QUARTERLY ESSAY 81 Getting to Zero



Rebecca Huntley



Rebecca Huntley

Alan Finkel has written a comprehensive account of how Australia can transition to renewable energy while still keeping the lights on and standards of living high. His timing is impeccable, as we have seen momentum build for such a vision, despite the pandemic, in all parts of Australian society. Recent research shows 81 per cent of Australians support the Morrison government adopting a net-zero emissions target by 2050, and 87 per cent say they would support accelerating the development of new industries and jobs powered by renewable energy. For anyone, including me, who has learned in piecemeal fashion about the technological and industrial aspects of the shift to renewable technology, this essay provides a must-read, clear and compelling summary of how things work and what’s at stake. “The task ahead is, quite simply, immense,” Finkel writes. He shows us this mountain to climb and rightly so – I sometimes find it too easy, given my focus on climate change communication and activism, and my sense of the urgency of the task, to forget the scale of the challenge. As my consulting work with people in hard-to-abate industries reminds me, creating a zero-emissions brewery poses different challenges to decarbonising an aluminium smelter.

Finkel also touches on a concern often raised in focus groups I conduct: how can we expand renewables while also protecting our natural environment? “If flooding a valley to build a hydroelectric dam that allows us to close several coal-fired power stations displaces local animals and plants, is that a trade-off that we should favourably consider?” These apparent tensions can be resolved without too much compromise, but the dual challenges of building more renewable infrastructure and preserving our natural environment should always be kept front of mind.

However, as one of the many, many people in what Finkel calls the “fast transition” camp, I am disappointed by the missed opportunity this essay represents. Finkel states that he is an engineer and has written an engineer’s essay. But he is being modest. He is far more than that. He has been a senior figure, leader, thinker and public servant in the middle of some of the most important government and policy decisions about energy in Australia over the last decade. He remains a key influencer.

His essay opens with a moving admission that his vision of a net-zero future is inspired by concern for his great-grandchildren, that they might “grow up in a planet just as magnificent as it was when I was young.” I empathise. A similar concern led to my current professional and personal commitment to climate change activism. But it’s not my great-grandchildren I worry about. It’s my children and their peers. Also, to be frank, I worry about myself and my generation. Everyone living in Australia today. The impacts of climate change are being felt now, in extreme weather events, in high temperatures in outer suburbs, in the shrinking islands of the Torres Strait and in the increasingly difficult growing conditions for our farming communities. In recent research into public attitudes, we found that what distinguishes people who are genuinely alarmed and active on the issue of climate change (and Finkel would be among this group) from those who are merely concerned is their response to the question, “How important is climate change to you personally?” Climate change is a real and present danger to people living today. Distancing yourself from that allows you to delay action on the issue. And we all know that delay is the new denial. I would add that if we are too timid and drag our feet in this transition, Finkel may not have any great-grandchildren to worry about, given the level of anxiety among younger generations about bringing kids into a world of runaway climate change.

Finkel must know that he will frustrate many by not criticising the lack of consistency and vision shown by politicians and industry leaders on both energy and climate policy. Only Malcolm Roberts gets a serve. Finkel provides a short but swift demolition of the tired but still stubborn arguments of climate change deniers and minimisers. It should be written on cards and handed out on street corners, it’s so clear and elegant. And yet he would surely know that these attitudes live on in the conservative parties and even in parts of the ALP. And that such attitudes are why Australia is an international laggard. He wants us to be leading, not “jostling with the hangers-on or mingling with the coalition of the unwilling.” But that’s exactly where we are – not because of Malcolm Roberts, but because of politicians in mainstream parties. Politicians who continue to be tethered to industries and technologies that no longer serve our national interest. “This essay is about the technology, not the policies, which are for our democratically elected political leaders to determine.” Finkel is a leader and a former high-ranking public servant, not a High Court judge. He must have some views on what good policy means for technological advancement and innovation, and how a lack of good policy has frustrated both.

Finkel’s essay is full of techno-optimism: “Technology to solve technology’s problems.” It’s certainly the case that participants in my qualitative research get excited when they learn about green steel, battery storage, new developments in solar and, of course, renewable hydrogen – the scale of the decarbonisation project seems less challenging. However, there are limits to technological solutions, which Finkel hints at but doesn’t delve into, perhaps because he is not a social scientist. Only policy can drive technological change in the time frame that climate science requires. Furthermore, behavioural change is an important part of the zero-emission goal. We can pursue the dual goals of decarbonisation and prosperity, but a different version of prosperity might be forced upon us, given the level of warming we’ve already reached and the trajectory we are on. Things have been lost and will continue to be lost. I would have loved some reflection by Finkel on how we might learn to live in a world that’s been damaged by climate change and will continue to be.

Given my research has recently focused on public attitudes to gas, I was particularly interested in Finkel’s commentary on this area. The concern I have is that his position could be framed as an argument that we need a greater supply of gas, which would involve more expensive infrastructure and opening up new gas basins – even to continue the damaging practice of fracking, which has been opposed by environmentalists and farmers in coalition. Of course, this framing is not entirely under Finkel’s control. Those who are determined to keep the fossil-fuel industries alive at any cost will misrepresent any commentary from such an esteemed expert to argue for gas’s ongoing role. Finkel has, in his essay and in his commentary generally, focused on gas for peaking. But this is strategically ignored by those arguing for “a gas-led transition” or that new gas is essential to the expansion of renewables. There are more than a few sober commentators on energy transition in this country who are prepared to argue that Australia doesn’t need new gas. Finkel’s position risks capture and manipulation by those who seek to prolong our dependence on a polluting energy source that we cannot rely on to secure our nation’s economic future.

Despite my criticisms, there is no doubt Finkel’s personal vision for a future net-zero-emissions society is one that many can share. He asks us to be ambitious and patient. Seventy-two per cent of Australians agree with the statement “Climate change is something we need to act on now.” In the focus groups I conduct there is a sense of impatience and frustration across the board that the world seems to be moving and we are being left behind. It is a time for ambition. The time for patience has passed.

Rebecca Huntley


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 81, Getting to Zero. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 82, Exit Strategy.


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