Ahead of those summits, Finkel has spruiked the Morrison government recently released technology road map during meetings with the UK’s Minister for the Pacific and Environment Zac Goldsmith, ambassador to Australia Vicki Treadell and Johnson’s COP26 envoy John Murton.
Murton has previously said that he “suspects Australia has the potential to get to net zero earlier than nearly any country and then be a sort of solar Saudi Arabia exporting power to Asia”.
Asked whether he was part-salesman, part-scientist, Finkel said: “I do feel that part of my job is to put our best foot forward – but not unrealistically. I’m an evidence-driven person. The things we talk about are factual descriptions of what Australia has achieved.
“In the last three years – 2018, 2019 and again in 2020 – we have been installing solar and wind combined at the fastest rate per capita in the world, whether you look at it as dollars or watts-installed.
“We are doing that in all three years at 10 times the world average, three of four times higher than the best of the European countries and the result of that is by 2019 we’d already gotten to the point where small solar per capita in Australia is the highest in the world – ahead of Germany, Japan and Belgium in that order and that surprises most people.”
Senior diplomatic sources said in appointing Finkel as special adviser and deploying him internationally, Australia had been given a “credible” scientific voice on climate change. Finkel has also addressed DFAT staff in Canberra over recent weeks.
The government intends to make the development and deployment of low-emissions technology in the developing world, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, a part of its policy platform heading into COP26.
Finkel was also credited with bringing more scientific rigour to Australia’s domestic political debate over climate change during his five-year term as chief scientist.
His qualified support for the role of gas in the energy system was criticised in an open letter last August by 25 Australian climate scientists, including Professor Will Steffen, founder of the ANU’s Climate Change Institute. In the letter they argued that his support for gas as an energy source “is not consistent with a safe climate” and that “there is no role for an expansion of the gas industry”.
However, Finkel said the shift away from fossil fuels had to be managed carefully.
“We can’t just switch it off,” he said.
“I like to say that you were to remove public health from society, you’d be back to the Renaissance. If you were to remove education from our society you’d be back to the Middle Ages. And if you remove manageable energy from society you’d be back to the Stone Age.”
Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor said Finkel was conducting “strategic engagement in support of the government’s technology-led approach to reducing emissions”.
“Dr Finkel is well positioned to excel in this role, having unique technical expertise, strong business connections, and the necessary domestic and international profile gained from his time as Australia’s chief scientist,” he said.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.