just want to make that point. There is low disturbance and there are some really important ecosystem processes and functions. There are two things: it is an incredible environmental resource, but it is also a really important carbon sink.

Some of the impacts across northern Australia include: an increase in temperature; decreased rainfall, except for probably Far North Queensland; declines in moisture balance; sea level rise, as we all know; an increase in fire; an increase in intense cyclonic events. We expect a whole range of things will happen in northern Australia—storm surge events and those sorts of things. We find that these potential impacts have not really been considered greatly in terms of planning, especially protected area planning. That is the point I want to make about northern Australia.

When it comes to the Kimberley, there is even less information when compared to other regions. We have very little information on which to base  projections and on which to base protected area management, for example. As I said earlier, our projections are probably at the lower end, but we expect about two degrees increase in temperature by 2030. Also by 2030, the number of days above 35 degrees could increase to as much as 87 days for Broome. I am not quite sure what it is at the moment, but it is nowhere near that. There are the compounding impacts of a decrease in rainfall, increased evaporative rates, more frequent severe droughts, associated decreases in river flows, extreme weather events, cyclones and more flooding—because where the rainfall does occur it will be more intense, so there will be more flooding.

I am pointing this out again not only in terms of environmental impacts and looking forward to planning but also in terms of future enterprise development in northern Australia. The conditions will be very different to now. As I said, the tropical savanna covers quite a large area that is a carbon store at the moment. We really need to look at those characteristics when planning for future development. It is about looking at how we keep the greenhouse gas emissions down and keep the carbon in the soil with future development—not only where they are located, with sea level rise, but what is appropriate for the north, so that we can maintain this great store of carbon that we have.

The growing perception, especially after the last inquiry that I attended, which was looking agriculture development in the north—I think that was with Senator Heffernan—is that the north is seen as some sort of solution. We are seeing a lot of problems in the south, with reduced water and problems from the agriculture. So people are looking to the north. The point I want to make is that we do not repeat those mistakes in the north. It is a very different situation and the climate change impacts will be different, and we should really be looking at what is appropriate for the north.

I would like to provide some information. I will not go into detail now. I want to provide this afterwards, but I just want to note now that I want to focus on the impacts of northern Australian ecosystems in a supplementary submission. We have quite a lot of data here and I do not want you to fall asleep after lunch! The coastal low-lying wetlands of northern Australia is a very important ecosystem in terms of climate change. As we heard earlier today from other environmental groups, sea level rise is coming into these low-level wetlands—sometimes river systems. Roebuck Bay is another example where the wetlands extend quite a way inland. Some serious impacts could happen there.

For the coral reefs in northern Australia—I think Environs Kimberley noted how important those coral reefs are and how little studied they are as well—information is lacking on those. The tropical rainforests across Northern Australia—the tropical savannas as I have mentioned—and river systems in terms of the impacts of climate change on the flows of the river systems and the species that they support, such as IUCN red listed species such as sawfish. The snub fin dolphin is another one—and we have just found out that Roebuck Bay has probably the highest population in Northern Australia—so we are putting measures into place there. For small island environments, probably the biggest risk to them would be the sea level rise. At the moment those islands are some of the only places where we have no mammal extinctions at present off the Kimberley coast, so that could be quite a severe impact on the mammal population.

In summary, before I move onto Paul’s information, what we would like to see in terms of climate change and future planning would be to look at mitigating climate change impacts, which I am sure the others talked about this morning, strengthening adaptation and building resilience of the ecosystems that we have. I think it was EK that rightly mentioned how the biodiversity is quite strong in Northern Australia and the rate of mammal extinction is less than other areas, although we are beginning to see indications of decline now. Seed-eating birds are starting to decline but we actually have one of the most intact ecosystems in Australia. We need to build the resilience to make sure that those ecosystem processes are maintained. The other one of course is free-flowing rivers and making sure that we do maintain those free-flowing rivers because, as the impacts on rivers increase, the biodiversity decreases and the resilience decreases. The cumulative impacts of climate change in Northern Australia—the ones that I mentioned earlier—in terms of the area drying, the rainfall being less, increased cyclones, flooding, fire, all of those things. Putting them together is quite a serious scenario so I think we need to look at how all of those things together would impact on the environment here and also impact on people’s lives and people’s livelihoods, which is another really important area for the Kimberley. Weeds and feral animals—I will not go into that because I heard EK talking about that this morning. Erosion of rivers and that impact on the coral reef system is something that has not been looked at either. It is something that is gaining attention in Queensland with the Great Barrier Reef but I think that in the future it will be just as significant for the Kimberly seeing as how we have such large river flows emptying into the sea where those coral reefs are, such as the Fitzroy River.

Another key point is protected areas. I am looking at protection in two ways. Protected areas such as Indigenous protected areas and national parks acting as refuges for plants and animals. That is very important future planning in that it allows not only for what is there now but for movement of those ecosystems. For example at Roebuck Bay it would be movement of those wetlands and the shallow grasslands behind the bay and allowing for movement of that and the mangrove system inland. At the moment there is actually a development planned for behind that area, so I think that has not been taken up in planning guidelines to date.

The other part of protected areas, which I consider to be part of protected areas, is the active management. You can have a protected area but if it is not managed, it is no management. I think having a protected area and/or having appropriate management for those areas counts as protection. In Northern Australia that is working directly with traditional owners because we have probably around 90 per cent of the land under native title claim or determination. The largest ownership or management responsibilities would be the traditional owners in the Kimberley. That is a very important part of future management.

The only other thing that I would add here is in relation to sustainable livelihoods and the responses that we might consider in terms of climate change. Those responses have to be very well-thought out or else they may become threats that are just as great in the end. For example, moving agriculture to the north without really considering what that means with reduced rainfall. What does higher temperature mean for crop germination? All of those sorts of things need to be considered, along with how that impacts in terms of land clearing and reducing that carbon store in the soil. How we approach fire is another one. There are some suggestions in this report that we have on what might be appropriate, but the conservation economy is another appropriate model that we would recommend. That is in relation to sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous people, as well as conservation outcomes.

We are here in Broome, so I will use Roebuck Bay as an example. The sea grass in Roebuck Bay is quite important. It will probably be impacted by climate change, both through temperature and nutrient increases into the bay. That may increase lyngbya, the blue-green algae that is occurring in the bay. That would have a flow-on effect in decreasing the numbers of dugong and turtles, who feed on the sea grass. That would have another flow-on effect in terms of the subsistence lifestyle that Indigenous people have and the cultural values around those things. It is quite a complicated set of impacts. But our response to the climate change impacts needs to be complicated as well. We really need to consider all of those angles and look at what is appropriate for northern Australia. Would you like to ask any questions before I move on to Paul’s information?

CHAIR —Before you go on with that, we will make the report an exhibit for the proceedings. Do you also have a written submission from Mr Gamblin?

Ms Vernes —I do.

CHAIR —We will also table that as an exhibit. You were suggesting that he may do a follow-up submission as well.

Ms Vernes —No, this would be his follow-up submission. He was going to email it directly to you.

Mr MURPHY —Thanks for your presentation. What would you nominate as the greatest environmental threat in this region as a consequence of global warming?

Ms Vernes —That is a big question. For me, the threat is the cumulative impacts. I probably cannot divide them out into one thing or another. As I said earlier, you might have sea level rise, but then you might also have storm surges or changes in the surface temperature of the water, which increases cyclones. For me, the cumulative impacts of climate change on the environment are the main things—if that answers your question.

CHAIR —Is it the wish of the committee that the submission from Mr Paul Gamblin be incorporated in the transcript of evidence? There being no objection, it is so ordered.

The submission read as follows—

Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts

Broome, 27 August 2009


WWF is the world’s largest independent conservation organisation. We have around five million supporters internationally, and a global network of more than 100 offices.

Our goal is to be science-based, economically responsible and socially acceptable. Our mission is to conserve the world’s biodiversity, ensure sustainable use of renewable natural resources, and to curb pollution and excessive consumption and through all of this we try to work collaboratively, where possible, with communities, governments and companies.

In Australia our major priorities are

•               To conserve the globally significant biodiversity found here, both places and species, with a focus on the policies, plans and strategies that underpin conservation delivery.

•               To reduce the ecological footprint of Australians through a dual focus on our domestic consumption patterns and our interaction with international markets.

•               To encourage Australia to be a strong supporter - politically and financially - of conservation and sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region.

•               And to encourage Australian people, business and government to make their voices heard on global environmental issues.

With respect specifically to the energy industry, a sector growing in size rapidly off the Kimberley, our basic premise and our vision for responsible energy companies is that they should:

•               avoid areas of high conservation value

•               take a positive role in tackling climate change

•               go beyond compliance and achieve net economic, social and environmental benefit over the life of an operation.

Our vision for Governments with respect to this industry is that they should:

•               minimise the total environmental footprint of the industry through planning, effective regulation and sustainable development policies

•               set out a clear plan for major reductions in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions through appropriate, effective mechanisms.

There may have been some progress but there is still a very long way to go. For example, the approval this week of the expansion to the Gorgon development on Barrow Island - one of Australia’s most important nature reserves - even in light of much better alternatives on the mainland, is if of great concern to us. The impacts of the recent and ongoing oil spill from West Atlas is particularly topical too.

The message is that the footprint of the petroleum industry in this region is getting bigger, very rapidly. In combination with other pressures from other industries, and climate change, the globally unique and important coastal ecosystems are being put at very real cumulative risk.

WWF has a comprehensive set of positions on climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as on coastal biodiversity conservation and the review of the EPBC Act. We would be very happy to provide input to this committee on these matters before it reports but in the comments today will focus on issues relevant to the Kimberley.

The main focus of this part of our commentary is LNG projects off the Kimberley coast and the challenge of responsibly developing the Browse Basin.

The Kimberley is one of the few true intact natural areas left on the planet. From a habitat perspective, the Kimberley and Pilbara coast and offshore ecosystems, have unique shelf edge coral atolls, complex extensive inshore fringing reefs, and rare halimeda bank reefs, which incidentally are in the vicinity of the oil spill.

From a species perspective, it is home to breeding areas for rare turtles, calving and nursery grounds for whales, and is home to the elusive snubfin dolphin and sawfish, among many others.

There are spectacular islands, free of weeds and feral animals. Incredibly, it is one of only two places place left in Australia yet to record the extinction of a mammal. Many of the islands are also fringed by diverse and healthy coral reefs.

It also seems to be a magnet for migratory marine creatures - a green turtle tagged by WWF on a beach in Sukamade national park in Indonesia, sped across the ditch and then spent the last eight months foraging off the Kimberley.

Add to the mix the likely role of regional ecological fluxes and flow and the picture of the biodiversity gets richer and deeper even at a global scale.

How climate change will affect these barely-understood processes is a crucial question. What we do know is that the sense of urgency for conservation has increased. We need to protect this region now, and we need to do a much better job.

The levels of marine and coastal protection in the Kimberley are low or none. You might like to read the submission that WWF and other conservation groups produced recently. This lays out 29 recommendations for addressing the serious deficiencies in conservation. Without a serious treatment of this issue, we will not deal adequately with climate change.

For WWF and for many others too, we acknowledge that the Kimberley is of immeasurable cultural significance both to its traditional owners and to the wider world. Its country; both land and sea are finally being realised for what they are - globally outstanding.

Part of WWF’s vision for the Kimberley, is that the key natural and cultural values of the Kimberley will be identified through large scale planning processes and that these values will be protected.

For natural areas this protection can come in a range of mechanisms that  must include networks of marine and terrestrial protected areas but this must be done in genuine partnership with Indigenous people.

Well-managed protected areas are the first line of defence against the impacts of climate change. Currently 0% of Kimberley state waters are protected and only a very small percentage of offshore, Commonwealth waters are.

Unless we fix this situation, this inertia will become a national embarrassment and will undermine our nation’s aspirations to be a global leader in dealing with the threats from climate change. The oil and gas industry must take this seriously and commit to supporting networks of protected areas.

We recognise that Indigenous knowledge and management (such as through Indigenous Protected Areas) will be central to any discussion of protection of natural values and that healthy, resilient communities are a critical part of our long-term vision.

The challenges in the Kimberley are therefore to understand how the cultural and natural heritage of the region can be protected; to identify pathways for responsible development and to understand how that development can sustainably contribute to its communities.

Central to any vision for the Kimberley are the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley. Indigenous communities that today represent one of the world’s oldest and most complex continuous living traditions.

It is important to recognize that many Kimberley communities face serious social disadvantage. Whether large-scale resource development should be part of the answer is being hotly debated. We are very concerned about the environmental impacts from these large developments.

Whether or not LNG is ever processed in the Kimberley, serious investment is urgently needed to provide support to these communities.

The Kimberley Land Council, working closely with WWF and other environmental groups, prepared a Joint Position Statement which identifies the stringent conditions that would underpin any consideration of gas development in the Kimberley.

It talks of the importance of broad assessment; of protecting natural and cultural values; of Traditional Owners being in a position to make informed decisions; of real economic benefits being delivered. You can read the statement by visiting and following the Kimberley link.

Negotiating this statement required all sides to shift ground. There will always be points of difference between WWF and the KLC, as there will be with other organisations but we work hard to find common ground and this is one example of that.

We believe the KLC deserves credit for supporting the assessment of natural and cultural values in order to provide a framework for major decisions about development but we also believe that Pilbara options must be fully evaluated for LNG development of the Browse Basin.

Scientific research and conservation planning should happen before development proposals reach decision makers. Logically a system of parks, Indigenous Protected Areas and the like occurs first and becomes the backbone, around which development occurs.

Otherwise, development may be approved in an area that in hindsight should have been protected - no-one wants that to occur - it is the reason why we need to be precautionary.

This is not what is happening in the Kimberley-North Pilbara. The cart is still before the horse and no one knows with certainty which areas would be included in protected areas and meanwhile development proposals keep on coming.

Because of its marine and terrestrial importance, we had been keeping a watching brief on the Kimberley region for a number of years. Then about four years ago, with proposals - from companies like Woodside and Inpex - to develop Browse Basin gas fields, we saw the chance to call for things to be done differently, to call for a different approach and call for leadership.

Rather than the usual course of events, where individual proposals would be referred to government agencies for environmental impact assessment, conditions would be arrived at and approvals given, we wanted a project assessment system that not only assessed the impacts of individual projects but determined what the impacts of all likely projects in a particularly region were projected to be. Common sense in principle, though not a trivial exercise in practice.

We wanted decision makers to start by assessing the broad environmental and cultural values at a regional level and saw logic in the scope being the region between Karratha and Darwin.

We also thought that the assessment would also need to consider potential protected areas in this region - potential, because it still is largely a blank canvass with respect to coastal and marine conservation areas.

With proposals mounting and strong bidding for offshore acreage, we embarked on an intensive advocacy campaign around the need for a regional strategic assessment for the Kimberley-North Pilbara as we believed this would provide the greatest transparency for all. Without it, we’d be flying blind.

We very much welcomed the creation of the Northern Development Taskforce and worked through the taskforce’s various committees, although we’ve always called for Pilbara options to be thoroughly assessed too and more work is still needed on that.

We also welcomed the announcement of the Joint State-Federal Strategic Assessment, which we feel marked an important new step in coordinating processes and provides the real possibility that certainty will be reached sooner, and with much more rigour.

In February last year, in the spirit of helping inform planning processes, WWF convened the largest workshop of its kind where scientists, the Kimberley Land Council, tourism experts and industry spent three days, here in Broome, mapping the natural values of the Kimberley North-Kimberley coast.

However we are now concerned that there is a risk that much of the intensive work that has been done by governments, Traditional Owners, industry (oil and gas, tourism and fishing) and conservation groups will not be used.

WWF has called for governments to protect the integrity of process and to invest in the last crucial phases of an environmental and cultural assessment of the Kimberley-Pilbara coast.

The real value is a strategic approach is that it can better flesh out options and more readily choose the best of them. This can increase certainty to industry and the community. However, it takes a lot of work and commitment to see through a strategic assessment and while good progress has been made, we’ve been concerned for sometime that the options have been narrowed prematurely here.

Pilbara options must be thoroughly analysed for the assessment to be strategic in more than name only. We urge all governments to keep all feasible options on the table until such time as the public evidence shows clearly that they are not worthy of further consideration. This is the only fair and honest approach to take.

The kind of process we describe here would take into account the cumulative environmental impacts of a variety of developments on the Kimberley-Pilbara coast as a whole and make clearer the opportunities for shared infrastructure, including sites for the geosequestration of greenhouse emissions.

This bigger picture analysis would identify the most precious natural and cultural areas which would be off-limits for industrial development; places like Scott Reef and large intact areas of the Kimberley-Pilbara coastline.

The challenge is now to extend these efforts to the work that only government can coordinate with perspectives across a range of projects and sectors and with a full range of public good considerations; social, environmental, economic.

There is enormous pressure for decisions about development to be made soon. WWF is determined that these decisions should be guided by scientific conservation planning and strategic assessment, alongside Aboriginal traditional knowledge, and rigorous, open debate.

WWF believes that the current review of the EPBC Act, among other things, needs to bolster the role of comprehensive regional strategic assessments. These assessments will never be the final word but can provide a much better overarching context for the community, government and industry to identify areas for protection and to more intelligently steer development.

As we see it, there is no alternative.

With respect to climate change and coastal policy, there are different levels of policy that can provide very useful levers to prepare for rapid change.

WWF is concerned about the lack of precaution in the application of coastal planning policies in many areas. In Western Australia, for example, the State’s coastal planning policy does not have to be applied in all relevant circumstances, in our view, and when it is, the setback calculations for development do not yet adequately accommodate a provision for sea level rise in light of the scientific advice from the CSIRO and others in recent years. Given that so much critical habitat lies in that narrow contested strip between the waves, and urban and industrial infrastructure zones, it is vital there are wider buffers.

In this region for example, turtle nesting beaches will need space to move and in many cases that will mean moving inland of where they are now.  It is prudent to take this into account when development is considered.

As this committee knows well, experience shows that it is just good sense to maintain a wide buffer between the moving coast and hard infrastructure. A missing element in this is often nature. The federal government could do a lot to help determine coastal areas that need better protection and could provide more guidance to state and local decision makers on creating wider natural areas so our coastal-dependent habitats and wildlife have a fighting chance now and in the future.

CHAIR —There are a couple of points that I might want to come back to in that submission.

Mr ZAPPIA —Thanks for your presentation. How long have you been up here?

Ms Vernes —I have been living in the Kimberley for about 12 years now.

Mr ZAPPIA —Have you noticed whether the local Kimberley community collectively is taking a much stronger stance in protecting what you have here or would you describe it as still being an area which has a large degree of apathy about climate change and the risks associated with it?

Ms Vernes —People’s knowledge is increasing, but the apathy and the lack of the knowledge is still too high for my liking. People are beginning to understand that there may be an impact from climate change, but we do not see it put into any kind of action—certainly not in terms of planning. The information level needs to be higher.

Mr ZAPPIA —I will put it to you another way. We have today and yesterday heard from a number of groups, many of whom represent environmental groups broadly. I formed the impression—rightly or wrongly—that there is a strong environmental focus in the community out here. Why do you believe that you are not getting through to the rest of the community?

Ms Vernes —I guess I believe that the community might have that focus, but the decision makers are not taking it on board and they are not seeing it as serious or imminent enough. An example is the location of Broome airport and a new industrial complex, which is right on the edge of the Ramsar site. There has been no consideration to any buffer zones that may be needed in the future. Probably now it looks fine to them. But considering the low-lying level of that landscape, they have not taken climate change into account.

CHAIR —Mr Gamblin in his written submission talks about the proposal that came from your organisation about doing a regional strategic assessment for the whole Kimberley-North Pilbara area. Do you want to put on the Hansard record a little bit more about the thinking behind that?

Ms Vernes —I can start by saying that we supported the strategic assessment process, because there had not been—and I know that the other environmental groups talked about this this morning—a coordinated approach to development and industrialisation. I know that Paul has covered this, but one of the main points that we would make about the strategic assessment is that it started well but it was not seen through. We do not believe that is was seen through. The Pilbara options were not assessed in as great a detail as they were for the Kimberley. It was almost as if a decision was made prior to the end of the process. Paul goes into detail about other aspects of the strategic development. We still support the strategic assessment and see it as a positive step—if it can be carried through as it was intended to be, which means looking at all options and not making decisions before the process comes to an end; not pre-empting anything. The others things to take into account in terms of the strategic assessment are the protected area planning, the national heritage listing process for the northwest marine protected area that will be happening and Indigenous protected areas around the Kimberley coast. Those things must be considered as part of that overall planning assessment.

Dr WASHER —You said that there is a planned site near the airport that is going to be a large commercial or light industrial site. Wouldn’t the state government need to be the planning authority for that? The state government would directly plan that.

Ms Vernes —Yes. I would imagine that the state government did the planning. The site has been located for the new airport and a new industrial site. But no other work has begun there yet; it has just been identified as an area.

Dr WASHER —Has there been any public consultation regarding this? Have the state people been up here? They obviously spoke to the local government. Did they talk to the community about that?

Ms Vernes —There has been some, yes. I do not know the extent of it, though, although there would have been some.

CHAIR —Tanya, thank you very much for appearing before the committee this afternoon. We will send you a copy of the transcript of evidence, and if there is any supplementary information or material that would you would like to bring to the committee’s attention please feel free to do so. Thank you for standing in for Mr Gamblin at the last minute. It was very generous of you to give up your time.

Ms Vernes —Thank you very much.

Proceedings suspended from 1.55 pm to 2.09 pm