Alan Finkel, Getting to Zero: Australia’s Energy Transition (Quarterly Essay 81, 2021)
– plus correspondence in QE 82
Alan Finkel was Australia’s chief scientist from 2016 to 2020, and among other things he is currently special adviser to the Australian government on low-emissions technologies. So an essay on ‘Australia’s energy transition’ written by him carries a certain weight.
On the face of it, it’s hard to believe that the current Australian government is serious about taking effective action about the climate emergency. It’s not so long since Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament to make puerile mockery of concerns about fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change, and he now conspicuously refuses to commit to a zero-emissions target by any given time. The Minister for Resources is a fervent advocate of the Adani coal mine in Queensland. The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction want to spend vast sums to keep coal-fired generators open. A gas led recovery or a hydrogen valley sound more like amateurish marketing slogans than indicators of any serious policy. So when one of their key advisers writes an essay whose title implies a goal (getting to zero) and a plan (transition) it inspires hope that he will spell out whatever seriousness lies behind the politicians’ sloganeering and obfuscation.
Ian McAuley says in the correspondence in QE 82:
With a little editing – if he replaced his personal anecdotes with the language of bureaucracy, for instance – this essay could serve as the government’s green paper on ‘Australia’s Energy Transition’ – that is, if our government were willing to engage with the public on difficult public policy problems through the traditional green paper/white paper process.
This may be so, but Finkel makes it clear that he has very little to say about politics, policy or politicians. He writes as an engineer: ‘Just as technology has got us into trouble through its propensity to generate carbon dioxide emissions, it is technology that will save us.’ He does acknowledge that technology doesn’t live in a vacuum:
It lives in the policy-driven world of markets, fiscal settings, taxes, government decisions and consumer preferences. This essay is about the technology, not the policies, which are for our democratically elected political leaders to determine. Governments have to balance competing priorities across economic growth, scientific advice and community values.(page 27)
The essay delivers on that promise. After a very readable outline of the science, it outlines the technological challenges (‘The task is, quite simply, immense’) and the processes already well under way to meet them: the huge uptake in solar energy, progress by way of batteries, hydrogen generation and other means to making wind and solar dependable, electric cars, and so on. He clarifies his modified support for continued use of gas as part of a transition to zero-emissions; he champions hydrogen as the hero of the story. He emphasises that the challenges are huge (‘a mountain to climb’) but is optimistic. He ends with these words:
We can do this, but it will take considerable effort and will take time. So remember: be ambitious; be patient.(page 97)
I was heartened to read Finkel’s lucid, careful, methodical argument that the challenge of the climate emergency can be met – with difficulty, but successfully, and without significant sacrifice (‘No trade off, no dichotomy. Prosperity and low emissions.’). I was also uneasy. Surely something has to change as well as our technology. There was a herd of elephants in the room. The essay starts with a quote from Buckminster Fuller:
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
I imagine the ‘alternative society’ enthusiasts of the 60s and 70s who had Buckminster Fuller as a kind of guru would consider it close to blasphemy to invoke him in this way.
This Quarterly Essay demonstrates the brilliance of the series’ practice of including in each issue extensive correspondence on the previous one. And it confirms me in my practice of postponing my reading of each issue until the next one arrives.
Alan Finkel can be read, roughly, as explaining the government’s position on the transition to a zero-emissions economy. The correspondence in Quarterly Essay 82 is appropriately heavyweight. Starting with Tim Flannery (Finkel ‘tragically fails’ to identify the real problem, which 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’), Scott Ludlam (‘This is a fight that won’t be resolved by reasoned argument alone’) and Ross Garnaut (‘Public expenditure on technological development is wasted unless it is accompanied or followed by a carbon price or by regulation mandating its use’), the line-up of scientists, scholars, researchers and activists engage respectfully and forcefully with that position. If Black Inc were to publish the essay with the correspondence in a single volume, it be a useful, and very readable, overview of the state of climate politics in Australia.
A new IPCC report has been published since the essay and responses were written. Who knows what Alan Finkel would write now?