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Climate change demands tougher land laws

As flood victims question what could have been done to limit the devastation, a leading professor is pointing to Australia’s haphazard approach to land development.

Binding states together with uniform regulations ensuring disaster risk is included in development proposals is a concrete step leaders can take to lessen future impacts, Professor Jennifer McKay says.

“It is time for Australia as a nation to require more from land development proponents. They need to consider explicitly these risks and be required to design premises to suit,” the business law professor at the University of South Australia says.

“People will want to develop, but if you make them jump through several hoops, you’ll get a better outcome in the long term, and you won’t put people’s lives at risk, such as (the lives of) emergency services.”

There have been examples of governments buying back properties in disaster-prone areas, “but that becomes uneconomic very quickly”, Prof McKay says.

Permission to build on floodplains has also been denied by some local planning bodies, but the patchwork approach is haphazard.

In Queensland, Deputy Premier Steven Miles says he has visited flooded communities on land that “frankly should not have been built upon”.

“There is clearly a need for our planning system to properly consider not just the history of disasters, but the projections going forward,” he said.

The Insurance Council of Australia agrees that “too many homes are in the direct line of flood, fire, and cyclone” because not enough attention was paid to risk during the planning approval stage.

“Unfortunately, many of these properties are now cheaper to buy or rent because of this risk, and some are home to those who are least able to afford adequate insurance,” a spokesperson said.

In a policy platform for the upcoming election, the ICA called for the federal government to lead a review of land planning arrangements and extreme weather risk.

“We also called for all state and territory governments to amend planning laws to make it mandatory to consider property and community resilience to extreme weather and natural disasters,” the spokesperson said.

Prof McKay says there is a precedent for a national approach “where it was considered stupid to have one rule in one state and one rule in another”.

Previous examples of states passing power to the Commonwealth include in the management of the Murray Darling Basin and in relation to corporations law.

Prof McKay believes rethinking planning laws should be a priority following the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which warned nations must urgently and drastically curb their emissions to prevent runaway global warming.

Trends in Australia point to a steep increase in the number of fire weather days and more intense rainfall in certain areas.

As well as climate change adaptation, the report notes that limiting global warming too close to 1.5 degrees “would substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change in human systems and ecosystems, compared to higher warming”.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is in no doubt that climate change was responsible for disasters hitting her state.

“Let’s face it, it’s climate change … I’ve never seen so many natural disasters,” Ms Palaszczuk said on Friday.

“I’ve never seen so many natural disasters, we seem to be dealing with more and more, more cyclones, more floods. A couple of years ago … we had the catastrophic fire event in central Queensland.”

Recovery after a disaster is “a very big psychological event” for those facing home repairs and rebuilds, Suncorp Insurance chief executive Steve Johnston says.

“It takes them a long time to recover, and we need to really galvanise around building infrastructure, public and private, more resilient for these sorts of events,” he said last week.

Climate change prevention and adaptation hasn’t always aligned with short term election goals, but Prof McKay says both major political parties are coming around to the idea of central governance.

“You need to have a different approach so that the same rules are applied and it doesn’t matter which government is in,” she says.

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