Standing before a crowd of more than 2,000 people shortly before her election as Prime Minister in 2017, Jacinda Ardern declared that climate change was her “generation’s nuclear free moment.”

Referring to New Zealand’s decision in the 1980s to eschew atomic energy and prohibit nuclear-powered vessels from its waters—a sticking point in its relations with the United States ever since—the statement set the scene for just how seriously Ardern intended to take the climate crisis while in office.

“[This statement] was striking,” said Bronwyn Hayward, a University of Canterbury political science professor and an IPCC lead author. “New Zealand being nuclear free has been important for us. It’s a sort of national identity.”

Now, after five and a half years, Ardern has resigned citing exhaustion after leading her country through a 2019 terror attack and the Covid-19 pandemic. But she leaves a legacy as a “different type” of national leader, with a vocal concern for climate change at a time when many others dismissed or ignored the challenge of global warming.

Following her election in 2017, Ardern quickly became known around the world for her charisma and clear communication. Her strong stance on the need to prioritize climate action came at a time when the world’s superpowers lacked leadership on the issue. But her departure comes as countries around the world—including New Zealand—are scrambling to enact meaningful measures to reduce emissions in time to meet their targets.

“Ardern has been one of New Zealand’s most successful Prime Ministers ever,” said former Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer in an interview. “She brought a new political style. She is charismatic. She is articulate, clever, compassionate and empathetic, and those things resonate with the public.”

Ardern’s election in 2017 followed President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, citing unfair economic burdens, and his administration’s rollback of dozens of policies protecting the environment. Brazil was one year away from electing President Jair Bolsanaro, notorious for advancing deforestation of the Amazon and dismantling government agencies fighting climate change and protecting Indigenous peoples. The majority of her term coincided with that of former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who once brought a lump of coal on the floor of the nation’s House of Representatives and whose conservative government consistently rejected ambitious national climate policies and declined to strengthen its 2030 target in line with global efforts.

According to Palmer, leaders had repeatedly deemed perilous climate change to be too hard to deal with. But as a young, female leader with a vocal concern for the climate, Ardern presented a welcome contrast.

“If you’re not positive in politics, you never get anything done,” Palmer said. “[Ardern] brought a new style that is well suited to the existing problems facing the world.”

New Zealand Succeeded Where Other Nations Have Failed 

The attention that Ardern garnered on the world stage was unusual for a country the size of New Zealand. With a population of just 5 million, overall emissions are low. Domestic progress on climate mitigation is not perceived as a solution to the global problem in the same way that meaningful action by the U.S. or China might, said Alice Hill, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations.

Nonetheless, Hill pointed to several policies introduced under Ardern’s government that had impacts around the world.

The country’s first National Adaptation Plan, a strategy to help communities prepare for the dangerous effects of climate change, was released in 2022. It was remarkable for its inclusion of managed retreat—the planned movement of structures and communities away from rising seas, she said. “[The U.S.] doesn’t have a national adaptation plan, let alone a managed retreat policy.”

Similarly, New Zealand made waves as the first country to mandate disclosure of climate-related financial risks in certain sectors. “While the rest of the world was struggling over whether [to do it], New Zealand just mandated it,” she said.

Ardern’s bold leadership on climate also made global headlines when her government decided to ban new offshore oil and gas exploration permits just six months after taking office, said Amanda Larsson, who heads campaigns for Greenpeace Aotearoa—the organization’s New Zealand-based arm.

The Biden administration, by contrast, backed away from an initial “no more drilling” pledge to allow lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s south coast.

New Zealand, which has exclusive rights over a marine area spanning approximately 15 times its landmass thanks to the country’s long coast line and lack of close neighbors, was an early country to take such a stand against the fossil fuel industry.

“That set a tone at the start of her term as someone who was willing to stand up to the big polluters and do what was right for the climate,” Larsson said.

Strong Voice on the Global Stage Fails to Cut Emissions at Home

But postures on the world stage do not always reflect what is playing out at home, Hill acknowledged. “She was recognized as someone who was unafraid of taking on the politically charged issue of climate change. … But if the implementation doesn’t really go as planned, that part of the news doesn’t get picked up overseas,” she said.

So, was Ardern truly a progressive leader on climate? Was her uplifting, optimistic rhetoric translated into policies at home that actually moved the needle on climate?

According to Hayward, at the University of Canterbury, there was a disconnect.

“Most New Zealanders and those who follow environmental politics know that New Zealand is actually really struggling with its environmental policies and its climate policies,” she said.

Larsson agreed. “From the domestic perspective … that rhetoric on the global stage has not been matched with action to actually cut emissions in New Zealand. She’s presided over a couple of terms of government in which emissions have gone up.”

Recently, many in the international climate community have watched closely as New Zealand worked towards a framework that would regulate agricultural emissions.

New Zealand has a unique emissions profile among developed countries, with agriculture accounting for half of the gross domestic production of greenhouse gases. In the U.S., by contrast, agriculture made up just 11 percent of emissions in 2020.

The challenge of regulating those emissions was repeatedly kicked down the road by previous governments, said Leo Mercer, a policy analyst at the U.K.-based Grantham Institute. When Ardern’s coalition government was formed, they set themselves the impossible task of tackling the issue by working with the industry.

“When you actually get down to the nitty gritty of partnering with the sector to design an effective emissions pricing policy, which delivers credible emissions reductions whilst also keeping New Zealand farmers and growers solvent, it’s very difficult to achieve,” he said.

The government released a proposed emissions pricing plan in October last year, which would have farmers pay for a range of emissions from livestock starting in 2025.

Strong protests from the sector led to the December announcement of changes to the proposal that would keep pricing as low as possible and increase the types of on-farm trees and vegetation that could be used to offset emissions.

“[The farmers] are a very powerful lobby within the country and they’re an extremely important export earner,” said Hayward. Successive governments have struggled to regulate this group and the establishment of a new framework for farming was a win, she said. However, implementing this to be an effective pricing system has been the “least successful part of Ardern’s government on climate.”

A Framework for the Future

But while Ardern may not have been the trailblazer that presided over a reduction in the nation’s overall emissions, as many had hoped, Hayward emphasized that she leaves behind a strong framework that will support New Zealand in meeting its targets.

“It would be a mistake to say that [Ardern] wasn’t able to achieve much at home,” she said. “Her government, working with the Greens, was able to significantly turn around a polarized country to get a legislative framework in place. The difficulty now is to actually make it work to reduce emissions.”

Prior to Ardern’s election in 2017, climate change was not a key issue in New Zealand politics.

“In the 2017 election … there had been a lot of controversy because climate change wasn’t even raised as an issue by the state broadcaster, TVNZ, in any of the election debates,” Hayward said. “Then-Prime Minister Bill English said in an interview that climate change wasn’t an issue that people get out of bed thinking about.”

Since then, Hayward describes the shift in the New Zealand public’s understanding and ambition relating to climate change as extraordinary.

According to polling undertaken by economic and public policy research group Motu in 2015, about 41 percent of respondents agreed that New Zealand was likely to be negatively affected by climate change. In 2022, Ipsos polling found that 76 percent of New Zealanders are concerned about the already visible impacts of climate change.

Geoffrey Palmer agreed that there has been substantial progress under Ardern. When her government entered office, “they inherited a Climate Change Response Act that was pretty toothless,” he said.

But just two years into her term, Ardern succeeded in obtaining bipartisan support for strong amendments to the policy.

“The purpose of the law now is to provide a framework by which New Zealand can develop and implement clear and stable climate change policies that contribute to the global effort under the Paris Agreement,” said Palmer.

One important advancement of the legislation was its establishment of the independent Climate Change Commission, which advises the government on mitigating and adapting to the effects of global warming and monitors progress of those efforts.

“[The government] worked very successfully to secure agreement across all of the parties, except for the ultra-liberal ACT Party,” said Hayward. “That was important to ensure stability for governments and for businesses to be able to plan going into the future.”

New Zealand’s next general election is set for Oct. 14, 2023 and no substantial moves are expected in the climate space in the intervening months. Incoming Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has committed his focus to the “bread and butter issues” facing New Zealanders such as rising living costs and inflation.

With the stronger legislative framework in place, there is optimism that New Zealand will make progress towards its emissions reduction targets. But on the international front, with Hipkins signaling his focus is closer to home, New Zealand is unlikely to continue having the outsized influence on climate action that it had under Ardern, at least for a while.

“We’re not going to see [Hipkins] at the U.N. talking about climate change and ways that we can solve it,” said Larsson.


Published in conjunction with Inside Climate News