Sustainable coastal management and scientific uncertainty

The Australian Government in 1992 released two key documents to coincide with the Earth Summit of the same year. These documents were the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and the National Greenhouse Response Strategy (Commonwealth of Australia 1992a, NGWG 1992). Both documents related to a recognition of rapid global changes which require a different approach to our use of resources and also require planning for global change in the context of scientific uncertainty.

Sustainable coastal management

Sustainable development was defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in Our Common Future as that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (WCED 1987, p. 8).

This publication (also known as the 'Brundtland Report') suggested that economic development and environmental well-being are not mutually exclusive goals. It also recognised that current economic development is not environmentally or socially sustainable and that action is necessary if there is going to be continuing economic development and the world is going to live within its ecological means.

The key elements of sustainable development relate to the concept of needs and the restricted environmental ability to meet these needs, both present and future. Sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations (WCED 1987, p. 90).

In order to achieve sustainable development objectives for environment and development policies, it is important to have strategies such as conserving and enhancing the resource base, reorienting technology and managing risk, and merging environment and economics in decision-making (WCED 1987, p. 93).

In 1990 the Commonwealth of Australia released a discussion paper entitled Ecologically Sustainable Development in which it used a slightly different definition of sustainability and features of an ecologically sustainable development (ESD) approach (DPMC 1990). Here it defined ESD as 'using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased' and explained that some key features of an ESD approach are that:

• we need to consider, in an integrated way, the wider economic, social and environmental implications of our decisions and actions for Australia, the international community, and the biosphere; and

• we need to take a long-term rather than a short-term view when taking those decisions and actions.

It also defined the following broad areas of operational principles which it considered necessary for the implementation of a sustainable society:

• improvement in material and non-material well-being

• intergenerational equity

• intragenerational equity

• maintenance of ecological systems and protection of biodiversity

• global ramifications, including international spillovers, international trade and international cooperation, and

• dealing cautiously with risk, uncertainty and irreversibility.

In the same document the Commonwealth government proposed the establishment of nine working groups to consider the implementation of ecologically sustainable development principles in sectors of Australia's economy that have major impacts on the environment. Notwithstanding major criticisms of the discussion paper by Australian conservation groups (Hare 1990), the nine working groups were set up in 1990 and their final reports were publicly released in December 1991 (ESDWG 1991 a i).

The coastal zone did not fall neatly into any one of these nine sectors of the economy. In fact, it was necessary to set up 37 additional intersectoral working groups, including one on coasts, in order to address ESD issues properly. By the time the national ESD strategy was released in 1992 it contained eight sectoral sections and an additional 22 intersectoral sections, including section 17 on coastal zone management. The key coastal objective in the ESD strategy is Objective 17.1: to develop coastal policies, consistent with ESD principles, within each jurisdiction (Commonwealth of Australia 1992, p. 70).

It is possible to identify some key areas of coastal management related to ESD principles, such as:

• the use of coastal resources by present generations is achieved while protecting the interests of future generations through, for example:

- maintaining and enhancing natural capital (e.g. pristine coasts, clean beaches, unpolluted coastal waterways)

- avoiding over-exploitation of coastal resources

- minimising waste in coastal environments

• protection of coastal biodiversity and ecosystem integrity

• provision of net community benefits from coastal proposals that are implemented

• social equity, for example through public participation in the decisionmaking process on coastal development

• reflection of full environmental costs of proposals in decisions on coastal resource use

• caution in dealing with environmental risk and irreversibility in the coastal environment (e.g. sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and coastal vulnerability). The concept of ESD underpinned both the RAC Inquiry (1993) and the development of the Commonwealth Coastal Policy (1995). These are discussed elsewhere in this book. The Commonwealth government occasionally produces reports on the implementation of the national strategy on ESD. For example, the first of these (ICESD 1996) contains a six-page section (pages 122-7) dealing with coastal management. This report makes specific reference to the use of ESD principles through the RAC Inquiry and the Commonwealth Coastal Policy. It also outlines what actions on ESD had been taken at that time in six states, and comments on local government activities.

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