Summary

Rising temperature graphic with thermometer and sun

Increase in temperature

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~1.0°C

increase in average temperature from 1960–90 to the present time

Sun over sea graphic

Sea level rise

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3.2mm

rise in sea level per year for the NSW coast since 1993

The climate of New South Wales is changing due to global warming. The effects of climate change on the people and the environment of NSW are expected to become more pronounced and increase in severity as warming continues over the next century.

Emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from human activity (including power generation, industry, transport and agriculture) are leading to a build-up of these gases in the atmosphere, trapping heat and leading to global warming.

Average temperatures for the most recent decade (2008 to 2017) are ~1oC higher than late in the last century (1960 to 1990), with 2014 and 2017 reaching up to 1.5oC higher. Other observed changes include increased variability in rainfall and temperature and some increase in the incidence of extreme weather events.

Since the late 20th Century, sea surface temperatures have warmed by 0.5–0.8oC. The rate of sea level rise has almost doubled, increasing from an average of 1.7mm per year for the past century to approximately 3.2mm per year since 1993.

The changes to climate are expected to become more severe over time. Best estimates suggest that by 2070 temperature will have risen by a further 2.1oC with much larger increases in extreme temperatures. Sea levels are expected to rise by a half to one metre by the end of the 21st Century.

The future effects of climate change will be extensive, including more extreme weather events, increasing coastal erosion and inundation and impacts on infrastructure, human health and wellbeing. The survival of many species and ecosystems, water availability and the productivity of some agricultural systems will be affected.

Effective action to counteract the effects of climate change will depend on concerted action globally. The extent of the impacts from this threat will be determined by the actions and the time taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The NSW Climate Change Policy Framework released in 2016 sets targets for NSW to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and to become more resilient to a changing climate and sets out directions for adaptation to climate change.

The NARCliM climate modelling project provides projections of likely changes in climate at regional levels of NSW. Integrated Regional Vulnerability Assessments have been completed across NSW to identify specific regional vulnerabilities. The AdaptNSW website provides guidance on implementing adaptive responses.

Related topics:  Economic Activity and the EnvironmentEnergy Consumption | Greenhouse Gas Emissions | Transport

NSW indicators

* You may need to scroll to the right to see the full content, or switch to landscape orientation.

Indicator and status Environmental 
trend
Information 
reIiability
Annual mean temperature (present)
statusMODERATE
Getting worse ✔✔✔
Sea level rise (present)
statusMODERATE
Getting worse ✔✔✔
Rate of temperature warming
statusPOOR
Stable ✔✔✔  
Annual mean temperature (2070): projected outcomes
statusPOOR
Getting worse ✔✔
Sea level rise (2070): projected outcomes
statusPOOR
Getting worse ✔✔

Notes:

Terms and symbols used above are defined in How to use this report.

Context

A natural greenhouse effect has been warming the Earth for some 4 billion years, keeping it habitable for life. Energy radiated by the Sun passes through the atmosphere and reaches the Earth’s surface relatively unimpeded. Some is absorbed by oceans, soils and vegetation. The rest is either reflected or re-radiated as infrared radiation (heat). This radiation is less able to pass through the atmosphere and is partly trapped by naturally occurring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour, nitrous oxide and ozone.

The temperature of the Earth has not been constant over time. Global temperatures and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have fluctuated naturally over the millennia. Climate change is therefore not a new phenomenon. The difference between a planetary ice age and a warm interglacial period is a variation in global average temperature of 6–7°C. Temperature changes of this scale can lead to substantial disturbance of the world’s climate and ecosystems and have triggered mass extinctions in the past. (IPCC 2007b).

However, these natural cycles of change have taken place gradually over millennial timeframes. Since the start of the industrial age in about 1750 the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) together with land-use changes, agriculture and other human activities, have resulted in growing emissions of greenhouse gases. This is leading to an accumulation of these gases in the atmosphere. From the middle of the 20th Century these emissions have escalated markedly. The rates of increase now being observed in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and consequentially in temperature are unprecedented in the past 800,000 years (Lüthi et al. 2008).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a United Nations body that assesses the latest scientific research on climate change and its effects from around the world. The IPCC has published five comprehensive assessment reports to date, the most current being the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014 (IPCC 2014).

Key findings include the following:

  • warming of the climate is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia
  • human influence is clear and is the dominant cause of global warming since 1950.

Without substantial action, climate change poses a major threat to humanity and most living systems on Earth. While impacts are being observed now, they will become more pronounced over time. Some extreme climate events are projected to increase in duration, magnitude and frequency in the future with impacts on human communities and infrastructure.

Sea level rise is expected to lead to increased erosion of coastlines and more frequent and extensive coastal flooding. In the longer term, permanent inundation of low-lying coastal areas is likely. Ocean warming and acidification due to increased levels of carbon dioxide dissolved in seawater will lead to changes in the composition of marine ecosystems.

Climate conditions are likely to become less favourable for many species and ecosystems, which will be forced to migrate or adapt physiologically to survive. Changes in climate will also lead to reduced productivity in some existing agricultural systems, requiring a transition to alternative crops or shifting the location of some industries. Detrimental effects are also expected on human health and wellbeing.

In 2016, a total of 194, or 98% of nations, signed the Paris Climate Agreement, which has a focus on limiting global warming to well below 2°C and aims to limit it to 1.5°C. Each country has pledged to make national contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But presently, concentrations are continuing to rise at rates that will see temperatures increase above the Paris Agreement targets. Cuts in emissions well beyond those already pledged under the agreement will be necessary to meet the target. The extent of the impacts of climate change will ultimately be determined by the actions taken by nations globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Pressures

The NSW State of the Environment (SoE) framework, is based on the Pressure-State-Response model of reporting. Within this report, the issues of economic activity (the economy) and population growth are treated as drivers of environmental change. Unlike pressures, which have a direct impact on environmental outcomes, the effects of growth in population and the economy are more diffuse and are mediated through a complex network of pathways for resource use and consumption, the production of goods and services, and the generation of waste.

More specific issues, such as energy use and transport, are described as pressures. These account for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions in NSW and Australia. The build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the main cause of human-induced climate change. The changes that are happening to the Earth's climate are leading to a range of disturbances to physical and biological systems and processes, human society and infrastructure, reported as outcomes to environmental resources and assets.

It is generally accepted that a level of growth in the economy is desirable to improve living standards, but economic growth does not necessarily need to be achieved at a significant cost to the environment. The decoupling of economic growth (gross state product or GSP) from carbon emissions in the NSW economy over the past 30 years is demonstrated in the topic Economic activity and the environment. Since 1990 there has been a 60% reduction in carbon emissions per dollar of GSP in the NSW economy. The decoupling is clearer for carbon emissions than for most other benchmarks of environmental performance.

A report for the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Relief and Safer Communities (Deloitte Access Economics 2017) estimates the total economic cost of natural disasters in Australia. For NSW this figure is $3.6 billion per year, on average, at the current time. By 2050, this is estimated to rise to $10.6 billion. However, this estimate is conservative and explicitly excludes climate change from the analysis, so these costs are likely to be substantially higher. The costing of climate change impacts and responses is discussed further in the topic Economic activity and the environment.

Over the past five years the NSW population has grown at a rate of 1.5% annually. Higher population leads to an increased demand for food, resources, energy and transport, all of which have associated greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past 10 years, total energy consumption has remained stable, but there has been an overall decline in the per capita consumption of electricity in NSW.

The production and use of energy from non-renewable sources is the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions in NSW. Total energy use has fallen slightly over the past 10 years. Fossil fuels currently account for about 93.5% of the final energy use.

Transport is the largest (and fastest growing) sector for total energy use, at 45%. Electricity use has fallen slightly and accounts for around one-fifth of total energy use. For more information see the topics Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

The main cause of global warming and climate change is the build-up in the atmosphere of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, including power generation and use, transport, industry and agriculture.

In NSW, greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2007 and are now about 22% lower than their 1990 levels. Stationary energy from electricity generation is the most carbon intensive form of energy use and is responsible for the largest proportion of emissions in NSW (51%), while the transport sector accounts for about 21%.

NSW (and Australia’s) contribution to total global greenhouse gas emissions is small, but on a per capita basis it is relatively high. In isolation, efforts to reduce emissions will have little impact, so global cooperation is needed to achieve effective reduction and change.

The more greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere, the greater the risk that a climate tipping point will be triggered (Drijfhout et al. 2015). Climate tipping points can occur when gradual changes to the climate system produce feedbacks, which can result in abrupt climate shifts.

Our ability to predict when and at what temperature these climate tipping points will be reached is currently limited. Three climate tipping points associated with greenhouse gases are (OECD report 2017, Box 2.1):

  • the release of organic carbon (methane) from melted permafrost in the Arctic region, which would drastically increase atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and sea levels (Saunois et al. 2016)
  • a collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning ocean circulation, which influences the global distribution of heat, nutrients and gases, associated with increased freshwater and warming near the ocean surface (Boulton et al. 2014)
  • deforestation that would permanently damage the rainfall cycle and reduce the ability of forests to absorb greenhouse gases and to sustain local ecosystems (Galford et al. 2010; Lovejoy and Nobre 2018).

Responses

There are two main strategies available to address the effects of climate change – mitigation and adaptation.

Mitigation of climate change describes the actions taken to limit or reduce the extent of global warming by reducing the levels of greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity, and the actions taken to remove emissions from the atmosphere or from sources of emissions. Adaptation describes the actions taken to reduce, moderate or adjust to the expected or actual effects of climate change, or to take advantage of new opportunities.

This section outlines the key adaptation responses to the impacts of climate change that global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) are unable to avoid. Responses to mitigate emissions are described in the Responses section of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Energy Consumption topics.

Because global action is needed for mitigation of climate change to be effective, a pragmatic response to climate change, with a balance between mitigation and adaptation strategies, is appropriate.

NSW Climate Change Policy Framework

In November 2016, the government released its NSW Climate Change Policy Framework with the aspirational objectives to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and make NSW more resilient to a changing climate. The framework articulates the state’s endorsement of the Paris Agreement, and sets key policy directions for mitigation and adaptation. For adaptation these include:

  • taking advantage of opportunities to grow new industries in NSW
  • reducing risks and damage to public and private assets in NSW arising from climate change
  • reducing climate change impacts on health and wellbeing
  • managing impacts on natural resources, ecosystems and communities.

In line with the objectives of the policy framework, several long-term planning strategies set goals for the government to build the state's resilience to climate impacts and to prepare for changes in the climate.

State Infrastructure Strategy

The State Infrastructure Strategy prioritises making the state’s $300 billion asset base resilient to shocks and stresses such as floods, bushfires and storms. This includes:

  • improving the collection and sharing of data on natural hazards
  • undertaking regular assessments of the vulnerability of assets
  • consideration of natural hazards in land-use planning
  • undertaking investment assessments for new and upgraded infrastructure.

Future Transport Strategy

The Future Transport Strategy commits to making the transport network more resilient to greater extremes of weather and more frequent extreme weather events.

Greater Sydney Region Plan and Regional Plans

The Greater Sydney Region Plan and Regional Plans for 10 state planning regions across NSW include strategies for minimising the impacts of climate change on local communities. The Greater Sydney Region Plan proposes to strengthen Sydney’s resilience to climate change by increasing the urban tree canopy to reduce the impact of extreme heat and to use energy and water resources more efficiently.

Coastal Management Framework

The NSW Government’s new Coastal Management Framework, which started in 2018, establishes a new strategic land-use planning framework for coastal management. This requires local councils to prepare management programs that consider the effects of climate change on coastal processes. It also includes a Coastal Management State Environmental Planning Policy and local planning direction, which requires councils and other planning authorities to consider current and future hazards in strategic planning when assessing coastal development proposals.

State Level Emergency Risk Assessment

The government’s 2017 State Level Emergency Risk Assessment made recommendations to integrate climate change impacts and adaptation mechanisms into emergency management arrangements.

Critical Infrastructure Resilience Strategy

The NSW Critical Infrastructure Resilience Strategy, released in 2018, highlights the benefits of improved adaptation of critical infrastructure to address long-term stresses, such as climate change. The strategy notes the responsibility of the state government to integrate climate change adaptation into government assets and services.

There are three integrated work areas within the NSW Climate Change Adaptation program:

  • Climate Change Information and Knowledge Delivery – programs and products that provide NSW communities with access to locally specific climate change data, tools and resources to help them make informed and effective decisions
  • Cultural and Ecosystem-based Adaptation – programs to minimise the impact of climate change on urban and natural environments by protecting and enhancing ecosystem services and cultural values, including through the NSW National Parks Adaptation Strategy
  • Regional Preparedness – programs to help regional decision makers to address local climate change vulnerabilities, safeguard government assets and services by tracking their exposure to climate risks, provide training to build skills, and direct technical and financial support to implement adaptation projects and build the capacity for effective response.

NSW and ACT Regional Climate Model

The NSW and ACT Regional Climate Modelling (NARCliM) project is a world-leading climate modelling system developed in partnership with the ACT Government and the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of NSW. It provides detailed regional projections for use by decision makers across NSW. NARCliM provides short-term (2020–39) and long-term (2060–79) projections of likely changes in climate, including:

  • temperature and rainfall
  • fire weather
  • hot days (maximums >35⁰C)
  • cold nights (minimums <2⁰C).

These projections are assisting in planning and adapting to likely changes in future climate.

AdaptNSW website

The AdaptNSW website provides comprehensive climate change information, analysis and data to support action to address climate change risks and capture opportunities. It includes information on the causes of climate change and likely impacts on biodiversity, bushfires, east coast lows, heat, human health, sea level and coasts, soil and water resources. The website also identifies regional climate change vulnerabilities and provides guidance on implementing adaptive responses to climate change.

Integrated Regional Vulnerability Assessments

Integrated Regional Vulnerability Assessments have been completed for 11 regions across NSW, involving over 1,500 state and local government representatives. These assessments identify how climate change can create vulnerabilities in key regional systems through socio-economic and demographic change, and opportunities to respond through the planning and delivery of government services.

Building Resilience to Climate Change

The NSW Government is helping local councils and communities adapt to climate change by investing in programs that help reduce exposure to natural hazards and other climate risks. The Building Resilience to Climate Change grants program has provided nearly $1.3 million dollars for 62 councils to implement 21 climate change adaptation projects across the state.

NSW Climate Change Adaptation Research Hub

The government established the NSW Climate Change Adaptation Research Hub in 2012, as a collaboration between leading NSW universities and the Office of Environment and Heritage. It has delivered over 70 research projects on action for climate change adaptation across four priority areas:

  • biodiversity
  • adaptive communities
  • coastal processes and responses
  • human health and social impacts.

Five Million Trees Initiative

The government is promoting the use of urban green cover to alleviate urban heat, including the Five Million Trees Initiative to increase the urban canopy in Sydney from 16% to 40% by 2030. This will provide more shade, cooler suburbs and increased comfort for communities to adapt to increasing temperatures and more frequent heatwaves.

Other programs

Many other natural resource management programs incorporate a consideration of climate change and the development of resilience in their objectives and delivery. These include:

  • The Enhanced Bushfire Management Program, which is designed to improve hazard reduction and bushfire response capabilities to protect against increasing fire risks due to the impacts of climate change.
  • Private land conservation: the NSW Government has provided $240 million in funding through the Biodiversity Conservation Trust to support willing landholders to manage their land for conservation and increase the resilience of the land sector.
  • Protected Area Management, which supports the delivery of on-park infrastructure and works to build resilience to climate change and other pressures and to increase awareness of the importance of adaptation
  • The Hawkesbury-Nepean Flood Risk Management Strategy: the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley has a high risk of flooding and climate change may increase the risk so the NSW Government has committed $58 million for Phase One of the Flood Strategy, including funding to support planning and a final assessment of the upgrade to the Warragamba Dam.

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