While Morrison crab walks to net zero (part I)

Tim Baxter
6 min readJun 5, 2021


To understand the nuance of climate change – particularly at the interface of climate science and climate policy – takes an obsessive attention to detail. As someone who has a professional obligation to be across that nuance, and an ability to explain it to others, I wonder whether the work I do on a day-to-day basis evidences a fastidiousness that is entirely unhealthy.

I’m never surprised or unsympathetic when people seek simple messages and ways to cut through the detail in order to tear at the heart of an issue. Simple communication of climate science is an essential step in promoting advocacy against one of the greatest issues of justice that humanity has ever faced. Besides, most of my day is spent on trying to make the complex simple.

Sometimes though, while hunting for simplicity, we end up advocating for far less than is necessary, we push ideas that are much less important than we think, and kick spectacular own goals.

The purpose of this series is to complicate the over-simple. Before that, I’m going to simplify a few things.

But first, …


I’m Tim.

I’m a researcher at the Climate Council of Australia. If you’re reading this, I reckon that there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this you know me from Twitter. I’m a parent of two kids who are usually okay, a legally-trained climate advocate, a passionate educator , and basically only good at one thing: climate stuff.

I think I’m funny sometimes. Let me tell you something that sounds like the set up to a joke, but that isn’t funny.

So an Australian diplomat walked into an international climate conference…

… and blocked consensus, spoiling progress and ensuring climate change keeps getting worse.

Not content to just linger at the back of the pack, Australia’s role at international negotiations has mostly been to stymie the efforts of others. It’s been that way for at least a quarter of a century. Periods where Australia has tilted ever-so-slightly toward not being rubbish have been extraordinarily ham-fisted failures (link contains swearing) or nonetheless managed to result in bottom-of-the-cookie-jar dregs playing the role of ambition.

Remembering this simple fact means that you have learned the most important lesson about who Australia is on climate. It doesn’t have to be true, but it definitely is true. It’s so much a tale as old as time that a teapot once sang it while a hairy CGI wolf-thing in a period costume once danced with Emma Watson.

Animated gif of Belle and Adam from Beauty and the Beast dancing
Whether you have it in your head or not is a real test of character.

When coal, oil and gas burns, climate change gets worse.

The second lesson is also simple. Every lump of coal, every tank of petrol, every litre of gas leaves the world worse off than it would otherwise have been. The faster we stop burning stuff we found in a hole for energy, the better off we’ll be.

Anyone who suggests that a fossil fuel consumption can help with the transition is having a lend.

There’s no ‘good’ fossil fuel. They aren’t a ‘partner’ for renewables. The only role for fossil fuels is to keep the lights on, the dinner cooked and the car running while we work to roll-out their replacement so we can shut them down.

Photo of a damaged Callide power station after it exploded on 25 May 2021.
Coal-fired power stations like Queensland’s Callide C seem to have become self-aware and are taking the need to move away from fossil fuels into their own hands.

Australia is a big problem and anyone who tells you otherwise needs to think harder.

You know exactly what he looks like, but let me describe him. He’s white, he’s older, but not always old. His neck left a few years back to start a solo career.

As we all know, Australia is only 1.3 % of global emissions, …

What follows might or might not include some coded racism about how the whole climate change deal is actually China’s fault and we’re qwhite fine actually.

Invariably they mysteriously forget that while China – as the world’s largest annual emitter – has an immense role in determining the future climate, the Western world is significantly more responsible for the damage that has occurred so far.

The USA is single-handedly responsible for far more of the greenhouse gas currently in the atmosphere than China. Nearly one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions released since 1850 were released from the territorial USA. Just saying, …

Bar chart showing 14 countries’ cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, from 1850 to 2018. The USA has emitted almost twice as much as China.
It’s not even close!

But let’s put the old fellas’ dislike of China aside for a second and focus on Australia.

Australia is a big emitter however you slice it

There are 195 countries in the world, and with one third of one percent of the world’s population, Australia manages to pack a killer punch on the global climate.

Here are some key numbers that may, or may not, blow you tiny mind:

  1. By population, Australia is the 55th biggest country, but emits more than all but 13 countries. The smallest country (by population) that emits more than Australia – the extraordinarily emissions intensive nation of Canada – serves the needs of 12 million more people. And Canada still kinda sucks.
  2. On a per person basis, the only countries that emit more than Australia are small (‘small’ = less than 10 million people)
  3. Australia is the most emissions intensive developed country in the world.
  4. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied gas, with 22% of all the world’s internationally-traded liquefied gas originating in Australia.
  5. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of metallurgical (minerals-processing) coal, with 55% of all the world’s internationally-traded metallurgical coal originating in Australia.
  6. Australia is the world’s second largest exporter of thermal (electricity-generating) coal, with 20% of all the world’s internationally-traded thermal coal originating in Australia.
  7. Three Victorian coal-fired power stations – Loy Yang A, Loy Yang B and Yallourn, which are responsible for less than half of the emissions from a six-and-a-half million person state that is one of the country’s less emissions intensive – emit more per year than the entire 22 million person nation of Sri Lanka.
  8. In 2021, the gas industry will very likely become the country’s biggest user of gas as it samples its own product to process it for overseas consumption, leading to a massive – and poorly monitored – additional burden on the climate even before the fossil fuel is burned.
  9. Australia is the world’s 14th largest emitter, which means that it emits more than 181 countries each year. Regardless of whether you consider this on an annual, or a cumulative basis, together those 181 countries emit more per year than the world’s largest annual emitter. If there is such a thing as too small to make a difference – spoiler: there isn’t Australia – definitely isn’t it.

But do you know what blows my tiny mind?

The purveyors of “1.3%” don’t even care enough about how the world works to misrepresent reality accurately.

Australia isn’t responsible for 1.3% of global emissions. It’s responsible for 1.15% of global emissions, but the purveyors of we’re too small don’t even care about reality enough to get the number right when it would serve their interests.

They know the number is meaningless, but the narrative – the seed of an idea that this is hopeless and that we don’t matter – is all that is required.

Where to from here?

In my next post, I’m going to talk about what it means to do net zero. I’m going to start with four features, and we’ll see where we end up.

  1. What happens on the way to ‘zero’.
  2. When ‘zero’ happens.
  3. What ‘zero’ means.
  4. What happens after ‘zero’.

Give me a like, or a clap, or a follow, or a whatever to let me know you’ve made it this far and are keen to see more. I’m not much of egotist, but it’s always nice to know people are reading.

Part 2 is here.



Tim Baxter

Climate and energy researcher for my day job, but these opinions are written on my own time.