While Morrison crab walks to net zero (part II)

Tim Baxter
7 min readJun 6, 2021


(this is part ii of a series. part i is here. shhhhh!)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Morrison is heading for net zero. Apparently. Each week he takes one more step along the path toward boosting the marketing efforts to paint the picture of a Federal Government that might – one day, but not today, never today – make those veggie-patch-owning climate loons happy by taking a policy position that superficially resembles what a responsible government would do with the one of the greatest issues of global justice that has ever existed.

He and his media advisors have been pretty subtle about it.

Animated gif showing more than a dozen headlines from various media organisations connecting Morrison to net zero.
It could be one of those blink-and-you’d-miss-it things, but he’s been seeding the narrative with multiple stories in major media outlets for the best part of a year.

What a win, right? We should all be so happy, right? Morrison’s moving on climate, right? All happy, right? Future saved, right?

It’s just what we asked for.

I mean, apart from: it is way too little, it is way too late, it seems to intentionally misunderstand the point of net zero, it comes with no concrete policy mechanism, it’s not really the solution it’s cracked up to be, it won’t be a binding target, it’s just like a wish or something idk, it leaves the heavy lifting to some other future government, it’s intended to stand in for greater short- and medium-term ambition, it’s coming from a government that is backing in the growth of the fossil fuel sector both here and overseas, it’s coming from a government that has a track record of misrepresenting its climate performance both here and overseas, and it’s coming from a government that has never met an effective climate policy it didn’t want to repeal or neuter even when those policies are its own.

Oh. And also, for all the wall-to-wall coverage of how the Prime Minister is ‘on the front foot’ now that he has ‘stepped up’:

Animation of growing a shrinking text in all caps, reading “IT DOESN’T FJAKING EXIST”

So apart from that. Sure: Knock. Yourself. Out.

I tried earlier. It didn’t take. I decided to write this instead.

So… Net zero. As I mentioned in the last post, there are four things that matter about net zero goals:

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

Full disclosure: This piece covers the first of these and treads a lot of ground already visited by Ketan Joshi in this great piece he did for RenewEconomy, but I need to reinvent the wheel so we can travel when I want to take you.

While we keep emitting greenhouse gases – and particularly while we keep burning coal, oil and gas – climate change will keep getting worse. There are a lot of attempts to muddy the water here, but it’s very straightforward at the top level. By burning the stuff we find in holes, we are re-introducing to the atmosphere a greenhouse gas burden that has been buried for several million years. We should stop doing that.

‘Net zero’ refers to a point in time where the new burden of greenhouse gas added to the atmosphere is ‘balanced’ by removals from the atmosphere. the concept has its prominent critics even among climate scientists and advocates. There are people I like and often agree with: (1) who reckon the whole idea is bunk, (2) who are worried by what it is used to justify, (3) who think it is poorly implemented but fixable, and (4) who point out that the entire foundation of net zero is a house of cards made out of false equivalences. I’ll come back to these criticisms in part IV, but for now, just remember that ‘net zero’ as a policy goal doesn’t have universal acceptance. It is often used as a tactic by perpetrators of ‘predatory delay’.

For this post, I’m going to pretend that net zero in 2050 is a necessary and sufficient goal for Australia in this article. Let me be clear, it is not. I’ve just got to start somewhere. We’re also going to ignore what happens after ‘net zero’ in this piece. It’s important: but for later.

As covered in the previous post, Australia is a big emitter by global standards no matter how you slice it. Anyone telling you something different is misrepresenting things, intentionally or otherwise.

Broadly, there are three paths between where the country is today and net zero:

Line chart demonstrating the ‘Go Hard’ pathway to net zero, resulting in deep cuts early on, and a long tail of smaller cuts later. Reaches net zero in 2050.
Line chart demonstrating the ‘Slow and Steady’ pathway to net zero, with a straight line between emissions today and zero in 2050.
  • Slow and Steady: Plan for step-wise action to zero with even emissions reduction each year. We wouldn’t want to take the problem too seriously – you can’t have your kale and eat it too! (or something… presumably) – so, for no well-defined reason we’re going to go slow and make things worse for ourselves in the process.
Line chart demonstrating the ‘Allergy to Acting’ pathway to net zero, with almost not emissions reduction at all in the next two decades but a miraculously deep cut later one that somehow reaches net zero in 2050.
  • Allergy to Acting: Ignore and actively obstruct the possibility of progress of cost-saving emissions reduction today through multiple means while hand-waving at the possibility of future technologies that might – Heaven save us! – result in big emissions cuts later. It’s a smoke-’em-if-you’ve-got-’em approach to target setting that manages to use the words actual scientists use, but under duress. Punt all effort to someone else. Whabbout China, though!

Imagine, if you will, a face-punching competition. The goal is to spend five minutes punching yourself in the face – once every thirty seconds, say – and the winner is the person who comes out looking the most handsome at the other end.

I can’t believe explaining climate change has come to this, but it has and full credit to Dr Adam Levy for realising this fact first.

Obviously, timing matters. All the competitors are hanging for the final bell, but there’s no-one who reckons how hard you hit yourself along the way is irrelevant.

And yet: parse the same logic through climate change. Journalists would be quizzing politicians about what it’s going to cost for everyone to stop punching ourselves in the face. Even well-meaning pundits rush to reassure everyone that there are entire local economies built on face-punching that were established before we knew face punching was harmful. Bureaucrats develop technology investment roadmaps that ignore the existence of boxing gloves in favour of AI-driven cheek-mounted shock absorbers so that one day we might be able to limit – but not eliminate! – the damage as fist meets face. There’s a market for punch offsets where someone offers not to punch themselves in the face so that you can feel better about punching yourself in the face – and people pay for that service! And and that isn’t to say that none of this is important or relevant – besides, punch offsets can come with clear co-benefits for biodiversity and land-rights when they’re done right even if they often aren’t and come with clear issues of verification at the best of times – but WHAT IF! we just went all in on the idea that people should stop punching themselves in the face? How about that?

And sure, real world action on climate change is a bit more complicated than this. But when it comes to setting our relative ambition it is only a bit more complicated.

So we have these three paths: Go Hard, Slow and Steady, and Allergy to Action. While these are all ‘net zero’, there’s a clear distinction between the three in terms of the face-punching compet — uhhh… total impact on the climate system that we all depend upon.

All three paths from above on a single graph. Text boxes point to the fact that the ‘Allergy to Action’ path is more ambitious than the Federal Government’s current projections, which it claims meet its 2030 ambitions and otherwise repeat the text below.

The Slow and Steady path does two times the amount of damage to the stability of the global climate than the Go Hard path on the way to zero. Before choosing that path, it would be worth asking why you would voluntarily double the harm. This is important given that the technologies exist to meet more ambitious goals, it’s just a matter of putting people to work. I know a planet where there are a lot of people looking for work right now.

The Allergic to Action path sketched out here does three times the damage of the Go Hard path. Worth noting that this path is more ambitious than the government’s Federal projected emissions, that it claims ‘meet and beat’ their 2030 goal of reducing emissions by 26% below 2005 levels in 2030 without ever getting close to 26% below 2005 levels in 2030. Why? Reasons.

I’d offer advice if you’re considering choosing that path, but let’s be honest: You stopped listening a while back.

Part 3 is here.



Tim Baxter

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