While Morrison crab walks to net zero (part IV)

Tim Baxter
6 min readJun 12, 2021


(this is part iv of a series. part i is here. part ii is here. part iii is here. these include important stuff. I hope…?)

The piece will be the first of a little sub-series on something I’m going to loosely name the ‘what zero’ posts. I suspect that I’ll be able to cover the important stuff in three posts. There’s a bit of ground to cover here, and I’m trying to limit the length of each individual post to something digestible. I know it’s complicated, and keeping things bite-sized makes them easier.

For a quick recap of where the series has been so far:

The first part, and introduction to the series, covered a few important principles, most importantly:

  1. When coal, oil and gas burns, climate change gets worse,
  2. On this measure, no matter how you slice it, Australia is a big emitter.

The second part of the series talked to the importance of different pathways to net zero, with the nub of the issue being covered in this chart:

Chart showing stylised paths to net zero. The chart shows how deep, early cuts to greenhouse gas emissions produce a significant benefit compared to delay. In short, in these stylised paths to net zero, delay results in three times more greenhouse gas reaching the atmosphere than the most ambitious path before hitting net zero. A full summary is contained in part two.

Basically, delaying emissions reductions results in significantly greater climate harm than acting fast and early, even with the the same net zero date.

The third part of the series covered the considerable positive impact that would come from shaving a decade off any path to net zero.

Animated gif stepping through the three charts in part three. Following the Allergy to Acting path, but arriving at zero in 2050  increases total emissions before zero by 60% compared to 2040. For Slow and Steady, hitting zero in 2040 produces 56% more than 2040. For Go Hard, the shift from 2040 to 2050 increases total emissions by 45%.
Sorry if the gif is too fast. The stills are here in part III.

And that brings us up to date…

Did you know that there’s an Australian state that reached net zero in 2013? In 2013, Tasmania’s net emissions were -300 thousand tonnes (measured in ‘tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas’). Emissions briefly bounced back to be slightly above zero in 2014, but Tasmania has otherwise been net zero since 2013.

Check it out!

Data from Australia’s UNFCCC reports. Data available in the NGGI.

Three cheers for Tasmania! You’re no longer part of the problem and there’s nothing else you could possibly be expected to do. Full transition to zero emissions in less than a decade. Massive. Inspiring. Problem solved. What lessons can the rest of the world learn?

Here is the exhaustive list of lessons to be learned from the Tasmanian transition seen in the chart above.

  1. Have big forests.
  2. Be very friendly, very peculiar or – most often of all – both...?

Looking at Tasmania’s Grand Transition to Net Zero, we see something like this:

Chart breaking down the shift in Tasmania’s emissions between 1990 and 2019. This shows that the shift to net zero occurred as a result of changes to forest management practices in the early 2000s, and had nothing to do with reducing emissions anywhere else. This is summarised in the body text below.
‘Emissions from forests’ refers to the ‘Forest land’ UNFCCC sub-sector within the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry sector. ‘Emissions from energy and industry’ is all energy, including transport, and industrial processes using UNFCCC categories. Data available in the NGGI.

Emissions from forests turned around from being a net source of greenhouse gas emissions – about 7 million tonnes carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per year – to drawing down more than is emitted and so becoming a net sink – drawing down around 10 million tonnes per year. This more-or-less perfectly offsets all other emissions from the state. Hence, ‘net zero’.

Tasmania is unique among Australian states and territories when it comes to emissions. Its electricity is already nearly 100% renewable. This is almost exclusively because of the construction of several large hydroelectric dams built in the state through the middle of the twentieth century, well before climate concern reared its head. Tasmania has a few local gas and diesel generators and imports power from Victoria – which despite recent progress, still has some of the dirtiest power in the world. That said, the fossil generators are not often used and the small amount of power imported from Victoria doesn’t count as ‘Tasmania’s emissions’ in the above.

This gives Tasmania pre-1990 leg up on net zero when compared to Victoria which has historically burned brown coal – little better than burning mud – for its electricity needs. Bearing that in mind, what has happened to Tasmania’s annual fossil fuel consumption over the same* period as above?

Line chart showing the amount of energy derived from fossil fuels in Tasmania between 1990 and 2019. The line is uneven, but trends upwards, with an average of slightly less than 40 petajoules per year coming from fossil fuels in in the 1990s, and slightly over 50 petajoules per year in the 2010s.
* Almost the same, this data is in financial years, not calendar years like above. Data taken from Australian Energy Statistics, Table F.

A gentle, though patchy steady increase in the amount of energy derived from fossil fuel over time? Great.

Responsible management of forests is essential under climate change. In terms of mitigating the problem, how we deal with forests determines whether they act as a source or sink of emissions, how much of a fire risk they present to people living nearby, and the impacts climate change will have on people, livelihoods and species that rely on them. But it isn’t a substitute to acting on fossil fuels.

And while Tasmania is fortunate enough to be covered by some of the world’s most remarkable – and remarkably carbon dense – forests, there is no prospect whatsoever of forests picking up the slack for our failure to act on the root cause. And while hydroelectricity is zero emissions, it’s not going to be able to meet the needs of everyone on a continent that is notorious for its unreliable rainfall, especially as rainfall grows increasingly unreliable for many Australians under climate change. Besides, constructing Tasmania’s dams was a notoriously raw deal for Tasmania’s forests.

‘Net zero’ is a critically important goal, and represents a point in time where sources of greenhouse gas emissions, natural or otherwise, are balanced by sinks. However, it is neither possible — nor desirable! — for everyone to be a Tasmanian. I mean: Have you ever met one?

Photo of Andrew Marlton (aka ‘First Dog on the Moon’) dressed as a shark, because that’s apparently that’s a thing Tasmanians do.
We can’t all be Tasmanians. Nor should we even try.

And it’s worth remembering that Tasmanians have hardly gone all-in on fixing this problem. They are still steadily increasing their fossil fuel consumption. It’s just that the management of Tasmanian forests has flipped the state from being a net source of greenhouse gases to a net sink. No other change was made to deliver this outcome. Tasmania’s cars still burn petrol, its breweries still (largely) burn gas, its farms and foresters run on diesel, and its livestock still burps methane.

If the world is going to hit net zero, we all – including the Tasmanians – have to do far more than rest on the idea of ‘net zero’. As Professor Claudia Kemfert says, we ‘must end the greenwashing and launch a new era of real climate protection’. That involves pushing as far as we can toward ‘real zero’ rather than relying on offsetting as if it’s a solution.

In the next part, I’ll continue the ‘what zero’ sub-series by delving more into the false equivalence between land carbon and fossil carbon. In the part after that, I will go one step further on ‘what zero’ to discuss the difference between different greenhouse gases.

I don’t and won’t ask for payment for this series, but claps, likes and shares are a big part of what keeps me coming back to the computer on my downtime. If you’re finding the series useful, please consider helping it to reach more eyeballs, or at least letting me know that you enjoyed it. Thanks!

Part V is here.



Tim Baxter

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