Climate change adaptation front and centre for New South Wales Government decisions and planning

Nick Thomas, Stuart Cosgriff, Lina Fischer and Jason Hooper
04 Aug 2022 Time to read: 3 MIN

Climate change adaptation (and especially resilience) will be a critical factor in NSW Government project evaluation, asset management and forward planning, following the release of the NSW Climate Change Adaptation Strategy in July 2022.

Under the NSW Climate Change Adaptation Strategy the NSW Government will require climate change risks, opportunities and adaptation options to inform Government decisions “as part of business-as-usual by the end of 2023”. However, it is clear that the Strategy is intended to start shaping decision-making now.

In addition to applying the Strategy, the NSW Government also plans to update a range of other key documents, such as its Business Case Guidelines and the NSW Treasury’s Guide to Cost–Benefit Analysis and Asset Management Policy.

It appears that the Strategy has been driven, at least partly, by the spate of catastrophic weather events in NSW in recent years (such as the bushfires in 2019-20, the floods in 2020 and 2022, recent coastal storm surges and the years-long drought before that), as well as current forecasts for more events in the short-, medium- and long-term (including urban and regional heatwaves).

The Strategy aims to boost the State’s ability to prevent, withstand and recover from the impacts of climate change, but it also seeks opportunities presented by a changing climate.

Key decision-making objectives and principles

The Strategy sets out four key objectives:

  • Well adapted built environment and infrastructure: Developing and maintaining the built environment to prevent, withstand and recover from the impacts of climate change. (We have previously considered the importance of Australia’s infrastructure sector being resilient to the threat of climate change here).
  • Well adapted natural environment, biodiversity, ecosystems and natural resources: Actively managing natural systems to be functional and resilient in the face of climate change.
  • Well adapted economy, businesses, industries and livelihoods: Managing the risks of climate change and taking advantage of opportunities for the NSW economy, businesses, industries and workers.
  • Well adapted society, government, communities, families and individuals: Ensuring that the NSW Government and society at large has the capacity and resources to adapt to and avoid the impacts of climate change.

In delivering on these objectives, the NSW Government intends that decisions relating to climate change adaptation should be guided by the following three principles:

  • Early and proactive action: Action should be proactive, with the intention of minimising costs and the adverse impacts of climate change while maximising opportunities.
  • Informed decision-making: Decisions regarding climate change adaptation should be made based on a comprehensive analysis of the best available information.
  • Integrated decision-making: It is crucial that climate change adaptation decisions are made which integrate competing short, medium and long term environmental, economic and social considerations.

Four priorities for climate change adaptation

The key decision-making objectives and principles for climate change adaptation are intended to facilitate the NSW Government’s fulfilment of the four key priorities under the Strategy. The NSW Government commits to:

Priority 1 – Developing robust and trusted metrics and information on climate change risk

  • Establishing a set of measurable and timebound metrics that determines progress toward climate change resilience and adaptation by the end of 2023.
  • Requiring all NSW Government agencies to report regularly against the created metrics, by no later than 2025.
  • Publishing regularly updated and improved climate change projections.
  • Undertaking climate change scenario analysis and updating it periodically.
  • Engaging in ongoing research on priority climate change risks, opportunities and adaptation options.

Priority 2 – Completing climate change risk and opportunity assessments

  • Publishing climate change risk and opportunity assessments at least every 5 years, with the first assessment to be released in 2023.
  • Publishing assessments more frequently, in circumstances where climate change risks escalate.

Priority 3 – Developing and delivering adaptation action plans

  • Publishing adaptation action plans that will set out adaptation actions for all areas and levels of government, the economy, society and the environment.
  • Focusing NSW Government resources on the most critical climate change issues identified in assessments.

Priority 4 – Embedding climate change adaptation in NSW Government decision-making

  • Updating or developing policies, guidance, processes and standards so that significant NSW Government decisions are required to consider climate change risks, opportunities and adaptations as part of business-as-usual operations.
  • Appointing a climate change risk officer in each NSW Government cluster to embed climate change risk and adaptation across NSW Government actions and decisions.
  • Requiring all NSW Government agencies to identify their own climate change risks in alignment with the Climate Risk Ready NSW Guide and climate change projections by the end of 2023.

Complementing existing climate change responses

While the Strategy focuses on adaptation, it complements the NSW Government’s commitment to halve the State’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. In this sense, the Strategy builds on and reiterates the NSW Government’s strong, calculated approach towards addressing climate change.

Implications for Government and the private sector

The implications of the Strategy are potentially wide-ranging, for both the NSW Government and the private sector. Among other things, we can expect:

  • a sharper focus on climate change risks, resilience and opportunities in project selection. location and design, and in the procurement of contractors;
  • emphasis on climate change risks, resilience and opportunities in asset management (including maintenance and upgrades);
  • better incorporation of climate change risk management in land use planning and development approval decisions;
  • increased expectations on NSW Government executives and boards to demonstrate active consideration of climate change risks and opportunities in their planning and decision-making; and
  • NSW Government agencies to review and update their strategies, policies, procedures and practices specifically to address climate change risks and opportunities, to revisit them every few years (possibly to coincide with the 5 yearly Government assessments reports).

NSW Government agencies and the private sector alike should review the Strategy, monitor its implementation in NSW Government materials and practices, and start adapting to the Strategy’s objectives, principles and priorities now.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.