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 However, as pointed out by Ian McAuley in his review of Alan Finkel’s Quarterly Essay, since the carbon tax was repealed in 2016 by Tony Abbott, emissions have been increasing, so that there is no longer any possibility of adopting a steady rate of reduction to ‘net-zero by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


Monday 11 October 2021


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

Nick Reeve looked at comments on Finkel’s views.


Alan Finkel’s Quarterly Essay was reviewed in the following Quarterly Essay by twelve experts in the field of climate science and economics.

He receives praise for his clear presentation of the issues: Global Warming, Climate Change and the Theory of The Greenhouse Effect; leaving no room for the opinions of climate sceptics and denialists. He is also given credit for his optimism concerning the technical feasibility and availability of solutions for transitioning from our present global economy, dependent on fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. He argues that an economy based on renewable energy, (RE) including hydrogen is technically feasible, and will become increasingly competitive with energy from fossil fuels. Initially hydrogen will be produced with methane gas plus Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Eventually ‘clean’ hydrogen will be produced from renewable energy in quantities and at a cost to become the energy source of the future, replacing both oil and gas.

Finkel says that renewable energy will first be used to replace coal for electricity generation (with gas as a back-up for when ‘the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow’). Next, transport will be converted to electricity, with small vehicles using batteries and larger ones using (hydrogen) fuel cells.

Then hydrogen will be used to replace coal and gas in industry: in a revitalised steel industry, and for aluminium smelting and cement production. Finally hydrogen (and ammonia) will become used as a transportable fuel, both in Australia and as a major export. All this is technically possible now, however a prodigious amount of renewable energy will be required: seven times the current production from solar, wind and hydro, and another three times that amount to provide for replacement of fossil fuels in transport, industry and for export. All this says Finkel “will take some time; so we need to temper our ambition with patience”.

Unfortunately ‘time is what we do not have’, argue Alan Finkel’s critics. It is this call for patience in the face of the imminent threat to our survival, together with the reliance on methane gas, itself a potent greenhouse gas, that arouses strongest criticism from many of the twelve reviewers of his Quarterly Essay. Finkel, who has the last word and is able to comment on the reviews, is dismissive of calls for more urgent action; “immediate closure of coal-fired power stations is impossible”. In response “That is a straw man argument,” says Tim Flannery (of the Climate Council). Immediate closure is not suggested. What is required is for electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2035 or sooner, not 2050 or some time later. To procrastinate means not only breaking our ‘Paris 15’ agreement but risks further warming of the planet and triggering a catastrophic cascade of tipping points from which there may be no recovery.

By appealing for plenty of time to achieve the transition to an economy powered by renewable energy, under-pinned by gas, Finkel gives comfort and credibility to those with an interest in continued use of fossil fuels, and enables the policy of a ‘Gas-Led Recovery’.

On the other hand, with only a short transition to 100% renewable energy, new gas infrastructure: wells and pipelines, and the gas itself will become ‘stranded assets’. Finkel and the ‘gas lobby’, including politicians from both major parties, claim that methane gas is required both as a stop-gap measure, to back-up the grid, ‘when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine’, and to replace the lost supply when older coal-fired power plants are retired, and before sufficient renewable energy has been developed. Critics point to the recent decision to subsidise, (with $600 million of government money,) the building of a new gas-fired power station at Kurri Kurri in NSW, against the (then) advice of the authority responsible for maintaining grid supply, the AEMO, who advised that by the time the old power stations are retired there will be sufficient sources of renewable energy, backed up by new grid inter-connections and large scale batteries. Toxic gas is not required.


            - Nick Reeve