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New Zealand: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Declares Climate Emergency

Nina Rosner reports as New Zealand’s PM joins 32 countries making emergency announcements, but the real work is yet to be done.

Photo by Casey Horner

Two months after a landslide election victory, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has officially declared a climate emergency.

Quoting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in her speech presenting the motion, she acknowledged the severity of the situation and the threats posed not just to New Zealanders, but humanity as a whole. For Ardern, this declaration represents New Zealand’s “intent as a nation” to act with urgency.

Urgent Announcements

Along with New Zealand, thirty-three countries have passed a binding motion declaring a climate emergency so far, including Australia, Canada, France, Japan, and Germany. For many, this declaration can be considered an important step towards tackling the climate crisis; according to Extinction Rebellion, governments must "tell the truth… to communicate the urgency for change."

On the other hand, what constitutes an emergency response remains unclear, and many activists and writers are stressing the importance of concrete action alongside symbolic legislative changes. Despite good intentions and this acknowledgement of the climate crisis, Jacinda Ardern’s government has been criticised for its failure to take serious environmental action. Following the Prime Minister’s declaration, Greta Thunberg shared an article on Twitter highlighting the government’s lack of concrete policies to meet their climate goals.

New Zealand is one of a minority of countries whose emissions increased rather than decreased between 1990 and 2018. And indeed, according to Climate Action Tracker, the country's "short-term policies cannot yet keep up" with their ambitions, such as those stated in their Zero Carbon Act passed in November 2019.

The Zero Carbon Act, pledging that New Zealand will be carbon neutral by 2050, passed with an overwhelming majority. Yet this bold move has been criticised for excluding methane, emitted primarily from livestock, from its list of greenhouse gases to be reduced. In a country where methane accounts for over 43% of emissions, this exclusion is critical and will need to be addressed in any meaningful attempt to tackle climate change.

Big Changes Required

When Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government was elected in 2017, it promised to be a leader in the environmental realm. After her first term ended, Greenpeace made an analysis of Ardern’s work on climate, noting that her biggest achievements so far were her ban on issuing new offshore oil and gas exploration permits, as well as a limit on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser in agriculture. However, the same report criticised the government for failing to tackle the bigger issue of agricultural pollution which has been detrimental to the soil, water, and wildlife, not forgetting the hefty methane emissions.

In terms of carbon dioxide alone, transport is New Zealand’s main culprit, making up 47% of emissions, largely thanks to "one of the oldest passenger vehicle fleets in the developed world, and no emissions standards." In August 2019, the government pulled back on its pledge to fully electrify its own vehicle fleet by 2025, now claiming this would only apply to new vehicles entering the government fleet.

Faced with our current environmental crisis, declaring a climate emergency can be praised as a step in the right direction for all nations, including New Zealand. However, it’s clear that good intentions are not enough, and that Jacinda Ardern’s statement must be reinforced with real climate policies, particularly ones that address the country’s damaging agricultural industry.

You may also like: New Zealand Leads in Animal Welfare Reform. Europe Follows

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