Global sea level expert John Church wins leading climate change award. Photo: Supplied

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By Allison Hore

Award-winning climate and sea level expert Professor John Church of the University of NSW says that if “drastic and immediate” climate action isn’t taken, sea levels may rise by more than a metre by the end of this century.

Such a rise would have “catastrophic” consequences for low-lying islands and coastal regions, as well as areas around rivers and lakes, especially in countries with high population densities like Vietnam and Bangladesh.

But there is also risk closer to home. Australia’s population is centered on coastal areas, with two fifths of the population living in Sydney and Melbourne. A rise in sea levels of the magnitude that Professor Church is predicting is something that he thinks Australians should be concerned about.

Flooding of coastal areas

He believes that it is the flooding of estuaries and coastal regions that would have the greatest impact on Sydney.

“If we have unmitigated emissions we are talking about what is actually a once in a 100-year flood occurring every year, or more frequently,” Professor Church says.

“As sea level rises you actually increase the frequency at which coastal areas are flooded. And that increase can be quite dramatic. We have already seen on both the east coast and the west coast of Australia an increase by about a factor of 3.”

Areas of particular concern are Caringbah, Kurnell, Cromer and Manly Vale and other coastal suburbs.

However, more frequent flooding would also threaten homes and infrastructure in areas along the Parramatta River such as Homebush Bay, Newington and Silverwater.

Another issue that Professor Church predicts would affect Sydney and its surrounds is coastal erosion, but this has not been studied as widely.

Tourism is Australia’s largest services industry export, and with coastal regions being the main drawcard for tourists, Professor Church says that a rise in sea levels would do serious damage to the nation’s economy.

“We have got a huge amount of infrastructure right on the coast, and people are moving ever closer to the coast both to live and for holidays. We are going to have to protect that.”

It’s not just a rise this century that people should be worried about. Professor Church says that the actions we take now will have an impact on sea level for many centuries to come.

“We could, during this century, commit the world to metres of sea level rise that we wouldn’t experience, but our children, grandchildren and future generations will,” he explains.

Last week Professor Church was awarded the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Climate Change, making him the first person in Australia to receive this award. The prize wasn’t awarded for a single project, but rather for the importance of the science he and his team have been doing for the past 30 years.

They were recognised for their research that narrowed down the causes of sea level rises by linking satellite observations with measurements and mathematical modelling to identify the human impact on sea level changes. They are also credited for discovering that the rate of sea level rise is accelerating over time.

This is the 11th year of the international award which recognises significant contributions in the areas of scientific research and cultural creation.

Feeling the heat on climate change

When asked about what can be done to turn the tides on the rate of sea level rise, Professor Church said the answer is simple. We need to produce less carbon emission.

“We need to reduce our emissions, and the easiest area to do that in is in energy generation, by using renewable energies like solar and wind, and also making use of pump hydro and battery storage,” he says.

He believes that Australia is “far behind” in terms of taking climate action. He says the government needs to prioritise and step up their commitments.

According to data from emissions tracking organisation Ndevr Environmental, Australia is not on track to meet its Paris agreement target. The data showed that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions from January to September last year reached an all-time high at over 550 tonnes.

“Definitely Australia is not doing enough, we have a target of 26% reduction in emissions by 2030 and the government’s own figures don’t look like meeting that. Even if the prime minister says we will meet the target, the figures don’t support that.”

Church says that even if the 26% target was being met it would be “way inadequate”.

“We need to revise those targets and we need to implement plans to ensure that we meet those much more drastic reductions, and we need a decent energy policy,” he explains.

With parts of Sydney forecast to reach 45 degrees on Friday as part of an extreme heatwave, Sydneysiders are already feeling the heat on climate change.