I’M SITTING IN the passenger seat of a Hyundai Nexo on a tree-studded Canberra street. It’s stopped to reverse into a parking spot, but no one is driving – an ultra-luxury ghost car.
Scott Nargar, Hyundai’s ‘senior manager of future mobility’, stands in the middle of the road holding a remote control. He presses a button; the steering wheel spins on its own and the car rolls backwards until parallel to the kerb. From a nearby apartment window, a black cat gazes unblinkingly at this fusion of the supernatural and the mundane. And I wonder: is this what the future feels like?
Nargar opens the door and hops back into the driver’s seat. ‘So basically after that, the car turns itself off, puts itself in park, locks itself and I can walk away,’ he says, matter-of-factly. We drive on, and he runs me through the Nexo’s high-tech cockpit: blind spot cameras and pedestrian-seeking auto brakes; ventilated seats and a heated steering wheel.
It all sounds deluxe, but I’m mostly interested in what’s in the Nexo’s tank: pure hydrogen. Hydrogen-powered cars in Australia are rare; this is one of twenty on lease to the ACT Government. The car is powered by electricity, produced when hydrogen reacts with oxygen in a fuel cell. The only thing it emits is a curl of steam.
The car also filters the air as it drives. We pull onto an avenue leading to Parliament House and zip past cars belching fumes into the afternoon sky. Nargar points to a huge touchscreen display in the centre of the console showing he’s driven 208 kilometres that day. ‘I’ve purified 153.1 kilolitres of air – which equates to enough air for five adults to breathe for a day. And I’ve displaced nearly thirty kilos of carbon dioxide,’ he says.
In May of 2020, carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere reached a record 417 parts per million[i], which means for every one million molecules of gas in the atmosphere, 417 were carbon dioxide. These concentrations are growing steadily; in Australia, even COVID-19 lockdowns could not stop the rise.[ii] The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says without radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, a planetary disaster awaits.[iii] We must find new, cleaner fuel sources, else perish together. Renewable energy can get us part of the way, but it won’t be enough.
That’s where hydrogen comes in. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in energy circles who disputes that, in theory, hydrogen could eliminate carbon from much of the global economy. How to do it right, and in time to avert climate catastrophe, is the conundrum now before us.
HYDROGEN IS THE most abundant element in the universe, but you can’t see, smell or taste it. It was made in the Big Bang and went on to form stars and galaxies. On Earth, hydrogen is not conveniently available in its pure form but is bound up with other substances. To produce hydrogen without carbon emissions, it must be extracted in one of two ways: from fossil fuels (using a technology that captures and stores carbon), or from water (in a process powered by renewable energy).
Dr Fiona Beck, a researcher at the Australian National University’s Research School of Engineering, is interested in the latter. Beck and her colleagues are working on a cutting-edge alchemy, and have developed a technology that, in essence, converts water into hydrogen using nothing but sunlight.
The power of the sun has been used to create hydrogen in the past. Converted to electricity, solar energy can power an electrolyser that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. But Beck’s new technology cuts out the middle man: the solar panels have been re-engineered to create the hydrogen themselves.
‘The problem at the moment is that the economics of buying an electrolyser and plugging it into renewable energy is not quite there compared to the fossil fuel methods,’ Beck says. ‘What we’re looking at here is: how do you make it even cheaper, and actually do it all in one?’
Beck’s doctoral student Astha Sharma emerges from a lab. ‘She is the brains who does most of the actual work,’ Beck says, beckoning us both back into the lab. Inside, bundles of power cords dangle from hooks, and electrical equipment crowds every surface. On one desk sits what looks like a long black paparazzi lens. This, Beck explains, is the light source.
‘There’s a big arc lamp in there,’ she says. ‘It’s like controlled lightning. In a very small area, it’s actually a very large fraction of the temperature of the sun.’
Wearing disposable gloves, Sharma takes a tiny silicon solar cell, about one centimetre wide. Fused to that is another type of solar cell made of a material known as perovskite. She dips the cells into a clear container filled with an alkaline solution, then removes the cap from the lens. A sharp beam of light illuminates the liquid. Soon, tiny gas bubbles fizz from the cells.
‘Is that hydrogen?’ I ask.
‘Yep,’ says Beck, and laughs. ‘It’s actually not very dramatic.’
The project has set a new efficiency record for solar-to-hydrogen cells: of all the sun’s energy the cells receive, 17.6 per cent is converted to hydrogen – rivalling the most efficient rooftop solar panels, which convert about 20 per cent of sunlight into electricity. So depending on how the technology develops, the end result may be dramatic indeed.
TODAY, FOSSIL FUELS account for about 80 per cent of the energy the world uses[iv] – not exactly what hydrogen advocates of the past had in mind. In 1923, British scientist JBS Haldane predicted a future where ‘rows of metallic windmills’ powered ‘electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen’. General Motors built the world’s first hydrogen vehicle, the Electrovan, in 1966. A few years later, American chemistry professor John Bockris coined the term the ‘hydrogen economy’ to describe a future where hydrogen replaced fossil fuels to power all manner of human activity. Other waves of hype have followed in the fifty years since, but progress has not. Now, once again, the world is enthralled by the promise of hydrogen thanks to the falling cost of renewable energy and the climate change guillotine hovering over our necks. Around the world, governments and investors are laying increasingly big bets on new hydrogen projects.
In Australia, Alan Finkel, whose term as Chief Scientist ended in December 2020, is head cheerleader for a tiny hydrogen industry. He talks up Australia’s potential to ‘ship sunshine to the world’ – a merry description of exporting hydrogen produced with solar energy. And Finkel proudly claims to be first on the waiting list when Hyundai starts leasing the Nexo to the public.
Finkel spearheaded the National Hydrogen Strategy, published in late 2019. It aims to make Australia a world leader in hydrogen within a decade: under the most optimistic scenario, it predicts that our hydrogen industry could be worth $26 billion to the economy in 2050. I ask Finkel if the economic calamity brought on by COVID-19 has changed his mind about these prospects.
‘I’m actually feeling more optimistic, because there’s so much happening globally,’ he says. ‘We are seeing extraordinary monetary commitments.’ He rattles off a couple made just before our conversation in the late spring of 2020: €7 billion from France and €9 billion from Germany to expand the hydrogen industry in Europe and abroad.
Investment by Australia is far more tentative. Of two dozen or so hydrogen projects announced to date, Finkel says there are only about six ‘where money is actually flowing and ground has been turned’. At the time of writing, the Morrison government had committed about $370 million to support the hydrogen strategy; state governments have promised further funding, though smaller amounts.
VIRTUALLY ALL HYDROGEN used today is derived from fossil fuels: about 6 per cent of the world’s natural gas, and 2 per cent of its coal, goes towards hydrogen production. Hydrogen is produced from gas in a process whereby methane reacts with very hot steam, and it can be extracted from coal through ‘gasification’, when coal reacts with oxygen and steam and becomes a gaseous mix containing hydrogen. A small amount of hydrogen is also generated from oil. Each year, the emissions produced to generate hydrogen by these methods equal that of the UK and Indonesia combined.[v]
A cleaner form is ‘blue’ hydrogen. This is made from coal or gas, but some carbon emissions are trapped and transported to be stored deep underground. Cleaner still, however, is ‘green’ hydrogen, made using zero-emissions renewable energy.
Hydrogen from renewables is currently more expensive than that derived from fossil fuels,[vi] even when the resulting carbon is captured. But green hydrogen is becoming more competitive: costs of the clean energy required for its manufacture are rapidly falling, along with the cost of electrolysers. Analysis by the Australian National University in August 2020[vii] found green hydrogen could easily be produced in Australia for $3 a kilo or less in the near term. Other analysts argue[viii] that if electrolysers keep getting cheaper, a kilo of green hydrogen could be produced for as little as seventy US cents before 2050. That makes it competitive both with hydrogen derived from gas and coal, and with current natural gas prices in some parts of the world.
On clean hydrogen’s production costs, Finkel says he’s ‘optimistic’. Then he sobers. ‘But I’m pessimistic, miserable and bummed by the fact that there’s not enough immediate demand.’
Today, the world’s biggest hydrogen buyers are industry: oil refiners and manufacturers of ammonia, steel and methanol. (In a niche application, it’s also used in peanut butter production – hydrogenated oils are what make it spread smoothly onto your toast.)
Creating a mass market for hydrogen won’t happen overnight. ‘Let’s say you’re building demand for hydrogen through transport,’ Finkel says. ‘You don’t suddenly develop hydrogen trucks and cars and develop the refuelling capability and people’s confidence in the regulations and the other stuff that makes an industry. It’s going to take years and years. So demand is the limiting factor here.’
Energy experts broadly acknowledge that zero-emissions electricity cannot solve the climate crisis alone – it simply can’t be used everywhere. Finkel cites long-haul transport, saying planes, trucks, trains and ships are unlikely to ever choof around with tonnes of batteries on board. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get on a big battery-powered plane at Sydney Airport and fly non-stop to San Francisco with 350 passengers,’ he says.
Hydrogen will also be needed to replace coal in the polluting steel-making industry. Globally, steel manufacture creates about 7 per cent of carbon emissions; a switch to green hydrogen there would be a boon for both the climate and the Australian steel towns of Port Kembla and Whyalla.
Australia is up against nations such as the US, China, Brunei and Saudi Arabia in the hydrogen export race. But we have one distinct advantage: proximity to Asia and, in particular, Japan and South Korea, which have both wagered heavily on hydrogen.
By 2030, the Japanese government wants 800,000 fuel cell vehicles on the road, and 900 stations to refuel them. And at the Tokyo Olympics, delayed until July 2021, the flame will burn with hydrogen for the first time.
In December 2019, Japan launched the world’s first ship designed to transport liquefied hydrogen at the port of Kobe. Finkel was there as the 8,000-tonne Hydrogen Frontier slipped into the water for the first time. ‘It hit me that this was the first ship ever made that will allow human beings to transport renewable energy from one continent to another,’ he says. ‘It’s a new era.’
The global hydrogen economy suddenly appeared to be alive and thrumming in Osaka Bay. But the shape of the new world energy order is a huge unknown – not least because the Hydrogen Frontier will ship more than just sunshine. The launch marks the start of a controversial trial project in which hydrogen derived from Australia’s brown coal will be shipped to Japan. Some potential importers of Australia’s hydrogen, such as Germany, [ix] won’t consider hydrogen sourced from fossil fuels in the long term, even if some of the carbon that is produced is captured. But, Finkel says, ‘certainly Japan will, South Korea will, Norway will. It really depends on whether you’re focused on a technology and you hate it, or you’re focused on what counts – atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide.’
Critics of using coal-derived hydrogen should ‘just get over it’, Finkel says. ‘If you could do coal with 100 per cent carbon capture and storage, and it was cheaper and dispatchable 24 hours a day, why wouldn’t you? But there’s a huge number of people out there who would say no, just because it’s coal.’
‘DON’T BE AFRAID! Don’t be scared! It won’t hurt you.’ It’s February 2017, and Australia’s then Treasurer Scott Morrison is clutching a lacquered lump of coal in parliament, and teasing Labor over its ‘coal-a-phobia’. Morrison hands off the lump to the then leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce, and goes on: ‘It is that malady that is affecting the jobs in the towns and the industries and, indeed, in this country because of [their] pathological, ideological opposition to coal being an important part of our sustainable and more certain energy future.’
As The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy would later write, ‘No one was afraid, or scared. People were just confused. What was this fresh idiocy?’
Indeed, after years of absurd politicking in Australia’s parliament over climate and energy policy, Morrison’s stunt still stood out as idiotic – though in hindsight, perhaps there was method to the derangement. Two years later, with Morrison at the Coalition helm, the government snatched an unexpected federal election win. The contest was largely won in regional Queensland, where the Coalition pulverised Labor in mining seats. Blue-collar voters sent Opposition leader Bill Shorten packing, and with it his party’s equivocation on the Adani coal mine and its half-decent plans for climate action.
Fires ripped through Australia’s south-east the following summer. Bush desiccated by the nation’s hottest and driest year on record literally exploded, the fires burning so fiercely they created their own thunderstorms. Morrison flew to Hawaii in December as the crisis mounted. He returned contrite about the holiday, but hostile to those who ‘conflated’ the fires with Australia’s weak climate action targets. In January, conservative MPs doubled down in the face of a shell-shocked nation. The fires, they claimed, were not the work of global warming but of arsonists and Greens.
Then came COVID-19. Academics, economists and investors urged the government to invest stimulus money in renewable energy. But in the early weeks of the pandemic, federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor was already talking up a gas-led economic recovery. Soon after, he announced the $300 million Advancing Hydrogen Fund; it would invest in hydrogen production from both renewables and fossil fuels. In September he released a ‘technology roadmap’ – again, hydrogen from fossil fuels was on the table.
The government already had skin in the game – a project known as the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC). This will produce liquefied hydrogen from brown coal in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, then ship it to Japan via the Hydrogen Frontier.
In April 2018, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had launched the $496 million project at the Loy Yang coal mine in the middle of an autumn heatwave: the valley was as dry as chalk dust and rainfall that month was the lowest for at least twenty years. The federal and Victorian governments had kicked in $50 million each for the project, with an international consortium to fund the rest.
Turnbull told the crowd the project would ensure ‘more jobs for Latrobe Valley workers not just today, but in years and decades to come’. He clutched the black lectern. ‘It’s amazing,’ he said, ‘to think that brown coal from Victoria is going to be keeping the lights on in Japan.’
Australia, of course, knows how to dig up coal – it’s an endeavour at which we excel. But in the long term, as climate change worsens, no nation will want to buy carbon-heavy hydrogen. The success of the Latrobe venture rests on effective carbon capture and storage (CCS) – piping carbon dioxide produced by the project to Bass Strait, injecting it into sandstone under the seabed and making sure it stays there.
Efforts to sequester the carbon are being led by CarbonNet, a joint project of the Victorian and federal governments. CarbonNet project director Ian Filby explains to me how, in the summer of 2019, a rig began test drilling at a site off Victoria’s Ninety Mile Beach. It was collecting rock samples to confirm the site, dubbed ‘Pelican’, could store up to 125 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – not just from hydrogen production, but from other industries in the region wanting to rid themselves of carbon.
Most people I spoke to for this article were, at best, sceptical of the HESC project. Some were outright disparaging – of its substantial carbon emissions and its overall prospects of success. Alan Finkel is somewhat warmer. To him, while CCS is not 100 per cent effective at trapping carbon, meaning the project is ‘not perfect’, it is ‘a very big step forward’. No carbon dioxide will be stored during the pilot phase of the HESC project. But to go commercial, a viable carbon storage option will be needed. Filby said works so far suggested Pelican was ‘an excellent site’. ‘We’ve had our work reviewed by an international panel of experts, who have also confirmed that,’ he tells me. ‘Really, now it’s about progressing the project towards a more commercial decision, to see which parties from industry are interested in abating their emissions, and getting the storage site ready for them.’
CCS has a knack of making its critics spitting mad: Greenpeace has called it a ‘mad scientist fantasy’ and the Greens deride it as a ‘useless pipedream’.[x] Between 2003 and 2017, Australian governments spent an estimated $1.3 billion developing the technology, yet a commercially viable plant has not materialised. Chevron’s Gorgon gas project in Western Australia has not helped carbon-capture’s public image. From 2016, 80 per cent of emissions from the venture’s offshore gas field were meant to be trapped and buried underground. But technical issues delayed the injection by three years, allowing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide to vent into the atmosphere. At the time of writing, the project still wasn’t capturing carbon at the rate promised.
Capturing carbon from hydrogen projects is an even dicier proposition. A few weeks after Finkel’s hydrogen strategy was released, Australian National University climate economics professor Frank Jotzo wrote in The Conversation that no project in the world had achieved the 90–95 per cent carbon dioxide capture rate assumed in the strategy’s best-case scenario. In fact, only two hydrogen plants in the world were using the technology at the time: one in Canada that captured about 80 per cent of emissions, and one in the US, capturing less than that.
CarbonNet’s Filby, an engineer by trade, says CCS has been ‘painted as the enemy by activist groups and some parts of the media’. He is at pains to emphasise the scientific and engineering rigour that informed the choice of injection site.
‘The reservoirs, or sandstone layers of rock, are shown to be very good at storing all kinds of fluids,’ he says. ‘We’ve got oil and gas out in that basin that’s been stored for millions of years. So that’s a really strong indicator. It’s more than an indicator, it’s a scientifically demonstrable way that you can store things in the ground over geological time.’
Filby seems unperturbed by the project’s sizeable technical challenges; the question, he says, is whether it can be done for a reasonable cost.
‘The economics need to make sense,’ he says. ‘So it comes down to [this]: what are the policies of the government to abate the carbon? We certainly need different price signals and policies that are about incentivising the best solutions.’
Energy analysts say government policy will be critical to scaling up green hydrogen production and getting the infrastructure built. That includes billions of dollars of industry subsidies and a carbon price – the latter considered political poison in Australia.
If he were a betting man, I ask Filby, would he put his money on carbon-capture hydrogen? ‘I believe governments will move towards decarbonisation and, globally, CCS will have a role to play,’ he says. ‘But the question is when.’
HORSLEY PARK, ACCORDING to The Sydney Morning Herald real estate pages, is best known for three things: God, guns and horses. The suburb in Sydney’s south-west is one of Australia’s most devout – about 80 per cent of residents identify as Christian – and it’s home to the equestrian centre built for the Sydney Olympics. It also has a prominent gun shop on the main street. Soon, however, Horsley Park will add another feather to its cap: as a green hydrogen pioneer.
In August 2020, the New South Wales Government approved the $18 million Western Sydney Green Gas Project, to be operated by energy infrastructure giant Jemena. Touted as Australia’s largest hydrogen demonstration, it will generate green hydrogen, mix it into the existing natural gas network and deliver it to about 250 homes around Horsley Park.
Alistair Wardrope, Jemena’s senior engineer, has experience in the hydrogen business that dates back to 2006 when he worked for a UK electrolyser manufacturer. I ask if Horsley Park residents would notice any difference if, say, they’re boiling an egg on a gas cooktop, and there’s hydrogen in the mix. Wardrope pauses, then eventually answers: ‘No. If, hypothetically, we add 10 per cent hydrogen, we do marginally decrease the calorific value of the gas. But we’re talking about a very, very small difference. So no. If you’re talking about boiling an egg it might take a second or two longer.’
In terms of a broader transition, blending hydrogen into the mains gas network is considered one of the easiest ways to build demand in Australia. Unlike a hydrogen-fuelled transport network – which would need new vehicles, refuelling stations and a new tranche of regulation and laws – mixing hydrogen into the gas network requires little more than an electrolyser and a valve.
About 10 per cent hydrogen can generally be blended into the extant gas network without needing to upgrade household appliances. Jemena is trialling a 2 per cent mix and will deploy strict controls to make sure the limit is not exceeded. It’s a cautious approach, for good reason.
In 2018, researchers at the University of Queensland examined public attitudes to hydrogen use and found safety was the top concern. Of course, all fuels are flammable, and hydrogen is already being produced and used without incident. But hydrogen ignites easily, and the public will need convincing it’s low risk. Hyundai says it fired bullets at the hydrogen tanks of the Hyundai Nexo to make sure they could withstand a prang; I ask Wardrope if Horsley Park residents are worried hydrogen in their pipes might explode.
‘The first thing to point out is the amount of gas [involved in the project] in energy terms is a very, very small fraction of what Jemena moves on a daily basis,’ Wardrope says. ‘And Jemena is very well versed in safely transporting and handling flammable gases – which is what hydrogen is.’
The NSW Government wants 10 per cent hydrogen running through the state’s gas networks within a decade as part of its plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. If repeated across the country, that would be a fair bit of hydrogen. I ask Wardrope if projects such as Jemena’s might help move the dial – generating enough demand to create a mass market.
‘It’s the chicken-and-egg scenario,’ Wardrope replies. ‘You don’t have the users because you don’t have the infrastructure, and you don’t have the infrastructure because you don’t have the users. Where we can leverage off existing infrastructure to help break that cycle, it definitely helps.’
But even with public backing, and with the economics and engineering sorted out, the hydrogen shift seems incomprehensibly vast. It touches almost every facet of modern life. It needs to happen over months and years, not decades and centuries. It will take unprecedented political will – and vested fossil fuel interests will not easily roll over. It will require permanent changes to not only our fuel source, but the homes we live in, the cars we drive and the foundations of the global economy.
I ask Wardrope if he can see a road to a fully fledged hydrogen society?
‘I think, if we look at what’s happening around the world, the level of investment is increasing substantially in favour of hydrogen,’ he says. ‘So do I think there will be a transition? Me personally, yes. [But] the jury is still out, it’s fair to say, which is why it’s important to do these trials. In terms of whether it will be a 100 per cent conversion? There is no precedent. But over the years, the network and energy users have gone through multiple energy transitions.’
Indeed, the tale of human energy use is filled with plot twists. We mastered fire and burnt plants to release energy derived from the sun. Agriculture turned the sun’s energy into food, and we harnessed wind to propel boats and grind grain. Since the industrial revolution we’ve liberated energy from fossil fuels – energy trapped millions of years ago in the fibres of ancient plants. Now we’re on the cusp of a new chapter – without carbon dioxide. But hydrogen’s role in this future is far from assured.
Storage and distribution of hydrogen is difficult and may slow the transition: exports, for example, require hydrogen to be compressed, piped, liquified, sent out on ships and kept ultra-cold – at minus 253 degrees Celsius – in cryogenic tanks.
Producing green hydrogen also will require a huge amount of energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. According to one estimate by Deloitte, installed electricity generation capacity in Australia may have to increase more than fivefold by 2050 under the most ambitious hydrogen production scenarios.[xi]
In road transport, hydrogen fuel cells may be getting smaller and cheaper, but some say they’re no competition for electric vehicles. Tesla founder Elon Musk put it bluntly, deriding hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles as inefficient and ‘mind-bogglingly stupid’.
And an extra degree of difficulty exists in Australia, the driest inhabited continent on Earth. Most energy production consumes water; it takes nine litres to make one kilogram of hydrogen via electrolysis. Coastal areas are the most likely sites of hydrogen production; there, desalinated seawater or wastewater will probably be used.
Wardrope acknowledges the headwinds. ‘But when we look at history, in every energy transition there’s been a benefit, a positive outcome for the broader community and the environment,’ he says. ‘So looking at history I think that would suggest we are on the right path. We’re looking at the right technologies, but it’s still early days. Which is why we have to start small, but think big.’
BACK IN THE hydrogen-powered Nexo, it’s time for my afternoon drive to end. But in navigating back to where we began, I’ve led the driver, Scott Nargar, off course. I squint at the road ahead, looking for a road sign and cursing Canberra’s lookalike streets.
Nargar, a gracious host, hasn’t tired of showing off the Nexo’s luxury features and barely seems to notice that we’re lost. As I get my bearings, he plays a sample of the car’s in-built ambient sounds.
‘There’s the sound of the sea, or rainy days,’ he says, before flicking to a track titled ‘Open-air café’. ‘It’s all about enjoying the experience of driving an eco-car.’ He skips to a track filled with the chirrup of birds and insects. As we whizz past a supermarket, he asks, somewhat dryly, ‘don’t you feel like you’re in a rainforest now?’
Later, driving home in my diesel-chewing hatchback, I wonder about this next junction humanity has reached. Time has handed us the bewildering socio-techno riddle of remaking the world’s energy system. So in labs and universities and factories and boardrooms, people tinker and toil to keep humanity going as is, just without the carbon dioxide.
But what if this moment is about more than that? What if now is a good time to ask whether, as we took whatever fuel we wanted from the Earth, we used it well? We built cities and we met myriad desires, but did we look after one another, and every living thing? We became mobile and free, a human mass set in perpetual motion. But how often did we stop to listen to – and hear – the exhale of a real, breathing rainforest?
Talk of the prospective energy transition seems largely to rest on a vision of humanity unfettered: no excess curbed, no wants foregone. But, as I ask Alan Finkel, is it maybe not just our fuel sources that need to change? Maybe it’s us, too?
Finkel smiles wryly. ‘If we want to preserve the planet as it has been, we need to reduce the human impact,’ he says. ‘People talk about how we need to change our culture and our behaviour...but for all the talk, it doesn’t happen.’
Why not, I ask?
Finkel hesitates. ‘I think politicians have just recognised that you don’t get voted in by telling people they have to give up their air-conditioning.’
At the Australian National University, I put this same idea to Fiona Beck. If hydrogen and renewable energy save us, should humanity just continue as normal after that? Beck nods, as if to acknowledge that these questions are never far from her mind.
‘I’m reading Doughnut Economics, which is about how we can’t just keep going with endless growth,’ she says, referencing the 2017 book by Oxford economist Kate Raworth which argues, in Beck’s words, that humanity should live so ‘we’re not destroying the planet, but not deprived either’.
‘We need to electrify, we need to go to renewables, but we just can’t produce renewable energy fast enough. We also need ridiculous amounts of energy efficiency, and [we need] to change the way we use energy,’ Beck says. ‘We can’t solve all the problems with technology. It’s going to necessitate a change in mindset – away from “as much as you can, as fast as you can”, to considering the limits of the world we live in – just thinking about the whole thing.’