GETTING TO ZERO
Alan Finkel’s forceful review of what “getting to zero” could actually look like is at once bracing, daunting and cautionary.
It is bracing because it is confirmation – from someone who should know – that there are no significant engineering barriers to a near-zero carbon economy. As chief scientist, Dr Finkel has worked at the highest level for successive governments; he has an unusual combination of scientific credentials and political survival skills, earned in the toxic swamp of national energy debates.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was left largely to civil society organisations such as Greenpeace and Beyond Zero Emissions to make the case that we could ramp down fossil combustion while keeping the lights on. That was important work: it moved the debate forward and gave confidence to the non-technical among us that we weren’t asking the impossible. But it meant pushing against the heavy headwinds of the establishment, with the terms of debate set by industry incumbents. Even if such a transition were necessary, they insisted it could only be done with nuclear power, ‘clean’ coal or some Star Trek invention that didn’t exist yet.
It’s worth pausing to appreciate just how far we’ve come. The way is clear for a zero-emissions electricity grid powered by the sun and wind, and distributed backup in the form of batteries and pumped hydro. Sector by sector, the future is here; now it’s just a question of scaling it up. As for the sacred cows of coal and gas exports, Dr Finkel takes direct aim at them, illuminating the writing on the wall in capital letters ten feet high: it’s over. We can build export industries of hydrogen, green steel and direct electricity supplies to our neighbours, or we can watch coal, gas and uranium revenues collapse as the rest of the world moves ahead without us. These are political questions we’re grappling with, not technical ones. For those who’ve spent years – or decades – at this coalface, this is an affirmation, from the heart of the establishment, that we’ve been on the right track all along.
Dr Finkel’s essay is daunting as well, because it doesn’t shy away from just how much work we have left to do, the scale of the proposed build and the consequences of further delay. It’s useful to fill in some of the blanks here: the reason we’re so late to this isn’t the fault of technologists or people working in the clean-energy sector. It’s because energy multinationals and their allied media platforms have thoroughly poisoned our politics over the course of three decades. The peak bodies for mining, oil and gas spent millions brutally dispatching the Rudd and Gillard governments, and installing the greasily compliant Abbott and Morrison, with a pause along the way to cancel the Turnbull experiment. Those powerful lobbyists won’t back down just because the former chief scientist declares them obsolete; their grip on state and federal politics now approaches a level that in other countries would be considered a form of state capture.
This is a fight that won’t be resolved through reasoned argument alone: if that were possible, those reports by Greenpeace and Beyond Zero would have concluded the debate years ago. Instead, we’re forced to conduct it in the teeth of megafires and rising seas. For Dr Finkel’s blueprint to take physical form in the time we may have left, it will take a full-scale rebellion, encompassing everything from shareholder activism and electoral upsets to mass-occupations of corporate headquarters and mine sites.
That’s where the cautionary aspect of the essay comes into sharpest relief. As an engineer, Dr Finkel is tasked with optimising a technology mix to drive emissions down as rapidly as possible. He covers a huge amount of ground in a short space – from power stations to private cars, agriculture to aluminium smelters – so it’s not a criticism to note that wider social and historical imperatives are beyond the essay’s scope. But some of this context matters. Finkel proposes replacing fossil generators and exporters with renewable ones, while leaving the rest of society much as it is. Over a thirty-year build, it is estimated that a high-end solar field would occupy an astonishing 20,000 square kilometres of land. Clearly this is not on the same scale of apocalyptic destruction as longwall coal-mining or gas fracking, but on whose land will these new clean energy projects be built? Where will the rare earths come from? Will access agreements be imposed on traditional owners, using the unforgivably coercive framework of native title, or will we at last discuss sovereignty and land rights?
It’s also worth reflecting on the conclusion reached by the International Energy Agency in 2018 that 40 per cent of the world’s energy use could be eliminated through humble efficiency retrofits and improvements to building and product designs. Finkel only glances at this potential; while such measures are less glamorous than a new offshore wind farm, that’s an astonishing amount of electricity we can choose not to use at all. Rather than relying on brute-force generation to power everything from seawater desalination to air conditioning in poorly designed building stock, we could shift our focus to low-impact design.
A similarly unglamorous approach to transport is needed. There’s every reason to be excited about the proliferation of electric cars heralding the long-delayed extinction of the internal combustion engine. But there’s not enough lithium – or car parking – for everyone to own a two-tonne electric SUV, even if we wanted to deploy enough photovoltaic solar energy to power them. Older disciplines of public transport, compact, transit-oriented urban design and truly accessible cities can help to inform our decisions if we broaden our horizons beyond trying to replace coal and gas with the equivalent installation of solar and wind.
None of this is to say I disagree with the essay’s basic premise: the renewable future is here if we’re ready to seize it. But in accepting this premise, a whole range of options and possible futures opens up. One option is to try to maintain our energy-profligate, infinite-growth society through a massive deployment of solar, wind and storage. Another option is to choose a path of lower impact; to embed the energy agenda within the wider ambition of land rights, regenerative economics and circular design principles. With our current government so manifestly unfit to even initiate this conversation, it’s up to the rest of us to make it happen. Then the engineers and the technologists can really get to work.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 82, Exit Strategy.
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