Every state for themselves? Learning from cross-border regulatory instruments to support and promote climate change adaptation in Australia

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Wendy Steele
Griffith University
Year Started: 

Executive summary from final report:

Climate change – itself without boundaries – poses significant challenges to traditional modes of environmental planning and management in two distinct ways: firstly climate change has the potential to act as a threat multiplier on varied social, economic and environmental challenges that already exist; and secondly climate risks often compound existing spatial, social and environmental challenges (Gasper et al. 2011). In particular this will require more effective engagement with climate change adaptation as an issue of ad hoc and fragmented approaches to place (geography), space (institutions), and territory (politics) – and a re-configuration of all three across regional areas that span established state boundaries. 

This research is funded by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) Adaptation Research Grants Program (ARGP) 2011-2013. The focus is what can be learnt from existing cross-border regulatory mechanisms with a view to strengthening and improving cross-border climate change adaptation practices in Australia. There is currently little understanding of the range of cross-border mechanisms and regulatory innovations, the efficacy of how they work, nor the key lessons that could be gleaned and adapted from existing initiatives for the purposes of climate change adaptation.

The emphasis of this three-stage project is identifying and collating the lessons learnt from existing Australian examples of regulatory reform models, authorities and mechanisms that have emerged to address cross-border issues at the national, state and local level. Using an institutional learning framework, the research offers key insights into the evolution, challenges and potentialities of cross-border governance for Australian-based climate change adaptation. 

The cross-border governance problematique focuses primarily around two key agendas: [i] the novel re-articulations of power that cross-border innovations pose, involving diverse groups of actors and networks; and [ii] the benefits and dis-benefits of informal collaborative transboundary arrangements as compared to more formalised regulatory state mechanisms. To this end, conceptual and practical understandings of cross-border governance and regulation can be seen to converge in their focus on the political and institutional processes of re-territorialisation.

A number of key findings have emerged from the research as a means of better supporting and promoting climate change adaptation in Australia as a cross-border agenda. These include the following: 

  • Climate change impacts do not adhere to set administrative boundaries yet adaptation as a cross-border issue is not well addressed within the context of the 3-tier government system that characterises Australian federalism. 
  • There are significant challenges impeding cross-border collaboration in Australia (legal, institutional, cultural, historical) particularly at the state level. 
  • There are benefits and disbenefits of informal collaborative transboundary arrangements as compared to more formalised regulatory state mechanisms. The majority of cross-border arrangements in Australia at present do not have statutory effect. 
  • Time critical issues, such as emergency response, point towards a top-down response that cuts across all institutional and bureaucratic barriers.
  • The cross-border landscape in Australia is shifting however with: [i] new national legislation (i.e. Murray Darling Basin); [ii] new roles (i.e. NSW cross-border commissioner); and [iii] new regional organisations (i.e. Regional Development Australia) – these initiatives can be used to implement climate change adaptation activities as part of a broader mainstreaming adaptation agenda. 
  • The benefits of greater cross-border collaboration in key areas related to climate change adaptation such as emergency management, natural resource management and urban planning and development is significant in terms of equity and fairness (distributive, procedural and participatory) and efficiency (resources, communication, duplication). 

Key findings to emerge that were novel and/or unanticipated during the project include. 

  • Significant adaptation issues are regional and cross-border in scale (not local) as typically reflected in the climate change adaptation literature. 
  • There is a growing national role in cross-border issues – particularly related to funding, legitimacy and arbitration across state borders in an era of encroaching ‘competitive federalism’.
  • Local-level cross-border arrangements often exist and flourish ‘under the radar’ based largely on informal networks around areas of identified need. 
  • Cross-border arrangements comprise communities of interest (i.e. climate change adaptation) and communities of practice (regional harmonisation) – these need to be better understood in context.

The complexity of cross-border governance requires the coordination of policies vertically as well as horizontally. Key climate change related issues such as water security demand new ways of thinking across-borders, institutions and regulatory regimes. The creation of cross-border regions through regulatory reform strategies and institutional practices involves, according to Gualini (2003, p. 46), “the loosening of jurisdictional boundaries and scales within a change in relationships between supranational, national and sub-national authorities”. 

As Forster (2011) notes previous governance structures may no longer be viable in the face of increased pressures due to the impacts of climate change. The governance of climate change adaptation or key resources such as water thus offers “a useful ‘learning laboratory’ for developing understandings and practices necessary for embarking on new governance trajectories” (Tisdell, 2009, p 3972). 

To this end the mere existence of multiple levels of government and/or governance is not in and of itself enough. Church and Reid (1999) have emphasized the need for cross-border governance to focus on the nature and integrity of co-operation; the nature of power relationships among actors; and the recognition of organisational diversity. Key to this dialectic is the strategic interplay of a number of factors including: access to resources and funding; policy exchange; political lobbying; cost-benefit sharing and positioning of intergovernmental relations. 

Regardless of the style and type of governance approach and/or mechanism deployed, cross-border regions are best understood as ever-emergent territorial and functional arrangements, rather than discrete stand alone initiatives equipped with self-governing capabilities. Within the Australian context the capacity to support and promote climate change adaptation through cross-border mechanisms at the regional scale is still an evolving agenda within the current governance framework.

View the final report

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