Tag Archives: Ross Garnaut

Alan Finkel’s Getting to Zero

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?

A full day at the SWF

My yesterday was entirely devoted to the Sydney Writers Festival, and I had a great time, starting out at Walsh Bay, where my choices seemed to keep me away from the monster queues.

10 : 00 Poetry on the Harbour: Adam Aitken, Judith Beveridge and Kim Cheng Boey, with Ivor (‘I know they’re good poets because I published them’) Indyk in the chair.
In general I prefer to hear poets read their own work over having actors deliver sonorous, deeply felt renditions, because actors’ performances tend to narrow the range of possible readings. And I prefer poets’ readings that avoid the incantatory (though I’m delighted by the over the top bits of Yeats and Tennyson I’ve heard). All the same, all three of these poets read their work with such modesty and introspection that I longed for just a touch of the rock star, just a hint that they might be able to hold us in the palm of their hands and wring our withers.

It was an excellent reading nonetheless. Adam Aitken read his ‘Pol Pot in Paris’, and a poem taken from his father’s letters (introduced with, ‘I love my father, but he had colonial attitudes’) got actual laughs. Judith Beveridge began with an anecdote from Robert Creeley: at a school reading a child asked him, ‘Mr Creeley, was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself?’ Among the poems that JB had made up herself was a lovely piece about a man washing himself at the railway station tap just outside Delhi. Of the extraordinarily cosmopolitan Kim Cheng Boey’s poems, I particularly liked ‘Stamps’, in which the poet converses with his little daughter.

11 : 30 First Nation Stories: Richard Van Camp and Boori Monty Pryor herded ‘like cats’ by Anita Heiss.
In introducing his poets, Ivor Indyk mentioned university positions and awards. In this session, Anita Heiss talked about which Indigenous Nations/mobs people came from, including herself. Both Richard and Boori perform and tell stories in schools. Richard gave us what I took to be one of his schools performances; Boori talked about his. Both men were very funny, and Boori gets the Me Fail I Fly nomination for the most charming man on the planet. Yet with all the humour and charm he managed to put some hard truths. ‘This is the only country in the world,’ he said, ‘that mines a culture and sells it off to the world but doesn’t want to know about the people who produce it.’ He told of a group of preschool teachers who asked him for advice on how to tell Aboriginal stories to their charges. ‘Do you know about the 1967 Referendum? The Gurindji campaign? The reserves?’ he asked (though he probably named different specifics). ‘You won’t be able to tell the stories until you know about the fight to keep them alive.’

13 : 00 The Politics of Storytelling: Mike Daisey and William Yang, chaired by Annette Shum Wah.
I’m told Mike Daisy’s story was shattering, but I went to sleep during the loud, bombastic opening section of his monologue, which I guess was meant to be the warm-up (a baby cried, presumably at the sheer loudness, and was incorporated into the rant, to the delight of the fans in front of me but adding to my need to absent myself). William Yang showed a number of slides, and it was reassuring to see that his style worked just as well when taken out of the tightly controlled environment of his shows. The discussion was interesting – Annette asked about their provocativeness (William’s photos can be a bit rude, and Mike uses four-letter words, hardly confronting in Sydney I would have thought, but he did mention a show where a big bloc of the audience stood up and walked out – it’s on YouTube and his response is wonderful). William said that when he first did his shows he was part of an angry community. Now he might put in an occasional naughty photo out of impishness. These were such different men, yet their mutual appreciation was lovely to behold.

16 : 00 David Wessel, Meet Paul Keating with George Megalogenis.
Note to anyone doing this kind of gig: it really really helps if you read up on the person you’re appearing with and can refer approvingly to his work. Both these men did that and it was a great leavening to what could have been a dry conversation about economics. David Wessell (economic editor of the Wall Street Journal, was able to drop a number of Keating’s famous phrases into his presentation (‘The recession we had to have’, ‘A shiver looking for a spine to run up’, etc). Wessell explained the causes of the GFC memorably as resulting from two false assumptions in the US: that house prices would never fall, and that extraordinary financial innovations spread risk in such a way as to diminish it to the point of negligibility. Keating, equally memorably described chinese reserves as a great cloud full of water and electricity floating over the world, and Alan Greenspan building a copper pipe up into the sky to draw down the water. He also talked about Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece as having a big one-off party made possible by converting to the Euro and suddenly enjoying German interest rates. Right now we’re seeing the morning-after crash. Questions were probably intelligent, but were well above my head.

18 : 00 Have We All Been Conned?: An Emergency Town Meeting: Bill McKibben, Ross Garnaut and Clive Hamilton, with Tim Flannery as participating Chair, discussing the politics and science of climate change.
A case of false labelling. Of course, we all knew it was a Writers Festival event and not a political rally, so it was no surprise that it was, as my son described them, four bald men in glasses talking to an appreciative audience about the current state of affairs. No one was really concerned to plug his own book – it was, as Tim Flannery, said, a bit of a dream team.

Was Copenhagen a success or failure? Too soon to tell, but it has meant that developing countries are now taking on climate change rather than waiting for the developing countries to do their bit first.

How come Australia is the biggest laggard in climate change action, yet it has the most to lose? Ross Garnaut spoke with transparent obliqueness of lack of political leadership. Bill McKibben, I think it was, first mentioned Kevin Rudd by name. Clive Hamilton sunk the boot: Kevin Rudd thinks science is a lobby group, and he’s a manager not a leader.

What about the Greens’ rejection of the CPRS? A lamentable strategic error, seemed to be the consensus, rather than a grievous failure of principle as we have seen from federal Labor. Bill McKibben said wise words here. Coming from afar, he said, he had the luxury of responding without knowing or needing to know the details, but what we have to remember is that any victory, however small, is to be celebrated, and any victory, however large, is only a step forward. This is a struggle that will continue for our lifetimes and beyond.

Perhaps the grimmest note of the evening was the statement from, I think, Bill McKibben, that our challenge now is no longer to prevent climate change but to take action to deal with the new world we now live in.

In question time we reaped the consequences of the false advertising. Person after person took the microphone to tell us what they thought about the subject. One woman, from an outfit called A Hundred Percent Renewable, had even brought a banner, which she trailed after her disconsolately as she left the microphone, having failed to get a taker to hold up its other end.

And I’m off to another full day today.