Australia’s incoming chief scientist wants the country to be a global renewable energy leader and “bold and ambitious” in rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
By Graham Readfearn
Australia Should Cut Emissions Quickly And Global Renewable Energy, Incoming Chief Scientist Says : Physicist Dr Cathy Foley, who will replace Dr Alan Finkel in January, told Guardian Australia she believed the Morrison government was serious about rapidly shifting the country to a low-emissions economy.
Foley, who is currently the chief scientist at CSIRO, will enter the role at a time when a global pandemic has pushed the importance of scientific advice to new heights.
But she will also be tasked with compiling and curating scientific evidence to guide a potential rapid shift away from fossil fuels to a low-emissions economy.
“Of course I want Australia to be a low-emissions economy, but I want us to be a world leader in global renewable energy, such as hydrogen, and what I’m hearing from government is that they want the same thing,” she said.
“We need to move as quickly as we can using all the tools to lower emissions and be bold and ambitious in doing that.”
The Morrison government has so far refused to set a target to reach net zero emissions by 2050 – a goal now endorsed by key trading partners, including Japan and South Korea, as well as US president-elect Joe Biden.
The UN’s climate panel says the world’s greenhouse gas emissions need to reach net zero by 2050 to have a 66% chance of keeping global warming below 1.5C.
But when asked what advice she would give the government on the target, Foley said: “I’m not in the job yet and I have not done my own gathering of information. I’m not in a position to say I can assess the situation.
“But I can say [is] we know Australia is committed to reducing emissions and Australia is committed to delivering on its commitments of the Paris agreement and we are seeing the government recognising this.”
Finkel has advocated for increasing the amount of gas in Australia’s electricity grid to lower emissions and support renewables – a position he was forced to defend in August after climate scientists wrote an open letter saying it was at odds with the Paris climate agreement.
Foley said: “The people who signed that letter are eminent scientists coming from a scientific perspective, but they are not necessarily business people.
“The gas issue is complex. Alan’s position on gas is it will help reduce emissions more quickly and get more wind and solar more quickly. He is just providing the evidence from what he has garnered.”
She said her role would be to make sure the voices of environmental science were heard, but to also “bring them to the other parts of the argument to see why an outcome has landed where it has”.
“I think pragmatic is not the right word. It’s about being a boundary spanner … that’s what’s tricky in the chief scientist role.”
Foley is a multi-award winning physicist specialising in the use of super-conductors to locate mineral deposits. She has worked at CSIRO for 36 years.
CSIRO’s chief executive, Larry Marshall, said her appointment was a “testament to Cathy’s personal scientific excellence”. Finkel said he was honoured to be followed “by such an esteemed person”.
Foley told Guardian Australia she had been asked to apply for the role but had not expected to get the job.
“The [science minister Karen Andrews] and the prime minister said they want to make sure there’s independent information that’s as unbiased as possible – gathering scientific information from wherever is needed on an issue or question and then give them frank and fearless advice to use to navigate the issue at hand.
“They may use the advice or not, but it’s important to realise the response to how they use it may require me to be pragmatic, but it’s the government of the day that makes the policy and the decisions.”
She said while science was “one small part of the big picture when a big decision has to be made”, Australia had closely followed expert advice to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic “and has had a good outcome”.
She acknowledged that misinformation on issues such as climate change science were a problem – where evidence and information could be cherry-picked – and said the country needed a campaign to help the public understand the scientific process.
But she also welcomed the steps being taken by social media platforms in flagging posts that contained misinformation.
“I think [social media] has played a major role in misinformation being easily accessible and getting a life of its own,” she said.
She hoped social media had now “gone through the wild teenage years” and was now “developing some maturity”.
Originally published at The guardian