2020 Research highlights

Below is a small sample (far from comprehensive) which demonstrates the breadth of climate change research by our members in 2020.

Research stories

New books in 2020

The Psychology of Fake News – Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation

Co-edited by Dr Eryn Newman, Lecturer at the ANU College of Health and Medicine, Research School of Psychology

The Event Horizon: Homo Prometheus and the Climate Catastrophe

By Dr Andrew Glikson, Visiting Fellow at the ANU College of Science, Research School of Earth Sciences

Living with the Anthropocene: Love, Loss and Hope in the Face of Environmental Crisis

Featuring contribution by Prof Libby Robin, Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society

Research Handbook on Climate Change Adaptation Policy

Featuring contribution by Dr Tayanah O’Donnell, Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Fenner School of Environment and Society

Managing Climate Change Adaptation in the Pacific Region

Featuring contribution by PhD Scholar Melanie Pill, Fenner School of Environment and Society

Pocket Guide to UNFCCC Processes and Architecture

Co-authored by Dr Ian Fry – Chief Climate Change Negotiator, Government of Tuvalu; Senior Lecturer, Fenner School of Environment and Society

Research articles by theme

This research represents a tiny sample of the research on climate change happening across the University.

Climate systems

The Australian National University is part of a consortium for a new Climate Systems ‘mega’ research hub, which is part of the next phase of Australia’s National Environmental Science Program. The Hub consortium is led by CSIRO, and includes the Bureau of Meteorology, Monash University, University of Melbourne, University of NSW, and the University of Tasmania. The hub will come into effect in early 2021.

Prof David Stern co-authored research with Stephan Bruns and Zsuzsanna Csereklyei in the Journal of Econometrics, on modelling the ocean-atmosphere system using an econometric time series model. The authors estimate that the equilibrium climate sensitivity is 2.8ºC, which is close to the scientific consensus and higher than previous models using econometric methods.

A team led by Dr Steven Lade and Prof Will Steffen quantitatively assessed how human pressures on one part of the Earth system, such as carbon emissions, can affect the safe levels of pressures in other parts of the Earth system, such as water extraction or nutrient use.

Dr Steven Lade also held a position as a research scientist at the Earth Commission Secretariat. The Earth Commission will assess the Earth system conditions for a safe and just corridor for human development. In 2020, Prof Xuemei Bai has also been engaged as the co-lead of the Earth Commission's Working Group on Translation and Methods.

Dr Mona Mahani has been developing a global trend analysis of the frost season length, as shown in the figure below, noted as frost window. From a global perspective, the analysis demonstrates that despite an overall warming trend in the annual minimum temperature over the last four decades, there exist regions of localised increase in frost season length. These regions showing positive trends are depicted in blue, which indicates broadening of the frost window and therefore cooling conditions, whereas the regions depicted in red indicate negative trends and hence warming conditions. Understanding these changes at global scale is an important step in determining exposure, vulnerability and focus for adaptation. In addition, it could be particularly important at regional scale for the agricultural sector in managing the frost risk and minimising the frost-related losses.

A figure from the frost analysis research by Dr Mona Mahani. The figure demonstrates that despite an overall warming trend in the annual minimum temperature over the last four decades, there exist regions of localised increased in frost season length.

Climate change knowledge production and use

Dr Ruth O’Connor, Prof Joan Leach, Dr Lorrae Van Kerkoff, and others, co-authored a paper exploring how environmental managers engage in collaborative research. The paper drew upon two cases from Australia and South Africa. The results showed that environmental managers generally valued science and were shown to contribute knowledge about stakeholders, local ecosystems and how to apply science like climate modelling. However, their input to issue definition at project conception was limited.

Dr Claudia Munera Roldan and Assoc. Prof Lorrae Van Kerkoff published research exploring whether, how and to what extent the governance of knowledge helps or hinders managerial change towards more proactive climate adaptation. They found that the results of scientific experimentation and modelling (mainly in the natural sciences) are often stated as the preferred source of knowledge to inform decision making, forming a dominant narrative that climate adaptation can and should be driven by scientific and technical information. However, institutional arrangements in practice were typically more diverse in the knowledge sources that contribute to protected area policy and practice. They propose that understanding institutional arrangements that shape adaptation decision contexts can help to address barriers for using climate information effectively, including understanding its limitations.

Climate change mitigation

Distinguished Prof Xuemei Bai co-authored a paper that analyses the water, carbon, reactive nitrogen, and phosphorus footprints of food consumption in Chinese urban regions, and demonstrates how such information can help to formulate tailored mitigation strategies. The results show that in three of the largest urban regions of China, 44–93% of the four footprints are embodied in transboundary food supply. The size of the footprints and the effectiveness of mitigation measures in food supply chain vary across the environmental footprints and urban regions. However, targeting agriculture and food processing sectors in only three provinces can reduce these footprints by up to 47%. The findings show that the analysis of the environmental footprints along the transboundary food supply chains could inform individualized and effective mitigation targets and strategies.

Prof Bai also co-authored a paper titled Systematising and upscaling urban climate change mitigation. The paper highlights four core areas for systematizing and upscaling urban climate mitigation solutions. These are a) more and better data and associated machine learning methods, as there is increasing potential to compare types of cities and leverage collective understanding; b) demand-side action as related to both behavioural change and modified social practices relevant to urban space deserve more academic attention and integration across a diverse set of social sciences; c) at the urban scale, measures and solutions that coordinate mitigation coherently with adaptation and broader sustainable development goals require explicit conceptualization and systematization; d) developing governance frameworks that translate scientific exercises into concrete, realistic and organized action plans on the ground, for all cities.

Climate change and mental health

Prof Iain Walker was successful in his funding bid for his research proposal Building community resilience to promote mental health in bushfire-affected communities. This bid was part of the Australian Government’s $5 million investment into the Medical Research Future Fund, for research on the health effects of the recent bushfires.

Climate change and economics

Prof Warwick McKibbin co-authored a paper that analysed the economic and environmental outcomes that are likely to result from the Paris Climate Agreement. The authors found that if all regions achieve their NDCs, the Agreement significantly reduces CO2 emissions relative to baseline. However, global emissions would not decline in absolute terms relative to 2015 levels, let alone follow a path consistent with a 2 °C stabilization scenario. The authors also found that leaving the Agreement raises GDP for the country that leaves, but it also sharply reduces the domestic co-benefits the country receives as a side effect of controlling CO2. For each country they considered, the net effect of withdrawing is negative: the loss of co-benefits exceeds the gain in GDP. That is, we show that when co-benefits are considered, it is in each country's self-interest to remain in the Agreement.

Despite this, the authors found that there are still large climate benefits produced by the Agreement. They also found that every region receives a net benefit from participating in the Agreement, and that all regions are better off participating in the Agreement than withdrawing from it – even without accounting for the co-benefits. In monetary value, the global climate benefit of the Agreement through to 2030 is $2.25 trillion.

Prof McKibbin also contributed to Chapter 3 of the International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook. The chapter is titled Mitigating climate change – growth-and-distribution-friendly strategies. The chapter suggests that combining steadily rising carbon prices with an initial push in green investment would see both the necessary reduction in emissions, as well as placing the global economy on a more sustainable and strong footing in the medium term. 

Climate change and coastal impacts

Dr Tayanah O’Donnell authored and co-authored several papers on coastal climate policy across Australia, managed and planned retreat, and the complex relationship between coastal private property rights and climate change adaptation.

In a paper published in the Ocean and Coastal Management journal, Dr O’Donnell examines critical legal geography and coastal climate change adaptation. In particular, she examines the role that complex political ecologies and legal geographies have played in underpinning a decade of idealised integrated coastal management in New South Wales, Australia.

In another paper, Contrasting land use policies for climate change adaptation: A case study of political and geo-legal realities for Australian coastal locations, Dr O’Donnell critically examines how local governments use law and land use policy to respond to climate change adaptation in three coastal localities in New South Wales, Australia.

Dr O’Donnell published a paper regarding private coastal properties, which examines cultural ideas about private property and the complexities of using land use planning law as an enabler of climate change adaptation. 

Dr O’Donnell also co-edited, published a chapter for, the publication Legal Geography: Perspectives and Methods. Dr O’Donnell’s chapter is titled Inside-Outside: An Interrogation of Coastal Climate Change Adaptation Through the Gaze of ‘The Lawyer’.

Climate change and museums

Prof Libby Robins published a paper in the Journal of the Philosophy of History, which considers how the new epoch of Earth, the Anthropocene, where humans have become a geological force, poses challenges for exhibitions and reshapes museums themselves. Prof Robins states that crucial to managing stories, collections and objects in Anthropocene times is the capacity to change course, to remain open to new developments, using performances, events and “pop-up” exhibitions alongside traditional museum offerings.

Transition to a low-carbon, sustainable society

PhD Scholar Yuan Peng published a paper with Distinguished Prof Xuemei Bai, examining the direct and flow-on effects of a city-level direct-funding scheme on urban low-carbon initiatives, taking Shanghai as a case study.

The finding shows that, over the 11 years of its implementation, the fund has led to a carbon reduction outcome and has become a catalyst for a series of institutional changes by enabling and enhancing cooperation across numerous government departments in Shanghai.

The study demonstrates that a well-designed, city-level direct-funding scheme can fill the “implementation” gap between the policy intentions (i.e. the low-carbon initiatives and implementation framework) and the policy outcomes (e.g. carbon reduction and the institutional formation in the transition). More importantly, it may nurture and enable a pool of policy experiments and innovations for effective policy learning, which may justify the potential attractiveness of a city-level direct fund in managing the low-carbon transition.

PhD Scholar Yan Zhang published research co-authored by Distinguished Prof Xuemei Bai, and Assoc. Prof Franklin Mills, exploring occupants' energy-related behaviour in residential buildings with empirical data from a large-scale survey in Beijing, China. The study aimed to present an in-depth and comprehensive picture of occupant behaviour. The results show that, typically, purchase behaviour is overall energy-efficient, as most appliances purchased are energy efficient. On the other hand, there is a lack of apparent linkage between purchase and habitual behaviours, a comprehensive policy framework incorporating different measures for different types of behaviour is necessary. The complexity underlying behavioural choices also suggests the necessity of better understanding the behavioural patterns and their determining factors, as well as avoiding any simplistic assumption in policymaking that aims to consider behavioural factors.

CCI member Dr Tayanah O’Donnell is also the Director of Future Earth Australia, and was a member of the Expert Reference Group for the Sustainable Cities and Regions – 10 year strategy to enable urban systems transformation report, that was co-produced with the Australian Academy of Science.

Prof Frank Jotzo co-authored a working paper that reviews and evaluates key policy initiatives and strategies designed to strengthen regional economic, social and environmental outcomes in the Latrobe Valley (Victoria, Australia) in the three years following the closure of the Hazelwood power station. The paper finds that Hazelwood case study provides support for a number of propositions about successful regional energy transition including that well managed, just transitions to a prosperous zero-carbon economy are likely to be strengthened by proactive, well integrated industry policy and regional renewal strategies; respectful and inclusive engagement with workers and communities; and adequately funded, well-coordinated public investment in economic and community strategies, tailored to regional strengths and informed by local experience.

Prof Jotzo also co-authored a paper, alongside PhD Scholar Zeba Anjum and Dr Thomas Longden, that takes stock of approaches for evaluating and choosing options for public investment in projects and programs that support economic recovery, are consistent with a low-carbon transition, and bring broader economic, environmental and social benefits. The paper finds that promising categories for public stimulus include renewable energy supply, including by fast-tracking renewable energy zones and transmission investment, some types of transport infrastructure projects, energy efficiency programs including retrofits of public housing and buildings, and land management projects including to restore ecosystems that were damaged in Australia’s bushfires. Investments like these hold promise to create jobs and local economic activity, while supporting lower-carbon outcomes and achieving other societal goals.

Prof Jotzo also co-authored an analysis of China’s recent Government Work Report, in light of China’s decisions regarding low-carbon stimulus following COVID-19. The analysis suggests that while a repeat of recovery measures focused on high-emissions infrastructure following the 2008 global recession is not in the cards, a Chinese Green New Deal is not in sight either. Much investment is flowing to fossil fuel industries, whilst support policies for renewable energy industries are absent from Beijing’s recovery program.

Climate change and water

PhD Scholar Ruirui Zhu, Assoc. Prof Barry Croke, and Prof Anthony Jakeman co-authored research looking into the impact of climate change on groundwater discharge in respond to groundwater levels in the Murrumbidgee River in Australia since 1975. They found that all eight of the headwater catchments they studied in the Murrumbidgee have experienced significant reductions in groundwater discharge since the 1990s. These reductions show a close correlation with climate factors and can largely (estimated here at >75%) be attributed to climate factors. The decrease in precipitation combined with the increase in potential evapotranspiration together contribute to the noticeable decrease in groundwater discharge, with the decrease in precipitation outweighing the increase in potential evapotranspiration in reducing groundwater discharge. In particular, the decreasing rainfall in autumn accounts for the largest proportion of the decrease in groundwater discharge although groundwater discharge is the most sensitive to winter rainfall. The authors suggest that there needs to be more research into the relationship between groundwater and climate factors, to better understand how climate change will impact groundwater.

Dr Ruth O’Connor co-authored a paper investigating the relationship between water temperature and the aquatic life in a hot spring complex in north Queensland. The findings indicate consistent increases in water temperature expected under climate change could decrease biological richness in tropical aquatic ecosystems.

Carbon capture and utilisation

The ANU Climate Change Institute, alongside Monash University, Curtin University, The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, and CSIRO, have collaborated on the submission for a national and international initiative, ARC Research Hub for Carbon Reuse and Transforming Emissions, or ‘ARC RECREATE’. The submission’s outcome will be determined by mid next year.

This Research Hub aims to transform carbon emissions in the natural gas and chemical sectors of the Australian economy through a comprehensive program of research and development aimed at creating value from carbon dioxide emissions.

We would like to extend thanks to all ANU Chief Investigators (CIs) on this initiative:

Key CI #5: Assoc. Prof Llewelyn Hughes


Prof Wojciech Lipinski

Assoc. Prof Zongyou Yin

Dr Emma Aisbett

Dr Fiona Beck

Climate change communication

PhD Scholar Nic Badullovich, with co-authors Dr Will Grant and Dr Bec Colvin, authored a systematic map of the literature evidencing the effect of framing in climate change communications.

PhD Scholar Inez Harker-Schuch, with co-authors Dr Steve Lade, Assoc. Prof Frank Mills and Dr Bec Colvin, published research on children’s attitudes about climate change in Australia and Austria.

Climate change and society

Dr Bec Colvin published an analysis of the media representation of social identity divisions associated with the “Stop Adani Convoy” protest movement. This analysis also featured as a Research Highlight in the Nature Energy publication.

Dr Bec Colvin also, alongside Prof Helen Ross and Assoc. Prof Claudia Baldwin, authored an editorial for the Australasian Journal of Environmental Management on social dimensions of energy system change.

Climate change and health

Prof Sotiris Vardoulakis co-authored a special issue in the journal The Science of the Total Environment on Urban Environmental Health Interventions towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Cities around the world, and particularly in rapidly urbanising low and middle-income countries, face many challenges related to overpopulation, lack of adequate resources and infrastructure, climate change, urban heat islands, extreme weather, air pollution, and related illnesses, inequalities and productivity losses. This special issue focuses on the solutions that promote the Climate Action and other SDGs.

Prof Vardoulakis also co-authored research and health communication around smoke exposure during the catastrophic bushfires of 2019/2020. This involved a number of publications which highlighted the need consistent and nuanced health messaging, and emphasised the link between air pollution, bushfires, and climate change. One piece was published in the Medical Journal of Australia, and another was published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal.

Prof Vardoulakis also co-authored a publication on how to overcome barriers among primary healthcare professionals in tackling the health risks of heatwaves and dengue fever under climate change in China.

Dr Thomas Longden co-authored a working paper examining the impact of heat and cold across agricultural, informal, blue-collar, white-collar, and unemployed workers. The results show that white-collar workers are significantly more resilient to extreme temperatures than other labour groups, especially the elderly/retired, agrarian, and informal laborers.

Climate change, food, and agriculture

Dr Steven Crimp is continuing his work as Project Leader of the Climate Change Agriculture opportunities for enhanced food production in Papua New Guinea project, with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). This project is improving food security outcomes in rural farming communities in Papua New Guinea by informing food productions decisions with seasonal climate information. Dr Rachel Friedman has also been contributing to this project.

Dr Crimp and Dr Friedman have also been contributing to the newly formed Resilience Initiative for Food and Agriculture, which is a partnership between the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Australian National University, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The goals of the Initiative are to gain better insights into food system resilience in the Asia-Pacific, deliver development-ready solutions based on excellent science, shaped by local contexts and build capacity for resilience through in-country partnerships.

Third year undergraduate student Ben Galea, Prof Jamie Pittock, and Dr Steven Crimp, published research looking into the implications of new hydropower stations in the lower Mekong River basin on fish populations. They found that the dams would cause declines in fish populations, which would then need to be replaced with other sources of protein in order to maintain food security in the region. If the fish protein was replaced with beef, it would cause more than a 20% increase in annual greenhouse gas emissions in Cambodia, and 4-12% increase in annual emissions from Laos. This demonstrates that although hydropower is a source of lower-emissions electricity, the flow-on impacts of developing the hydropower stations can lead to increases in emissions from other sectors. The authors argue that this needs to be taken into account, as it challenges whether hydropower can be seen as a ‘clean energy’ option in the area.