Dr Alan Finkel delivers the 14th Sir Zelman Cowen Oration

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25 March 2022

Special Adviser to the Australian Government on Low Emissions Technology, Dr Alan Finkel, delivered the 14th Sir Zelman Cowen Oration last night in Melbourne. 

The Australian Institute of International Affairs holds an oration and dinner annually to honour former Governor-General and legal expert Sir Zelman Cowen.

Read the full oration:

Getting to Zero: mind or matter?

Thank you, Justin, for that kind introduction, and thank you Richard Iron, Alastair Roff and Patrick Moore and indeed the whole of the Australian Institute of International Affairs for the invitation to deliver the Sir Zelman Cowen Oration.

It’s a huge privilege, and it’s an apt moment to pay homage to a man whose luminous example offers a beacon on how to navigate the challenges we face.

As a legal scholar, university administrator and Governor General, Sir Zelman Cowen was legendary for his clear thinking, robust rhetoric and eloquent speeches and writings, made accessible by a ‘common touch’.   He was also a generous mentor.

I have tried, with only moderate success, to emulate these attributes in my public roles, most recently as adviser to the Australian Government on the energy transition.

At this moment in history, with the war in Ukraine and the sudden stark revelation of a new world order, a geopolitical imperative has added to the urgency of the energy transition and Australia’s role is more poignant than ever.

Sir Zelman offers us all ‘wisdom and hope’ in this journey.

But before I launch into my main theme, the energy transition, let me dwell for a moment on my personal connection with Sir Zelman – and how the stars aligned in such a way that he had a hand in launching the interest that has dominated my professional career for more than five years.

I only personally met Sir Zelman once, but I had the privilege over the years of knowing his family quite well. In my twenties, I dated his daughter Katie and got to know Sir Zelman’s wife, Anna, and his son, Ben, who died in a tragic paragliding accident far too young. 

While I was Chancellor at Monash University, we created the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music and Performance, to acknowledge and respect Sir Zelman’s profound love of music.  My eldest son, Victor, is a graduate from that school.

And now for the alignment of the stars.

Sir Zelman was also a great champion of science, in whose foundational principles he was schooled at Scotch College.  Decades later, in early October 2016, I delivered the keynote presentation at the launch of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre for Science at Scotch College.

As I said then, “The project of his life was to make the world a better place.  … He approached science … with the triple benefit of an incisive legal brain, a curious spirit, and a humanist heart.  In that way he saw the future more clearly than many of the scientists of the day.”

At the launch, I bumped into the then Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg, who was strolling in with the Cowen family.  As a long-time mentee of Sir Zelman, Josh had grown close to the family.

As we crossed paths, after an initial greeting, Josh stopped, touched his hand to his head, and said,

“Alan! Alan! I must remember to call you later!”

And call he did.

As I was driving home late that night, Josh called to talk about the September 28th blackout that had darkened the whole of South Australia.  “No one knows what happened,” he said.  “I’ve been talking to the Prime Minister for over an hour, and we’ve decided that there needs to be a review of the National Electricity Market and that you should lead that review.”

It might have been late at night, but I was not so tired that I didn’t immediately realise this was big.  Monumental.

I started to compose some questions, but Josh continued, “Alan, I’m really tired, I have to go,” and he hung up on me!

And thus, it was.  That call led to a large portion of my tenure as Chief Scientist being devoted to issues of climate change and energy.

Which, of course, led to my current role as Special Adviser to the Australian Government on Low Emissions Technology. 

As you all know, the Australian Government committed to net zero by 2050 just before the climate summit in Glasgow last year.

In many ways, this was both the end of a long‑running debate, and the beginning of a bigger conversation on the practical challenges and opportunities in getting to net zero.

Tonight, I’d like to map out what it means for Australia and our place in the world as we race to net zero, and signpost some of the key challenges we’ll face on our journey. 

I’ll consider these challenges with one question in mind:

What should we conclude if we apply the Sir Zelman Cowen lens of clear thinking, rather than wishful thinking? 

Australia’s emissions data shows that since 2005, we’ve come about 20% of the way to achieving net zero emissions, which puts Australia well ahead of the OECD average.

According to the modelling that supports the net zero commitment, 40% of the remaining emissions reductions will be achieved through the Technology Investment Roadmap, 15% through global technology trends, and 10% through international and domestic offsets.

Crucially, the final 15% will be achieved through unidentified technology breakthroughs.

Surprisingly, there was criticism directed at this aspect of the plan. 

But consider the alternative.  What if the modelling claimed to know all the technologies today that would be required over the next three decades? 

Three decades ago, plenty of experts thought geothermal energy would be essential in achieving 100 percent renewable generation.

The picture today, of course, looks very different.  

It’s preposterous to claim to know today every technology we’ll be using in 2050, and to do so denies the proven role of innovation.

History says innovation always delivers. 

It is wishful thinking to expect the model to be 100% complete.

But innovation doesn’t work in isolation.

We need clear thinking and practical action to guide it along the way.

This is at the heart of my role as special adviser on low emissions technologies.

It is at the forefront of my mind as I provide advice, work with stakeholders, and meet with other like-minded nations looking at ways we can do things better – for our benefit and for the benefit of the world.

Doing things better means making transitions on an enormous scale.

Ultimately, the transition has to be driven by markets.

The price differential between high priced low emission technologies and low-priced high emission incumbents is called the Green Premium.  It has to be eliminated. 

One way is to use carbon taxes, which increase the prices of the incumbents.  The other way is to invest in the newcomers to accelerate their deployment at scale, to bring prices down.

The latter is the approach Australia has taken in the low emissions technology investment roadmap, which I chair.

Over the years, we’ve watched technology succeed at home and in markets around the world.  In particular, solar and wind electricity has shifted from costing a green premium to providing a green discount. 

As often happens, uptake in the early years of a new technology is slower than hoped – it relies on early adopters paying that green premium.  But as the economics shift and markets respond, a tipping point is reached.  The pedal hits the metal, and the rate of uptake soars.

We’ll soon see it happen for electric vehicles.  In the next few years, the green premium on electric vehicles will flip to a green discount and consumers will snap them up at record pace.

Time and time again, history says that encouraging investment is the logical approach.

It’s been instrumental in accelerating the transition from fossil fuel generation to solar and wind.  But investment is a two-sided coin.  Let me explain.   

Public pressure has recently forced some of the world’s biggest emitters, like BP, Shell and Exxon Mobil, to sell off their oil and gas wells.

This divestment might seem like a great result at first, but there’s a problem.  It is a case of hope exceeding reality. 

The problem is that the purchasers of the oil and gas wells are unaccountable private companies.

It would be wishful thinking to believe that they will operate those oil and gas wells as well as the majors who sold them.

The planet will be worse off.

Instead, clear thinking argues for investment, not divestment. Supporting the new, not shaming the old.

I have heard many contributions to the discussion on how our energy system will transition – some that stick in my mind the most are the discussions I’ve had with young Australians.

Some of you might be young enough to remember having conversations about climate change and emissions reduction at school.

The young people I talk to – and their passion for the issue is enormous – recall sitting down in class and vowing to make changes to their behaviour in a bid to curb climate change.

Switching to LED lights, reducing meat intake, cycling to school and so on were all discussed as a means of making a difference.

But reality bites.

Now, having grown up, many bemoan the fact that, in reality, these changes were a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the challenge.

Although the adjustments they made to their lives were important – and every bit helps - in reality the energy transition is a far greater problem to solve.

To solve it, we’ll need a technological revolution.

A revolution in which zero emissions electricity replaces the enormous quantities of coal, oil and gas used to produce the energy that keeps our modern society running. 

A revolution that will deliver what I call the Electric Planet.

A revolution that will ride on consumer choice and practical action.

A revolution underpinned by clear thinking.

Clear thinking was indispensable when we considered which recommendations to put forward for the Review of the National Electricity Market completed in 2017.

We knew that integrating decarbonisation with the other recommendations would be sure to improve the performance of the national electricity market.

One suggestion to achieve this was called regulated closure: to require that every coal-fired power station close on its 50th anniversary.  Under that plan, the last coal-fired power station would dispatch its last electricity in 2059.

We included regulated closure in our deliberations and modelling, along with two other approaches to decarbonising the electricity sector.

In the end, the modelling showed that the best of the three approaches was a Clean Energy Target – an incentive for all generators that produced electricity below a specified emissions intensity threshold.

As it happened, 49 of our 50 recommendations were agreed to by governments, but the Clean Energy Target was rejected.

However, rather than being annoyed, I am thrilled to see that the role it would have played has been served brilliantly by the existing Renewable Energy Target, as well as state and national government investments in solar, wind and batteries, all thriving in a robust national electricity market.

These policies, to invest in the new rather than punish the old, have been incredibly effective.

So effective that the closure of the last coal-fired power station is now scheduled for 2043 – 16 years earlier than would have been expected had we relied on regulated closure five years ago.

Practical action, underpinned by clear thinking.

However, accelerating renewables is not as simple as a lot of people believe.  From an engineering perspective, solar and wind are terribly behaved technologies; the problem children of electricity generation.

If I were to set an assignment for engineering students to design the worst electricity generator they could imagine to connect to a national electricity grid, I am certain that they would struggle to conceive of anything as poorly behaved as solar or wind generators.

Solar and wind generators don't have the essential characteristics, described by techie names such as inertia, strength and dispatchability.

But of course, solar and wind generators are wonderfully suitable in other ways. 

They are the cheapest source of generation, they have no harmful emissions, and they can be distributed on rooftops to empower consumers, and when deployed well, can help bolster system resilience.

They are the logical choice for getting to net zero.

But they are not available on demand.

That’s why, as we transition to solar and wind for our baseload power, we’ll require dispatchable sources of generation to deliver when needed.

Clear thinking argues that natural gas will continue to play a valuable role in the near and medium term.  Its ability to quickly ramp up output to patch the gaps in solar and wind generation is essential to grid stability.

In the long term, we’ll need batteries, pumped hydro and hydrogen to ensure the continued security and reliability of our electricity networks.

We’ll need to apply careful, considered clear thinking as we navigate the transition.

And that brings us to the role of carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

When people think of CCS, they only think of it in relation to electricity generation.

They think of it as a ruse, as a plan to indefinitely extend the lives of our coal- and gas-fired power generators.

But let me give you an example that may change that way of thinking.

By volume, what do you think is the most consumed product in the world?

It’s concrete.

Made from cement.

And, globally, the cement industry is responsible for approximately 6% of greenhouse gas emissions.  That’s a huge percentage of global emissions from just one industry.

When cement is manufactured, carbon dioxide is released as a by-product of the chemical reaction that converts limestone into lime. 

Despite the best efforts of academics and industry, we have not discovered a viable alternative for lime in the cement mix.

The world needs CCS to capture emissions that are the direct result of chemical reactions in industrial processes.

Clear thinking says that we’ll need CCS in this role long after the last coal and gas plants have closed.

So, what does this all mean for Australia’s place in the world as we’re getting to zero?

Well, depending on how you look at it, these challenges can be seen as opportunities.

For example, in 1989, Australian researchers led by Martin Green at the University of New South Wales invented Passivated Emitter and Rear Contact, or ‘PERC’ technology, for solar cells.

Today, PERC technology is used in around 90% of globally manufactured solar cells.

We are also on the front foot when it comes to uptake.  Australia has the highest level of installed solar capacity per person in the world!

So, the world is looking to us as early adopters to figure out the smart technologies that we’ll need in order to manage lots of solar and wind electricity in the grid. 

Smart technologies to provide stability when supply is changing by the millisecond.

We can engage with the world by sharing our knowledge.

Which is important, because getting to zero is a huge task on which the whole world has to collaborate. 

How huge?  Start with the fact that nearly three quarters of global emissions come from the energy sector.

Sadly, despite the efforts to date, because of the enormity of the task, actual progress has been slow.  In 1980, 85% of the world’s energy supply came from fossil fuels.  In 2019, after almost forty years of effort, in the shadow of a substantial increase in global energy production, the share from fossil fuels has fallen by a mere 4 percentage points to 81%.

Australian expertise in large resource projects will be important in driving that percentage dramatically lower.

We will be an increasingly important supplier of the copper, aluminium, iron, lithium, manganese, tantalum and other metals and minerals required to build solar cells, wind turbines, batteries and electric cars, ensuring that countries don’t have to choose between economic growth and decarbonisation.

But there’s an even bigger role for Australia to play.  That role is to provide low emissions energy security for our friends and neighbours, thereby supporting international peace and cooperation.

And the importance of this has been thrust into the spotlight by the devastation unfolding in Eastern Europe.

We are witnessing a tragic humanitarian crisis resulting from the unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It is an invasion based on the unacceptable principle that might is right.

The devastation is almost beyond comprehension. 

The people of Ukraine are showing strength and amazing courage as they fight for their survival. 

In Europe, there is the shocking realisation that they have been overly dependent on Russian oil and gas.  For the rest of us, it is a stark reminder of how important secure access to reliable energy is for our modern societies.

This conflict is a rallying cry for the importance of doubling down on investing in new, clean technologies that will deliver energy system resilience.

Except for near neighbours, and Australia does not have many, it is not practical to export electricity.

The alternative it to convert our solar and wind electricity into hydrogen that can be loaded onto cargo ships and traded like natural gas.

At its destination, the hydrogen can be used instead of diesel in heavy duty trucks and long-distance trains, it can be used instead of bunker fuel in big merchant ships, it can be used instead of natural gas for industrial heating, it can be used instead of thermal coal to generate electricity and it can be used instead of metallurgical coal to produce green steel.

Australia has an enormous opportunity to build on our reputation, to become a trusted clean hydrogen exporter of the future. 

We have virtually limitless sunshine, wind and land to build solar and wind farms to make hydrogen at massive scale. 

We’re working to accelerate our capability so that we can ship low-cost clean hydrogen, at scale, to our friends and neighbours around the world.

A new industry, metaphorically called ‘shipping sunshine’.

A new era for humanity, in which we will ship clean energy between the continents, in the same way we have shipped fossil fuels for hundreds of years.

It’s not often that you get to live through the transition from one momentous era to another, so be aware of the exceptional time in which you live.

By diversifying their supply, our friends and neighbours will enjoy improved energy security in the tumultuous geopolitical landscape that dominates our world today.

And, of course, we’ll be helping them get to net zero, too.

As we continue to race ahead in the technology revolution underpinning our energy transition, we’ll need clear thinking more than ever before.

Clear thinking to overcome the challenges that stand in our way.

To identify the practical actions to realise the opportunities that are waiting on Australia’s doorstep.

To realise our ambition to reach net zero emissions, and help the world realise them too.

To support international peace and cooperation, by supporting global energy security.

So, in the quest for net zero by 2050, what will be key – mind or matter?

Will it be our collective ambition or the technology that underpins it?

Logically, it will be a fair degree of both.

Technology, of course, will be the cornerstone of the transition. 

With innovation to deliver the emissions reductions that currently evade us.

With investment, not divestment, to get that tech to scale when it’s ready.

Deploying solar and wind to generate our electricity.

And deploying CCS to capture emissions from industrial processes.

On the international stage, we can share our knowledge to help the world reach net zero.

And as the world transitions, we can seize the opportunity to become a hydrogen powerhouse and support international energy security.

But we’ll need sustainable markets, with consumers driving demand for clean alternatives, creating price signals to help direct innovation.

And we’ll need all of this to be driven by clear thinking and practical action as we race to net zero.

Finally, to close tonight, since I have been so honoured as to give the Sir Zelman Cowen oration, I beg to borrow one of his very fine quotes.

“I would like to think that I may have offered wisdom.  In any event, if I have offered hope, then I am well pleased.”

May the Force be with you,

Thank you.

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