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Is net zero achievable? An interview with Former Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel AO and IPCC Co-Chair Prof Jim Skea

26 Oct 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

As the world counts down to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, pressure from scientists, activists, and existing ‘Paris Agree-ers’ has been mounting for Australia to carve out a road-map towards net zero emissions by 2050. But while the Coalition’s reticence over strong climate action may have become increasingly unpopular, it is grounded in legitimate concern. Removing emissions from our economy may be one challenge; maintaining national prosperity in the process is quite another.

Despite a recent finding from CSIRO that net zero equates to higher GDP growth, some have warned the 2050 milestone will “smash” regional communities and lead to zero jobs. Others have described the journey towards it as a necessary but “brutal slog”. Whatever the outcome, few would deny that decarbonising Australia’s economy is a major undertaking with important implications for our everyday lives and livelihoods.

With this in mind Informa Connect spoke with Former Chief Scientist Dr. Alan Finkel AO and IPCC Co-Chair Professor Jim Skea ahead of The SMH Sustainability Summit to get their thoughts on net zero feasibility.

Transforming our energy system

Dr Finkel, who recently advised Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor on the Low Emissions Technology Roadmap, is confident that with the right technologies and policy settings, we can achieve the milestone. The direction we need to take is clear, he says. The pathway to get there a little more shrouded.

“When you look globally at the source of greenhouse gasses, almost three quarters are due to the burning of oil, coal and gas for energy. The solution is therefore obvious: we have to convert all of that into clean energy to make a meaningful difference,” he said. “Technology will be our vehicle to get there, but the road we travel will have speed bumps to be traversed – as fast as we can without doing damage. Many low emission technologies targeting the energy system are still terribly expensive. ”

Starting with over 140 low emission technologies, the ministerial advisory panel that Dr Finkel chairs used filters such as ‘abatement potential’ and ‘economic significance’ to select a portfolio of priority technologies that can accelerate this shift. At the top of the list are clean hydrogen, storage (including batteries and pumped hydro), and low emission metals (namely aluminium and steel) – all of which remain costly for mainstream usage. Scaling up to bring costs down is Australia’s largest and most important hurdle in the road to net zero, Dr. Finkel argued.

“The abatement potential of priority technologies is enormous,” said Dr. Finkel. “Governments cannot afford not to invest in them, nor can private companies looking to meet their ESG objectives. For this reason, reaching net zero will largely hinge on whether we can achieve ‘utility scale’ within industries like green hydrogen. Guided by government initiatives like the National Hydrogen Strategy and the Low Emissions Technology Roadmap, this is certainly looking more possible each day.”

On a positive note, other priority technologies such as carbon capture and storage have seen significant cost reductions in recent years, particularly at a number of U.S. sites.

Political support

Alongside these pioneers, much of the private sector, is poised to invest in priority technology, but some are waiting for clearer policy settings. Stretch targets, including $2 per kilogram for clean hydrogen, already exist, but specified time-frames would give greater clarity and bridge the gap, said Finkel.

“The idea of the private sector needing certainty is a myth. Providing clarity goes a long way and will help us bridge the gap between public and private investment. We expect that with greater clarity, the private sector will invest $3-5 for every $2 spent by government,” he said.

Further government support in getting utility scale assets into construction, such as ARENA’S green hydrogen initiative, will also pay off. “As plant sizes scale up and larger distribution infrastructure is needed, appetite from equities investors will naturally grow, accelerating the shift towards net zero,” he said.

Tackling hard to abate industries

With our energy system performing the lion’s share in carbon abatement, the future may be hopeful. However, Dr. Finkel concedes that the remaining 30 percent of emission contributors – particularly cement production and enteric fermentation (from cattle and sheep) will be “very challenging” to clean up.

“There is certainly scope for technology to assist with geo sequestration and bio sequestration, but more innovation is needed in this space,” he said. “Thankfully, though, the rate of invention is promising. Unless we see scientists go on strike, I’m confident we will get to where we need to be in the next 10, 15 or 20 years.”

In the meantime, carbon capture and storage will play an important role in compensating for agricultural and cement emissions. When coupled with direct capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it can achieve ‘net negative emissions’ – where a company removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits.

“Once CCS becomes more affordable for mainstream usage, I’m confident we will see excellent progress in our journey,” said Dr. Finkel.

Transferring jobs

Prof Skea is also optimistic about the transition to net zero and says many of the roles in fossil-fuel industries neatly transfer to those in a low carbon economy.

“People who work in oil and gas could easily be redeployed in offshore renewables. Many of the competencies required in these professions marry up nicely,” he said. “In both, you have workers running big, technically-complex facilities and managing risk in a hostile environment. A lot of the same jobs, like divers, are also required.

“Within carbon capture and storage, people with advanced geological skills are needed to put carbon dioxide back into depleted reservoirs. It’s a logical transition for geologists working in the oil and gas sectors. The same applies for downstream hydrogen industries. Refineries for example would greatly benefit from the talent in fossil fuel industries to get networks and clusters growing.”

Based on crude job counting, Prof Skea believes there may even be more jobs once we reach net zero.

“A lot of the needs around the low carbon economy are on the demand side. For example, retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient; modifying external or internal walls, electrifying heating etctera. Many more jobs are needed in that area. However, this is where the skills match may not be quite as right. That’s why retraining and skills needs to be a big part of the social and economic conversation,” he said.

Continuing the conversation, Dr Alan Finkel AO and Prof Jim Skea are due to present at The Sydney Morning Herald Sustainability Summit, hosted by Informa Connect. This year’s event will be held Wednesday 11th November at the ICC Sydney.

Register now to secure your seat.

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