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Towards a Legal Framework for Coastal Adaptation: Assessing the First Steps in Europe and Australia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2012

Jonathan Verschuuren
Tilburg University, Tilburg, the Netherlands. Email:
Jan McDonald
University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia. Email:


In light of the urgent need for coastal adaptation policies and the impediments to their implementation, this article examines the early experience with coastal adaptation policies in the EU (in particular the Netherlands and the UK) and Australia, with a view to identifying the important features of an effective regulatory framework for coastal adaptation. We conclude that an integrated approach to coastal adaptation law is currently needed to lay the foundations for the required long-term strategy. Such an approach would establish processes by which adaptation objectives are agreed for each part of the coast, ensure land use planning that can accommodate future change and does not expose new communities to risk, integrate coastal adaptation with biodiversity and coastal zone policy, allocate regulatory responsibility in a way that promotes subsidiarity and consistency, and ensure that funds are available for future measures.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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1 Preston, B.J., ‘The Role of Courts in Relation to Adaptation to Climate Change’, in Bonyhady, T., Macintosh, A. & McDonald, J. (eds.), Adaptation to Climate Change: Law and Policy (Federation Press, 2010), pp. 157201, at 200.

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2 In the UK, coastal adaptation rests with the four devolved administrations: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

3 In 1989, three years before the UNFCCC (n. 7 below) was signed, an interdepartmental committee in Queensland had already advised the government to immediately adopt coastal adaptation policies, particularly through the management of land use. The 1989 discussion paper referred to the Netherlands to underpin its statement that early action would be much more cost effective than delaying action. For an account of these early adaptation attempts, see T. Bonyhady, ‘Swimming in the Streets: The Beginnings of Planning for Sea Level Rise’, in Bonyhady, Macintosh & McDonald (eds.), n. 1 above, at pp. 85–6. Bonyhady concludes that the first policy ideas ‘went nowhere’.

4 Kamerstukken (Netherlands Parliamentary documents) 2009–2010, 32 304, No. 3, pp. 1–2.

5 Factors contributing to these differences between the two countries include (i) differences in predominant political views over the past decade or so; (ii) the different legal systems, with the Netherlands having a civil law system primarily relying on government legislation, and Australia having a common law system with a greater emphasis on the role of the judiciary; and (iii) the constitutional structure which allows for greater (the Netherlands) or less (Australia) central involvement in local or regional policy and law.

6 See, e.g., Bonyhady, n. 3 above.

7 New York, NY (US), 9 May 1992, in force 21 Mar. 1994, available at:

8 Parry, M.L. et al. . (IPPC) (eds.), Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2007), at p. 317.

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9 Ibid., taking the North Sea area as an example, at p. 325 (Figure 6.4).

10 Delta Committee, ‘Working Together with Water: A Living Land Builds for its Future’, 2008, at p. 34, available at Locally, additional subsidence is caused by groundwater extractions, gas extractions and peat decomposition. In Australia, Gippsland (in coastal Victoria) is already struggling with a 2 metre subsidence: see University of New South Wales Connected Waters project, ‘Subsidence in Groundwater Basins’, available at:

11 Delta Committee, ibid., at p. 25.

12 Parry et al. (IPPC), n. 8 above, at p. 319.

13 Ibid., at p. 317.

14 Policy Research Corporation, ‘The Economics of Climate Adaptation in EU Coastal Areas: Summary Report’, a study on behalf of the European Commission, 2009, at p. 3, available at:

15 European Commission, ‘European Atlas of the Seas’, available at:

16 Parry et al. (IPPC), n. 8 above, at p. 333.

17 Ibid.

18 The IPCC reports that nearly 300 million people inhabit a sample of 40 deltas globally and that much of this population is at risk from coastal erosion and land loss as a result of decreased sediment delivery by the rivers and of sea level rise: ibid., at p. 327.

19 Ibid., at p. 317.

20 Ibid., at p. 327.

21 Ibid., at p. 340.

22 Ibid., at p. 750.

23 Ibid., at p. 720.

24 Figure reproduced from R.J. Nicholls et al., ‘Coastal Systems and Low-Lying Areas’, in Parry et al. (IPCC), 2007, n. 8 above, pp. 315–57, at 342 (Figure 6.11), available at: The figure is based on IPCC CZMS, Strategies for Adaptation to Sea-Level Rise. Report of the Coastal Zone Management Subgroup, Response Strategies Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, the Netherlands, 1990); R.J.T. Klein & R.S.J. Tol, ‘Adaptation to Climate Change: Options and Technologies: An Overview Paper’, Technical Paper FCCC/TP/1997/3, UNFCCC Secretariat, 1997; Cooper, N. et al. ., ‘Shoreline Management Plans: A National Review and an Engineering Perspective’ (2002) 154(3) Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers: Water and Maritime Engineering, pp. 221–8; Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), ‘Shoreline Management Plans: A Guide for Coastal Defence Authorities’, 2001, available at:

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25 Parry et al. (IPPC), n. 8 above, at p. 340.

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27 Verschuuren, J., ‘The Case of Transboundary Wetlands under the Ramsar Convention: Keep the Lawyers Out!’ (2008) 19(1) Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy, pp. 49127, at 101.

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28 Byron Shire Council v. Vaughan, Land and Environment Court of New South Wales, 40342 of 2009 and 40344 of 2009, Consent Order dated 1 Feb. 2010.

29 As apparent from media coverage, for instance of seawall construction at Portsea beach, available at:

30 Parry et al. (IPPC), n. 8 above, at p. 341 (Table 6.9).

31 Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, Kyoto (Japan), 10 Dec. 1997, in force 16 Feb. 2005, available at:

33 The Adaptation Fund was established during COP7 of the UNFCCC in Marrakesh in 2001, but it operates under the Kyoto Protocol: see Decision 10/CP7, FCCC/CP/2001/13/Add. 1, p. 52.

34 Information on the projects funded under the Adaptation Fund is available at:

37 Decision 2/CP15, Report of the Conference of the Parties on its Fifteenth Session, Copenhagen, 7–19 Dec. 2009, FCCC/CP/2009/11/Add.1, 30 Mar. 2010 (Copenhagen Accord), at pp. 8–10; Decision 1/CP16, Report of the Conference of the Parties on its Sixteenth Session, Canún, 29 Nov.–10 Dec. 2010, FCCC//CP/2010/7/Add.1 (Cancún Agreement), at pp. 20 and 95–112.

38 FCCC/CP/2010/7/Add. 1, p. 17; further information is available at:

39 See as early as the 1999 report by G. Bergkamp & B. Orlando, ‘Wetlands and Climate Change’, IUCN, October 1999, available at:

40 Ramsar (Iran), 2 Feb.1971, in force 21 Dec. 1975, available at:

41 Resolution VIII.3, adopted at COP8, Valencia, Nov. 2002.

42 Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), 5 June 1992, in force 29 Dec. 1993, available at:

43 Decisions X29 and X/33, adopted at COP10, Nagoya (Japan), Oct. 2010.

44 Paris (France), 22 Sept. 1992, in force 25 Mar. 1998, available at:

45 OSPAR Commission, ‘Assessment of Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation’, 2009, at pp. 22–8, available at:

46 Directive 2008/56/EC establishing a Framework for Community Action in the Field of Marine Environmental Policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive) [2008] OJ L164/19.

47 Directive 2000/60/EC establishing a Framework for Community Action in the Field of Water Policy [2000] OJ L327/1.

48 OSPAR Commission, ‘The North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy, Strategy of the OSPAR Commission for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic 2010–2020’, OSPAR Agreement 2010–3, Annex 25, available at:

49 Montego Bay (Jamaica), 10 Dec. 1982, in force 16 Nov. 1994, available at:

50 Resolution 64/71 (114), A/RES/64/71, Distr. Gen. 12 Mar. 2010.

51 Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea of the UN, ‘Oceans and Climate Change’, 13 Sept. 2010, available at:

52 Among the many examples are the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (available at:, the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (available at:, and the Mekong River Commission (available at:

53 N. 47 above.

54 Directive 2007/60/EC on the Assessment and Management of Flood Risks (Floods Directive) [2007] OJ L288/1.

55 N. 46 above.

56 Such as the 2002 European Parliament and Council Recommendation 2002/413/EC concerning the Implementation of Integrated Coastal Zone Management in Europe [2002] OJ L148/24; and the 2009 Commission White Paper, ‘Adapting to Climate Change: Towards a European Framework for Action’, COM(2009)147 final.

57 Art. 3(2)(b) Floods Directive, n. 54 above.

58 Ibid., Art. 9.

59 Ibid., Art. 4(2).

60 Ibid., Art. 4(2)(d).

61 Ibid., Art. 6.

62 Ibid., Art. 7 and Annex A.

63 There already exists a European Floods Alert System (EFAS), but this system is only meant to inform national authorities and not the general public. The latter has to be done by the competent national authorities, which may rely on information provided by EFAS. See the EFAS website at

64 Art. 14 Floods Directive, n. 54 above.

65 See the Commission staff working paper of 21 Dec. 2010, ‘Risk Assessment and Mapping Guidelines for Disaster Management’, SEC (2010) 1626 final, and European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, and European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: ‘A Community Approach on the Prevention of Natural and Man-Made Disasters’, COM(2009) 82 final, 23 Feb. 2009.

66 Art. 3 includes coastal waters in the definition of marine waters.

67 Delta Committee, n. 10 above, at p. 21.

68 Jonkman, S.N. et al. ., ‘Flood Risk Assessment in the Netherlands: A Case Study for Dike Ring South Holland’ (2008) 28(5) Risk Analysis, pp. 1357–74, at 1358.

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69 The first regional water authorities date back to the 13th century: Association of Regional Water Authorities, ‘Water Governance’, 2011, at p. 14, available at

70 Klein, R.J.T. et al. ., ‘Coastal Adaptation to Climate Change: Can the IPCC Technical Guidelines be Applied?’ (1999) 4(3–4) Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, pp. 239–52, at 241.

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71 Klein, R.J.T. et al. ., ‘Resilience and Vulnerability: Coastal Dynamics or Dutch Dikes?’ (1998) 164(3) The Geographical Journal, pp. 259–68.

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72 Act of 29 Jan. 2009, Staatsblad (Bulletin of Acts) 2009, 107; Ordinance of 30 Nov. 2009, Staatsblad (Bulletin of Acts) 2009, 548.

73 All elements covered by these directives are present in this Act. We will not discuss them again here.

74 Management of the coastal waters and the main rivers has been assigned to the Minister, according to Art. 3.1 and Annex II of the Water Ordinance, ibid.

75 Art. 3.13 Water Act 2009, n. 72 above.

76 The National Water Plan 2009–15 is accompanied by a more specific policy document called ‘Water Safety 2009–2015’. Both documents are available (in Dutch only) at:

77 Policy Research Corporation, n. 14 above, Case Study – the Netherlands, at p. 9, available at:

78 National Water Plan 2009–2015, n. 76 above, at p. 7.

79 Ibid., at p. 139.

80 The programme’s international website, with much information on the programme and its main implementing spatial plans, is available at:

81 Primarily the EU’s Natura 2000 Network, a network of protected areas instituted as a consequence of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives: see Verschuuren, J., ‘Climate Change: Rethinking Restoration in the European Union’s Birds and Habitats Directives’ (2010) 28(4) Ecological Restoration, pp. 431–9.

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82 Act of 20 Oct. 2006, Staatsblad (Bulletin of Acts) 2006, 566.

83 Art. 2.2 and Annex II Water Act 2009, n. 72 above.

84 The influential Delta Committee, in particular, in its 2008 report (n. 10 above), drew attention to this issue.

85 J. Aerts et al., ‘Waterveiligheid en Klimaatbestendigheid in Breder Perspectief’, National Research Programme on Climate Adaptation, 2007, at pp. 11–13, available at:

86 Delta Committee, n. 10 above, at p. 49.

87 Arts. 5.5–5.13 Water Act 2009, n. 72 above.

88 Ibid., Art. 5.30.

89 Ibid., Art. 5.28.

90 Ibid., Art. 5.30.

91 Ibid., Art. 5.29. International exercises are sometimes organized as well. In 2009, the exercise ‘EU FloodEx’ tested international assistance during a worst credible flood scenario in the North Sea area on the Dutch coast. The exercise showed that in such a case an international response is necessary, but also that there are many shortcomings associated with poor cooperation by the various response services involved. For an account of the exercise, see R.J.J. Beerens et al., ‘EU FloodEx: An Analysis of Testing International Assistance During a Worst Credible Flood Scenario in the North Sea Area’, Wageningen University, 2010, available at:

92 Arts. 5.20–5.24 Water Act 2009, n. 72 above.

93 Ibid., Art. 5.26.

94 This is regulated through the relevant spatial plans at provincial and municipal level.

95 Arts. 7.14–7.15 Water Act 2009, n. 72 above.

96 Ibid., Art. 5.14.

97 Art. 6.12 Water Ordinance 2009, n. 72 above.

98 Delta Act on Water Safety, Act of 1 Dec. 2011, Staatsblad (Bulletin of Acts) 2011, 636.

99 The first Delta Commissioner and his staff have been in office since 2010. For more information, see the Delta Commissioner’s website at:

100 Spatial Planning Key Decision, Room for the River, Approved Decision of 19 Dec. 2006, p. 16. This document is available in English at:

101 The Act has not yet fully entered into force. See The Act is accompanied by a whole range of secondary legislation, available at:

102 Ibid., Introductory Text.

103 Section 9 FWMA 2010, n. 101 above.

104 Ibid., s. 3(3). This is only an indicative list.

105 The Environment Agency is the executive branch of DEFRA; further information is available at:

106 See ss 22–26 FWMA 2010, n. 101 above.

107 Ibid., s. 7(1).

108 Ibid., s. 7(2).

109 Ibid., ss 16 and 1.

110 Ibid., ss 9(5), 11(1)(a) and 11(4).

111 Ibid., s. 4(1)(c).

112 Ibid., s. 20.

114 Ibid., s. 58.

115 Ibid., s. 62.

116 DEFRA, ‘Appraisal of Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management’, June 2009, available at: An example of a recent SMP reviewing such measures is the Isle of Wight SMP, available at:

117 Local planning authorities are instructed to closely work together with the Environment Agency in a policy statement on development and flood risk directed at local government: Communities and Local Government, ‘Planning Policy Statement 25: Development and Flood Risk’, 2010.

118 Policy Research Corporation, n. 14 above, Case Study – United Kingdom, at p. 10,

119 Mayor of London, ‘Draft Climate Change Adaptation Strategy for London’, 2010, at p. 25. The draft strategy underwent public consultation in 2010; available at:

120 Ibid., at pp. 8–9.

121 The TE2100 plan underwent public consultation in 2009. An implementation plan is expected to be published in 2012: see

122 Ibid.

123 Environment Agency, TE2100 Plan – Consultation Document, 2009, at p. 27, available at:

124 Ibid., at p. 29.

125 The plan does opt for the creation of two intertidal habitat creation sites by 2035, but purely with a nature conservation objective: see the document that indicates the changes to the public consultation version of the plan, available at:

126 Ibid., at p. 48.

127 Jonkman et al., n. 68 above, pp. 1357–73.

128 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts, ‘Managing Our Coastal Zone in a Changing Climate: The Time to Act is Now’, House of Representatives Committee Report, Oct. 2009, available at:; see also Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, ‘Adapting to Climate Change in Australia: A Position Paper’, 19 Feb. 2010, at p. 11, available at:; and Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, ‘Developing a National Coastal Adaptation Agenda: A Report on the National Climate Change Forum’, 18–19 Feb. 2010, available at:∼/media/publications/adaptation/developing-national-coastal-adaptation-agenda.pdf.

129 M. Gibbs & T. Hill, ‘Coastal Climate Change Risk: Legal and Policy Responses’, Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, 2011, available at:∼/media/publications/coastal-climate-change-risk/CoastalLegislationReport-20120228-PDF.pdf; Norman, B., ‘Principles for an Intergovernmental Agreement for Coastal Planning and Climate Change in Australia’ (2009) 33(3) Habitat International, pp. 293–99; Harvey, N. & Woodroffe, C., ‘Australian Approaches to Coastal Vulnerability Assessment’ (2008) 3(1) Sustainability Science, pp. 6787.

130 For a full overview, see Gibbs & Hill, ibid. For examples, see also nn. 131, 132 and 136 below.

131 Department of Environment, Climate Change & Water, NSW, ‘Coastal Risk Management Guide: Incorporating Sea Level Rise Benchmarks in Coastal Risk Assessments’, Aug. 2010, available at:; Department of Environment and Resource Management, ‘Queensland Coastal Plan 2012’, at p. 94, available at:; Coast Protection Board South Australia, ‘Policy on Coast Protection and New Coastal Development’, 1991, available at:

132 E.g., Queensland Coastal Plan, ibid., clauses 1.3–1.4.

133 Ibid.

134 Northcape Properties Pty Ltd v. District Council of Yorke Peninsula [2008] SASC 57; Daikyo (North Queensland) Pty Ltd v. Cairns City Council [2003] QPEC 22; Mackay Conservation Group Inc. v. Mackay City Council [2006] QPELR 209; Charles Howard Pty Ltd v. Redland Shire Council [2007] QCA 200; Van Haandel v. Bryon Shire Council [2006] NSWLEC 394; Walker v. Minister for Planning (2007) 157 LGERA 124; Minister for Planning v. Walker (2008) 161 LGERA 423; Gippsland Coastal Board v. South Gippsland SC and Others (No. 2) [2008] VCAT 1545.

135 Gippsland Coastal Board v. South Gippsland SC and Others (No. 2), ibid.

137 Gippsland Coastal Board v. South Gippsland SC and Others (No. 2), n. 134 above, paras. 40–48.

138 Department of Planning and Community Development, Victoria, ‘General Practice Note: Managing Coastal Hazards and the Coastal Impacts of Climate Change’, Dec. 2008, available at:; and Department of Planning and Community Development, Victoria, ‘Direction No. 13: Managing Coastal Hazards and the Coastal Impacts of Climate Change’, 2008, available at:

139 Ibid.

140 Myers v. South Gippsland Shire Council [2008] VCAT 2414.

141 Department of Planning and Community Development, Victoria, ‘General Practice Note: Managing Coastal Hazards and the Coastal Impacts of Climate Change’, n. 138 above.

142 [2009] VCAT 2414.

143 [2010] VCAT 122.

144 Ibid., para. 90.

145 Leary, N. et al. ., ‘A Stitch in Time: General Lessons from Specific Cases’, in Leary, N. et al. . (eds.), Climate Change and Adaptation (Earthscan, 2008), pp. 127; Ruhl, J.B., ‘Climate Change Adaptation and the Structural Transformation of Environmental Law’ (2010) 40 Environmental Law, pp. 363431; Ison, R., Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World (Springer, 2010); Kundis Craig, R., ‘“Stationarity is Dead” – Long Live Transformation: Five Principles for Climate Change Adaptation Law’ (2010) 34 Harvard Environmental Law Review, pp. 973; Dobes, L., ‘Getting Real about Adapting to Climate Change: Using “Real Options” to Address the Uncertainties’ (2008) 15(3) Agenda, pp. 5569.

146 J. McDonald, ‘Paying the Price of Adaptation: Compensation for Climate Change Impacts’, in Bonyhady et al., n. 1 above, pp. 234–64, at 257–8. In the UK, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommended that the government establish principles to underpin decisions on assistance to communities badly affected by climate change, including the compensation that should be paid to individuals who suffer major loss: House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, ‘Adapting to Climate Change’, Sixth Report of Session 2009–10, 2010, at p. 19.

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