Professor Steffen said the scientists’ decision to take the unusual step of speaking out about the Chief Scientist was prompted in part by elements of Dr Finkel’s address to the National Press Club in February, as well as other public comments he has made about gas.
Professor Steffen said more would have signed the letter but could not as they were employed by government agencies such as the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.
In the speech Dr Finkel outlined how Australia needed to electrify its energy system to meet Paris climate goals.
He said that as renewable energy generation, storage and transmission technologies are scaled up to decarbonise the economy, gas would play a “critical role”, and that the transition could take decades.
The speech, made shortly before the government embraced a gas-led economic recovery from the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, caused concern among elements of the scientific community who see gas as an increasingly destructive global warming agent.
“He seems to be speaking in ignorance of or [to be] ignoring the overwhelming amount of evidence gathered by his own scientific community about the impact of the gas industry on the climate,” said Professor Steffen.
Professor Steffen said that Australia’s Paris climate targets were weak, set politically and had no scientific basis; that even if they were to be met Australia would still not be doing its fair share to mitigate global warming under the agreement, and that the use of gas as a transition energy source was quickly making the situation worse.
In the letter the scientists applaud Dr Finkel’s support for a transition to renewable energy, but take issue with his support for the government’s advocacy for an ongoing role for gas.
“Our concern … relates to the scale and speed of the decarbonisation challenge required to meet the Paris Agreement, and, in particular, your support for the use of gas as a transition fuel over ‘many decades’,” they write.
“Unfortunately, that approach is not consistent with a safe climate nor, more specifically, with the Paris Agreement. There is no role for an expansion of the gas industry.”
“The combustion of natural gas is now the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the most important greenhouse gas driving climate change.
“On a decadal time frame, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
“In Australia, the rapid rise in methane emissions is due to the expansion of the natural gas industry. The rate of methane leakage from the full gas economy, from exploration through to end use, has far exceeded earlier estimates.”
Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor as well as the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission support gas as an energy source that is less carbon intensive than coal and that can quickly be ramped up or down to support renewable energy sources in the grid.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Scientist said Dr Finkel was considering his response and would comment in due course.
A spokesman for Mr Taylor said that the International Energy Agency has estimated that coal-to-gas switching has avoided more than half a billion tonnes of emissions between 2010 and 2018.
“A separate CSIRO assessment of Queensland LNG production found that gas alone can reduce emissions from electricity production by up to 50 per cent. When gas backs up solar and wind, the emissions savings are even greater.
“Australia’s gas exports are reducing emissions in importing countries overseas where they displace more emissions-intensive alternatives or backup renewables.
Dr Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project and a chief research scientist at the CSIRO said greenhouse gas emissions from the gas industry in Australia were “skyrocketing”.
“They are not taking Australia in the direction it needs to go.”
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Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.