This article is based on correspondence originally published in the June 2021 edition of the Quarterly Essay, in response to the March 2021 edition by former Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, currently “special adviser to the Australian government on low-emissions technologies”.
Alan Finkel closes the introduction of his recent Quarterly Essay with a quote from the Borg, a fictitious species from Star Trek: The Next Generation: “resistance is futile.” Finkel’s plea: stop “cave dwelling” and accept the unavoidable technological carbon revolution.
The Borg are not meant to be inspirational: they are cybernetic life forms, assimilating individuals from other species into “drones.” They are an emotionless hive, obsessed with technology and with no care for individuality, emotion, passion or morals. Finkel does not quote the Borg’s chilling declaration in full: “We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.” Like so much science fiction, the Borg represent a real-world threat – technology for technology’s sake, single-minded and cold, with culture, community and the welfare of life left out of the equation.
While technology is a necessary component of climate action, it is insufficient. Fossil fuels have sunk deep into our way of life, and removing them as fast as possible will require significant political, cultural and corporate shifts. Climate action must be restorative and curative, imbued with justice and fairness and the righting of wrongs, so that it is demanded, rather than merely tolerated, by people.
And it must be fast: every day wasted sees more megatons of greenhouse gases produced, and consequently, more heating of Earth’s habitats. The quantity of greenhouse gases our species can release before we know for sure the planet overshoots 1.5°C of warming is now vanishingly small, thanks to decades of delay. That means moving as fast as possible is the only response.
The “possible” in “fast as possible” changes depending whom you ask. If you ask Australia’s government, anything faster than dangerously slow is unthinkable heresy. At the time of writing, the prime minister cannot even commit to net zero by 2050, a basic step most countries took some time ago. Targets, carbon budgets, short-term plans and ambitious policy are not only non-existent but publicly derided.
On Network Ten’s The Project in September 2020, Finkel was pressed on urgency and highlighted the wording of the Paris Agreement, in which signatories must achieve net-zero emissions “within the second half of this century.”
He said: “It could be 2099. It’s important that people don’t feel there’s only one way to achieve an ambition. There could be multiple ways.”
This is not accurate. The longer the delay, the more emissions and the worse the climate impacts. Wealthy, emissions-intensive countries are bound by the Paris Agreement’s equity considerations to put their backs into this. Australia has historically emitted far more than its fair share, and should therefore cut emissions more steeply than countries in the Global South. That means reaching net zero well before 2050.
The approach adopted by Finkel and by the Australian government – “we’ll get there when we get there” – has already had dire consequences. The latest projections show that with existing policies, Australia’s emissions will be around 22 per cent below their 2005 levels in 2030 – well short of the 26 per cent Paris target, even accounting for the growth in renewables. Australia needs a reduction of between 66 per cent and 80 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030, and net zero between 2035 and 2045, to support a global 1.5°C climate target.
That means a full phase-out of coal power before 2030, and all fossil fuels before 2035. That means aggressive government policy to incentivise zero-carbon transport (public transport, cycling, walking and electric vehicles) along with dates for combustion-engine sales bans. That means a plan to phase out fossil fuels from heating and industry over the next two decades. That means a safety net for every fossil worker. Australia is a full-scale failure on every single point. In short, it means rapid, immediate action, rather than a plea to sit back and wait for a contrived technological deus ex machina in the final act of this half-century.
Australia could have been comfortably on the pathway to 1.5°C-aligned emissions cuts if the government had begun when the Paris Agreement was signed. In that case, cuts of around 21 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2-e) each year would be required. In 2020, that is now 30 MTCO2-e. With another five years of delay, it’ll be 47 MTCO2-e. The government’s most recent projections predict an annual fall of between 1 and 6 MTCO2-e per year before 2030. Why don’t these numbers feature in Finkel’s essay?
Australia doomed to significantly slower transition
A laid back, non-interventionist “tech’ll fix it” approach dooms Australia to a significantly slower transition, and significantly worse emissions, alongside the continued enrichment of the fossil-fuel industry. It is a vision of false comfort and real climate impacts. Those emissions will hurt human beings and erode the natural world. Resistance is not futile.
Finkel’s essay is at its best when it is outlining the history of fossil fuels, or explaining the fascinating science behind climate solutions. It is at its worst – and most consequential – when it works to justify the slow, incremental and dangerous approach to the climate threat being deployed by Australia’s government. To treat climate as a crisis is decried as “perfectionism,” and the only calm, level-headed approach is to go with the free-market technological flow.
Part of this go-slow approach manifests as a desire to ensure climate action is undetectable – something that requires no change to Australian life. Big, comfortable, energy-intensive and inefficient, the classic Australian lifestyle can stay that way even as Australia’s energy system is swapped out with “low-carbon” alternatives. The change is purely under the hood (in some sectors, literally).
Part of this logic stems from the false assumption that climate deniers abound in society and would be alienated by aggressive climate action. “Thus, even those who are not convinced about the threat posed by climate change should be enthusiastic about the transformations that are underway,” said Finkel.
This was best illustrated in an interview with the 7am podcast, in which Finkel said, “I don’t think that the alternatives to changing our lifestyles, such as global population control or behavioural change so that we all ride bicycles instead of cars, are likely,” and even went so far as to assert that active transport like cycling doesn’t make a “substantial difference” to emissions.
Aside from being demonstrably untrue, it’s a cop-out. “Behavioural change” is treated like a millstone around the neck, whereas in its best manifestation it is an empowering tool for citizen participation. Finkel rightly dismisses ecofascist appeals to depopulation, but wrongly dismisses cultural change as risky and unacceptable. It is a cold, unambitious view that excludes the possibility that Australians might actually prefer to be participants in the greatest transformation in history. And when discussing decarbonising aviation, for instance, he doesn’t mention the simple possibility of flying less – either through cutting down on business travel, or by means of remote meetings and land-based electric transport.
Around the world, it has become startlingly clear that the fastest way to decarbonise transport (and most other sectors) is through a suite of changes that consider environmental justice, racism and class disparities. Greater access to public transport, active transport and electrified vehicles work in unison, enabled through activism, effort, politics and community. Social and cultural lifestyle change can feed into personal divestment from fossil fuels, and political and corporate pressure. This parody of rapid climate harm reduction as “sacrifice and loss” is outdated and irrelevant, now serving only as a rhetorical tool to protect declining revenues for the fossil fuel industry.
Fossil fuel tropes
At the core of Finkel’s essay is the argument that a fast transition is impossible. It’s common for techno-optimists to be wildly pessimistic about massive, rapid societal change. Finkel repeats a trope used frequently by the fossil-fuel industry: “we can’t shut off fossil fuels overnight.” Somehow, the fact that a 100 per cent cut in emissions can’t be made in twelve hours proves the impossibility of a reasonably fast transition – such as one aligned with a 1.5°C target over the next ten to twenty years. Of course it is possible – if we go beyond metal and money, and consider activism, effort and cultural change, along with massive political efforts to phase out fossil-fuel burning and extraction swiftly.
The frequently repeated warning of the danger of reducing emissions too fast echoes big climate names, such as Bill Gates and Vaclav Smil, who likely inspire Finkel’s claim that “the notion that we can suddenly reverse the slope of emissions is implausible.” Of course, Australia is far from being anywhere close to altering that slope. At the current rate of reduction projected between 2020 and 2030, Australia will fall to zero emissions somewhere around 2294. But nobody said this would be easy; and if we’re dismissing effortful action then we’re permanently doomed.
Another key justification for reducing emissions far slower than possible is an appeal to “technology neutrality.” It’s meant to signify a calm, level-headed and very serious objectivity; a capability to assess machines on their engineering and scientific merits, and to remain unclouded by the emotions of activists and environmentalists. Finkel laments being asked to reduce emissions quickly without nuclear, fossil hydrogen and carbon capture: a “litany of proscribed approaches.”
Finkel is proud of being “the only genuinely technology-neutral person in the room.” But climate centrism is toxic, because it presupposes that a single view of what is “feasible” is the logical, adult and final one, rather than something which shifts over time and is subject to democratic and social processes.
In practice, what this means is ignorance of how the promise of future technology is used by fossil-fuel companies and politicians as a reason to delay. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the perfect example; “clean coal” and CCS have been promised as the saviours of climate for decades. “There is no reason why by 2020 we can’t be putting a quarter of our emissions from coal and gas back into the ground, and no reason why by 2030 it wouldn’t be about half,” said chief executive of the Australian Coal Association (now the Minerals Council) Mark O’Neill in The Australian in 2006.
In 2019, Australia released around 411 megatons of fossil carbon dioxide emissions. About three megatons were captured that year in Western Australia’s Gorgon facility. For the same year, the world released 36,440 megatons of fossil-origin carbon dioxide. The total carbon capture capacity in that year was 40 megatons, most dedicated to “enhanced oil recovery,” in which captured carbon is used to extract and sell more oil. No, that is not a quarter. It’s 0.1 per cent. What’s the “neutral” verdict on that?
In Victoria, a plan to produce hydrogen using the state’s massive reserves of coal – among the most climate-damaging on Earth – comes bundled with a pinky promise to implement a carbon capture system nearly double that of Australia’s existing capacity (by my calculations). This promise, the Victorian government’s “CarbonNet” carbon storage project, is more than a decade old now, and isn’t likely to capture a single molecule any time in the coming years. “Start-up is planned for between 2015 and 2019,” wrote Norwegian energy technology site Zero, in 2012. We know the service CCS provides. It is a rhetorical and political service, not a technological one.
Finkel shrugs off the hazards of CCS false promises by declaring that no market will exist for high-emissions hydrogen. That is dangerously naive. Right now, the world’s fossil-gas producers are engaging in a massive marketing campaign to promote “carbon-neutral LNG,” the same old fossil fuels paired with highly suspect carbon offset schemes. Finkel is badly underestimating how good the fossil fuel industry is at obfuscation, public relations and regulatory capture.
There will be a massive market for high-emissions fossil hydrogen, and it will be realised through the existing global machine of marketing and deception used by fossil-fuel companies to stave off their demise by decades. Ditto for a hydrogen climate impact “certification scheme,” something almost certain to bow to fossil industry pressure and become a massive global greenwashing project.
Finkel’s support for gas in Australia’s energy system – both as a fuel for home heating and cooking and grid-level “emergency” backup – shows a similar naivety. The gas industry will happily and successfully go far beyond providing a few hours of emergency back-up – the current government is planning to build a 660 megawatt fossil-gas plant in New South Wales, despite the grid operator insisting it is absolutely not needed for grid reliability.
Of course, the government has also literally called its COVID-19 response package a “gas-fired recovery.” Will companies start aggressively blending hydrogen into the pipelines feeding fossil gas into Australian homes, or will they decarbonise in literally microscopic increments over decades, while pleading they’re acting on climate? The fossil-gas industry is already publishing studies attacking electrification and promoting pathways that protect the value of pipelines and processing plants, despite those pathways resulting in far greater cumulative emissions due to going slower.
Climate centrism serves the fossil-fuel industry. “Technology neutrality” creates a playground for fossil companies to maximise profits at the cost of direct harm to human life. In Finkel’s essay, anything outside the middle of the road is “perfectionism” or climate denial, and both are dismissed accordingly. In reality, the planet will continue to warm for as long as net greenhouse gas emissions are greater than zero, and any plea to go slower than as fast as possible comes packaged with an implicit acceptance of worsening climate harm.
Finkel’s essay ends by painting a picture of a net-zero world that is essentially the same as today’s, sans greenhouse gas molecules. Australia is wealthy, comfortable and energy-intensive. But there is no due date for this vision, creating room for a go-slow on climate action – breathing room for the fossil-fuel industry at the cost of public health and safety.
It is a dangerous thing to present climate action as inevitable. It is the speed of climate action that determines how much harm we will experience – the debate on whether to act has come and gone. Delay is the main game for fossil industries now, enacted through the rhetoric of false technological promises and greenwashed climate plans.
As the summer of 2020 showed, Australia will experience the consequences of delay directly. A gentle slope to reduce emissions may have been possible in the 1990s, but the hour is now late. There are only two choices: bloated delay and worsened climate impacts, or rapid action and lesser climate impacts. Our efforts now should go towards figuring out how to ensure that rapid action is fair, fast and furious.
It is demonstrably untrue that “resistance is futile.” Australia’s fossil-fuel industry has manufactured a situation in which there is a broad political, social and cultural blindness to the nerve-racking urgency of emissions reductions. Resistance to climate action is everywhere – Australia is drowning in it, and burning and boiling too. Decarbonisation is indeed inevitable. But empty technological promises, a hostility towards hard climate targets and a refusal to take any short-term action mean the decline of the fossil-fuel industry is so shallow that it’s essentially a straight line. Resistance is profitable, and that is the problem Australia’s former chief scientist ought to be addressing.
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