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ANGELA MERKEL

Greta Thunberg calls on Merkel to be ‘brave’ in climate change fight

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg on Thursday urged German Chancellor Angela Merkel to be "brave" in the fight against global warming as she sought to breathe fresh life into a climate movement overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Greta Thunberg calls on Merkel to be 'brave' in climate change fight
Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) talks to climate activists Luisa Neubauer and Greta Thunberg in the chancellery. Photo: Steffen Kugler/Federal Government/DP

The 17-year-old travelled to Berlin to meet Europe's most powerful leader exactly two years since she first skipped school to demand more climate action, kicking off what would become the global Fridays for Future strikes.

Thunberg was joined by co-campaigners Luisa Neubauer from Germany and Belgium's Anuna De Wever and Adelaide Charlier, all of whom wore masks as they made their way to the chancellery from Berlin's main train station.

During 90 minutes of talks, the young campaigners said they urged Merkel to tackle carbon emissions with the same urgency and drastic measures that leaders have displayed in the battle against COVID-19.

“We want leaders…  to be brave enough to think long-term,” Thunberg told an outdoor press conference after the meeting. “We want leaders to step up and take responsibility and treat the climate crisis like a crisis.”

She said Merkel, as the current chair of the EU rotating presidency, had a “huge responsibility but also a huge opportunity” to help the European Union meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement.

Merkel said after the talks that both sides agreed that “global warming is a global challenge which industrialised countries have a special responsibility to tackle,” her spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

The landmark meeting came as the Fridays for Future movement is trying to mobilise young people again after the coronavirus, and efforts to curb its spread, forced them to scale back their street protests in recent months

READ ALSO: Merkel hosts activist Greta Thunberg for talks on climate crisis

Protesting 'safely'

Speaking at the outdoor press conference, Neubauer said the next global day of action would take place on September 25th, both online and in the real world depending on coronavirus conditions in different countries.

The aim is “to strike safely”, Neubauer told reporters.

The 24-year-old, Germany's most prominent climate activist, said governments were not taking the climate emergency “nearly as seriously” as the pandemic.

Belgian activist De Wever said the pandemic should be seized as a chance “to do things differently”.

The European Union has pledged billions of euros in state aid to cushion the economic blow from the virus, she noted.

But they “are still investing it in an economy that inherently fuels the climate crisis” instead of investing “in a sustainable future”.

The four campaigners wrote an open letter to Merkel and other leaders on Wednesday in which they called for an immediate halt to fossil fuel investments.

Greta Thunberg on Thursday. Photo: DPA

They also decried two years lost to “political inaction” despite lofty promises by European governments.

Merkel herself, a former environment minister, has repeatedly expressed admiration for the masses of young people who have taken to the streets for Fridays for Future.

READ ALSO: 10 German words you need to know to engage in the climate debate

But despite Germany's green reputation, her country is struggling to meet its climate targets and remains heavily reliant on coal because of its decision to phase out nuclear energy after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Europe's top economy was widely expected to miss its goal of reducing climate-heating greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent this year compared with 1990 levels.

But a government report on Wednesday said the coronavirus could unexpectedly help it meet the target after all, after the pandemic wrecked economic activity and lowered demand for polluting coal.

Germany has promised to abandon coal-generated power by 2038, a date considered far too late by environmentalists.

The European Union as a whole aims to achieve carbon neutrality — or net zero greenhouse emissions — by 2050.

But Thunberg said the pledge falls far short of what needs to be done and is “not consistent” with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which calls for the rise in temperatures to be capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius this century compared with pre-industrial levels.

By Marion Payet with Michelle Fitzpatrick in Frankfurt

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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