Tuesday 19 October 2021


Quarterly Essay 81 -  Getting to zero: Australia’s Energy Transition was written by Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist from 2016-2020.

Part 1 of Nick Reeve's  comments on the expert's reviews  was posted on October 11.



Two important issues from Alan Finkel’s essay need to be resolved:

Time: how long do we have? Can we afford to be patient, as Alan Finkel recommends, or must we act now, as Tim Flannery, Scott Ludlam, Greta Thunberg and an army of climate warriors insist; and -

Gas! Is there a role for gas, (LNG and LPG)? Is gas essential as an emergency transition fuel? Does it have a longer term use, as part of the new ‘hydrogen economy’, and as a major export earner?

These two issues: time and gas, are intimately related. For some time now the goal set by the Paris-15 agreement has been expressed as reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions to ‘Net Zero by 2050’. For some reason this target date, ‘2050’ has not been accepted by the Prime Minister, (Scott Morrison), nor by those fossil-fuel backing members of the LNP, (and some in the ALP), nor is that date advocated as a target by ex-Chief Scientist Alan Finkel. This reluctance to commit to 2050 when the rest of the developed nations are adopting it as a target date seems curious! That is until we connect it to the continued use of gas.

Adopting 2050 as a target is incompatible with a ‘Gas-Led Recovery’ because it doesn’t leave sufficient time to make money from new gas exploration and infrastructure before the gas plants and pipe-lines have to be abandoned, and the gas left in the ground. Evidence of this is clear from industry’s reluctance to commit to new gas infrastructure, leaving the government having to spend $600 million on a new gas plant to be built at Kurri Kurri.

The time we have left to transition from fossil fuels is determined by the ‘Carbon Budget’, i.e. our share of the total amount of CO2-e emissions that can be released into the atmosphere without exceeding 1.5 degrees centigrade of Global Warming.

Back in 2014 it would have been possible to reduce our emissions at a steady amount each year, stretching the budget to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. However, as pointed out by Ian McAuley in his review of Alan Finkel’s Quarterly Essay, since the carbon tax was repealed in 2016 by Tony Abbott, emissions have been increasing, so that there is no longer any possibility of adopting a steady rate of reduction to ‘net-zero by 2050’. To avoid over-spending our (GHG) budget, we now have to reduce emissions more rapidly. According to the Climate Council and the Climate Target Panel, our remaining budget only lasts to 2034; not nearly long enough to make an acceptable return on  new gas plant.

What matters if we are to keep our commitment to the Paris Agreement is the Carbon Budget. The consequence of everyone exceeding the budget could be catastrophic. The conclusion is: ‘time is up’! We no longer have the luxury of choosing how long we have to reach our target of ‘net-zero emissions’. Achieving ‘net zero by 2050’ is already too late and the time we do have left does not allow a decent return on the outlay of gas exploration and supporting infrastructure.


                - Nick Reeve