GETTING TO ZERO
Dr Alan Finkel was Australia’s eighth chief scientist, serving from January 2016 until he was succeeded by Dr Cathy Foley in 2021. Finkel describes himself as an engineer (the field in which he trained), and he has held many illustrious positions, including president of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. The approach Finkel takes in Getting to Zero stems from his engineering background. Notably, it builds on a speech he gave to the National Press Club on 12 February 2020 and indeed recycles much of his Press Club text verbatim.
At the time Finkel addressed the National Press Club, he was speaking as Australia’s chief scientist and representing Australian science. Yet his words so concerned twenty-five of Australia’s top climate scientists that they penned a letter in response. While welcoming Finkel’s role in helping to expand renewable energy, the scientists expressed concern “about the scale and speed of the decarbonisation challenge required to meet the Paris Agreement and, in particular, [Finkel’s] support for the use of gas as a transition fuel over ‘many decades.’” They concluded that Finkel’s approach was inconsistent with a safe climate, and they found no evidence that Australia needs an expanded gas industry in order to transition to renewables.
How could the chief scientist give a major address so out of kilter with the country’s most eminent scientists? The answer, I think, can be read between the lines in Getting to Zero, which is essentially an assessment of the technologies required to achieve deep emissions cuts in the eight sectors of the Australian economy that produce greenhouse gases.
The first and largest of these sectors is electricity generation, and Finkel does a great job outlining the scale of the transition required for it to reach net zero. To convert Australia’s electricity supply to solar and wind, he says, we would need to increase the current electricity production from wind and solar sevenfold. But if we hope to electrify the entire economy (including transport and industry), we’d need to do that three times over and to store energy on an unprecedented scale at the same time. Finkel’s analysis here is masterly, and his analysis would meet with agreement from the nation’s scientists.
But it’s the role of gas in achieving net zero that is contested. Energy minister Angus Taylor has called for a gas-led economic recovery, and in the past Finkel has echoed the minister’s view that we need more gas. In Getting to Zero, Finkel soft-pedals on the issue, saying only that “it is not clear at this time whether existing gas generators will be sufficient to provide firming services.” Notably, he also backs away from his previous openness to nuclear power, saying that the cost of electricity from conventional nuclear is “too high,” while leaving the door open to smaller nuclear reactors that are not yet developed.
In his Press Club address, Finkel talked up the virtue of making hydrogen from coal and gas, arguing that carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be economical in sequestering the carbon dioxide generated in the process. In Getting to Zero, he says, “The main criticism directed at producing hydrogen from fossil fuels is that it will proceed without carbon capture and storage. Wrong.” Yet this is exactly what is happening right now at Australia’s first coal-to-hydrogen plant (in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley). While the plant claims to be “carbon capture–ready,” right now it’s venting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the rate of around 88 kilograms for every kilogram of hydrogen created. If CCS is as economical as Finkel suggests, why isn’t it being used by the industry from the outset?
Finkel also outlines an interesting synergy between hydrogen and gas, pointing out that generators running on gas can easily be converted to hydrogen, as can many pipelines. The effect of this claim is to blunt opposition to new gas infrastructure. In light of Finkel’s claim regarding fossil fuels, CCS and hydrogen, I’m sceptical that the conversion to hydrogen will occur in a timely manner.
Finkel’s detailed assessment of what remains to be done to reach net-zero emissions makes it clear that the nation faces an immense task. On this all agree. The real question is how quickly it must be done, and on this point Finkel is largely silent, focusing instead on how long it would take given current economic and technological constraints. The thing climate scientists know, but which Finkel does not fully acknowledge, is that the time we have to achieve the task will be determined by the Earth’s system. If we trigger one or more of Earth’s nine climate tipping points, we may find ourselves irrevocably sliding towards catastrophic climate change. If that happens, nothing we do with our energy systems will alter our fate. So the key question becomes: how quickly do we need to decarbonise our economy to give us a fair chance (a 66 per cent chance, say) of avoiding catastrophic change? Scientists are currently working on an answer, and their early findings suggest that by 2050 it will be too late.
As with all transitions, the closer a deadline looms, the more expensive it is to achieve: long before it becomes impossible, it becomes extremely costly. For argument’s sake, let’s examine the implications of needing to reach net zero by 2035. Australia would need to close all of its coal in the next eight and a half years and build seven times more wind-and solar-powered energy systems than we’ve built to date. But that would only be the start. Australia would need to repeat the exercise more than twice over to electrify transport and industrial energy completely. We’d need to retire hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of assets, including steel mills, aluminium plants, coalmines and power plants, and of course almost every vehicle in the country. Given the technological obstacles, and the lack of incentive in our current economic model, this would not be achievable in the Australia of today. The only way to reach net zero would be to put the nation on a war footing, as Australia did in 1939 (and again in 2020 when confronted by the COVID-19 pandemic). When a nation is in a struggle for its very existence, nobody counts the cost. The imperative is to win regardless.
Finkel refuses to countenance this possibility, saying that “it is simply unrealistic to think that with political will we can immediately reverse course.” He adds: “No trade-off, no dichotomy. Prosperity and low emissions. It is my firm belief we can have both.” Before the year is out, scientists are likely to publish their analysis on when we need to reach net-zero emissions. I would be interested in speaking to Finkel at this point, to see what he makes of it.
Finkel uses several ruses to respond to those who want action commensurate with the scale and immediacy of the threat. For example, he puts up the straw man that we cannot immediately shut down coal. And, although he is no longer chief scientist, he steers clear of discussing the role of government and the impacts of policy. Finkel is a good engineer, saying that “the first step in developing a solution is to identify the problem.” Yet in Getting to Zero, he tragically fails to do that: the real problem, as climate scientists know, is that unless we take timely action and view cost as a secondary consideration, we seem destined to precipitate a new, dangerous climate that will threaten our global civilisation.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 82, Exit Strategy.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY