Will Australia go coal-free?

The Federal Government’s new chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, is backing the end of coal-fired power in Australia, but Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull isn’t on board.

Taking over the mantle from Professor Ian Chubb, Dr Finkel is expected to provide independent advice to the Government on issues of science, technology and innovation. He was questioned about his views on coal-fired power at a media event at which his appointment to the role was publically announced.

“My vision is for a country, a society, a world where we don’t use any coal, oil, or natural gas because we have zero-emissions electricity in huge abundance,” Dr Finkel said. However,

Malcolm Turnbull insists that coal will remain a main global energy source for many more years.

Malcolm Turnbull has faced criticism recently for dismissing a call from a group of 61 prominent Australians – including Wallabies star David Pocock, a trio of former Australians of the Year and well-known scientists and economists – to place a moratorium on coal.

It was hoped the Prime Minister would stop any new coal mine projects and bring an international moratorium on coal exports to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commencing in November in Paris.

“No I don’t agree with a moratorium on the idea of exploiting coal,” the Prime Minister said yesterday. “If Australia were to stop all of its coal exports it would not reduce global emissions one iota. In fact, arguably it would increase them because our coal, by and large, is cleaner than the coal in many other countries.”

He claimed that coal played a crucial part in relieving poverty in developing countries, and said, “You’ve got to remember that energy poverty is one of the big limits on global development in terms of achieving all of the development goals.”

Dr Finkel said it would take time to develop the technologies to replace coal and admits we “can’t get there overnight” but alternatives, such as nuclear energy “should be considered for a low emissions or a zero emissions future.”

“What we need to do is optimise the technology so we can cost-effectively introduce alternatives,” he said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Chief Executive Kelly O’Shanassy criticised the Prime Minister’s claims about coal easing poverty, and added that “Australia needs an energy mix that is 100 per cent safe.

“Neither coal nor nuclear are safe, so we should not be planning a future around them,” she said.


Opinion: Doesn’t sound promising

Alan Finkel is a highly-regarded neuroscientist, engineer, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He lives in a house powered entirely by renewable energy and drives an electric car. He is a public advocate of nuclear energy in the fight against global warming, and believes that Australians will all eventually be driving electric cars.

Clearly, Dr Finkel has a particularly strong stance on clean energy. So why has the Prime Minister chosen him for the chief scientist position if he doesn’t appear willing to follow his guidance?

Admittedly, Mr Turnbull said his Government would adopt “whatever energy mix is appropriate,” though he acknowledged there were significant costs and environmental challenges associated with alternatives, such as nuclear technology.

It doesn’t exactly sound promising though, does it?

Dr Finkel will officially take over the chief scientist mantle in December, after Professor Ian Chubb’s four-year term ends. To me, he sounds exactly like the kind of person I want advising the Government on environmental issues. But I don’t envy the work he has ahead of him – convincing the Prime Minister on environmental action. However, it’s early days yet. Maybe we’ll be surprised to discover our politicians can actually be made to see reason. Funnier things have happened. Maybe.

What do you think? Should we be seeing more cooperation between the Prime Minister and Australia’s Chief Scientist at this time? Or is it still too early to say? How do you feel about Dr Finkel advocating nuclear energy in Australia?

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