- 'Finkel question' hangs as PM nuances his position
- The nerds have seen off the jocks
- Pressure mounts on Turnbull over coal
The next Chief Scientist envisages an Australia with no coal, oil or natural gas, and says alternative energy sources, including nuclear power, need to be discussed as part of the country's energy future.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Monash University Chancellor Dr Alan Finkel as the successful applicant for the prestigious position on Tuesday. Dr Finkel will replace Professor Ian Chubb in January 2016.
Speaking at Parliament House, Dr Finkel said it was "critically important" that Australia reduced its carbon emissions. "My vision is for a country, society and world where we don't use any coal, oil or natural gas, where we have zero emissions electricity," he said. "But you can't get there overnight."
Viable alternatives, including nuclear energy, should be considered to get to zero-emissions if demand for energy increased, he said, but stressed the cost of building the required infrastructure would be large. With enough storage, solar and wind energy might also alone be sufficient, he said.
Dr Finkel later told Fairfax Media that, while ultimately a decision for policy-makers, there needed to be a "dialogue about those alternatives because, even if we decide to introduce nuclear into the mix, it's a 20-year project to build skills and capacity [and the] regulatory requirements".
"But if it's not happening in Australia, it's already happening around the world. Many reactors are being built [which will have] impact for those countries who are our trading partners."
He said his "dream" of an "electric planet" also involved generating four or five times the electricity needed from a range of zero-emission sources "so that now you have an abundance of electricity to replace oil for transport and gas for heating".
Dr Finkel stressed he was not "coming in with magical solutions no one's thought of" but would advise the government on a "nuanced response" to the issue.
Industry, Innovation and Science Minister Christopher Pyne said Dr Finkel's top priority would be to link business and science.
Dr Finkel, an engineer, neuroscientist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, said that as president of Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering he had found some academics unwilling to engage with industry. The group was trying to find ways to increase collaboration,
"Some are fantastic but some, not unreasonably, are concentrating on getting publications out ... because all the international rankings and quality metrics to a large extent ... look at bench research," he said.
It was "too soon ... to put out a clarion call" for $400 million in funding to be restored to research institutions, he said.
"More funding would be good but I think we've got to ensure strategies [so that if funding] materialises, it is most effectively spent."
Mr Turnbull stressed the improving economic viability of solar energy while defending the coal industry against a push for a moratorium on new Australian coal mines.
"It would make not the blindest bit of difference to global emissions," he said. "If Australia stopped exporting coal, the countries to which we export they would simply buy it from somewhere else."
He added that Australian coal was cleaner than the coal exported by some of Australia's rivals and said a moratorium could actually lead to higher global emissions.
Sixty-one prominent Australians, including rugby star David Pocock, have signed an open letter calling on Mr Turnbull to ban new coal mines and push for an international ban on coal.
"Coal is a very important part of the energy agenda," Mr Turnbull said. "Energy poverty is one of the big limits on global development."
But he said the pace of improvements in renewable technology and storage had been "extraordinary".
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