When two icons clash: Greta challenges Jacinda to do more on climate

In a tweet stroke, Swedish teenager raises the climate hackles of New Zealand's government

By Peter Bale

(About the author: Peter Bale is a London-based journalist currently working under coronavirus lockdown in his native New Zealand. He’s worked for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Times, CNN, Microsoft and the Center for Public Integrity, among others.)

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND (Callaway Climate Insights) — One is the young Swedish girl with Asperger’s syndrome who has woken up the world to the climate crisis. The other is the prime minister of a small Pacific country who breastfed her baby at the UN General Assembly and won global attention for asking people to “be kind.”

Greta Thunberg, with her disarmingly direct manner, has called out Jacinda Ardern’s palpably modest steps toward tackling climate change despite the theoretical drama of a parliamentary declaration of a climate emergency in the New Zealand parliament.

Thunberg on Sunday retweeted a highly critical story pointing out that despite calling climate change the “nuclear-free” moment for her generation, Ardern’s government had taken only the most tentative measures to limit carbon output and fossil.

“This is of course nothing unique to any nation,” Thunberg said on Twitter under a quote from the Newsroom.co.nz story pointing out that the newly re-elected Ardern Labour government was so far committed to reducing emissions by less than 1% by 2025.

Ardern, who has a well-earned reputation for striking the right tone at times of crisis and most recently for managing New Zealand skillfully through the Covid-19 pandemic so far, responded quickly to the Thunberg comment to make clear she wasn’t done yet.

“If that was the sum ambition of any government, then that would be worthy of criticism; it is not our sum ambition and it is not the totality of our plans on climate change,” she said on Monday. “But again, I think that it’s actually for us just to get on with the business of fulfilling our obligations and expectations.”

The Newsroom commentary by its political reporter Marc Daalder asked a series of searching questions about the Ardern government’s true commitment beyond this month’s declaration of a climate emergency, a pledge to make the government service itself carbon neutral by 2025. It has already banned new fossil fuels exploration. 

The declaration of a climate emergency is just virtue signaling if it isn’t backed up by immediate, radical action to reduce emissions, Newsroom wrote.

“New Zealand, for the record, will come nowhere close to meeting the IPCC’s recommendation that countries reduce emissions to 45% below 2010 levels by 2030. In 2030, our net emissions will be just 6% below 2010 levels…” Daalder wrote.

Last year, the first Ardern administration — a coalition with the Green Party and the populist New Zealand First Party — committed the country to be carbon neutral by 2050, she said at the time “means the next generation will see that we in New Zealand were on the right side of history.” However, the country of five million people exempted methane from plant and animal sources — a major factor in a country that is the biggest dairy exporter in the world, among other farm commodities, and which has great dependency on road transport.

At the same time, New Zealand derives the vast bulk of its electricity from renewables, mostly hydro, and has plans to do more.

Labour now governs by itself after Ardern won a landslide victory allowing her to govern without a coalition — effectively winning based on public recognition of her handling of the Covid-19 crisis. (New Zealand has effectively closed its borders but life is virtually normal after a couple of aggressive lockdowns, and there have been only 25 deaths.)

The Greens have two ministers, including a minister for climate change, but they are outside the cabinet.

Climate change minister and Greens co-leader James Shaw said he recognized New Zealand was at the start of the process of tackling its climate commitments.

“Greta Thunberg is essentially pointing out what we already know: that we have a long way to go to narrow the gap between what our emissions are right now, and what they need to be in the future...,” he said

“This is what climate emergency declarations should do. It is not an end in itself, rather it signals our intent to do everything we can to tackle the climate crisis and build a better, safer future for our kids and grandkids.”