Members of Generation Zero outside parliament (Photo: Supplied)

The young climate activists who broke through to the halls of power

As parliament voted all but unanimously to pass the Zero Carbon Bill into law last week, climate change minister James Shaw credited Generation Zero for its very existence. Here, Jenny Coatham explains how the youth-led climate action group pulled off such a monumental task. 

Our generation has been described as having “climate anxiety” – a sense of dread over the clear evidence that the business-as-usual approach will damage our planet beyond repair. After years of denial, empty platitudes from our “leaders” and increasing emissions, the future looked pretty bleak. The fair, accessible, zero-emissions future we dreamed of seemed far away. But increasingly, there is hope.

Building the climate movement has been no mean feat. Globally, before we were born, a number of conscientious citizens and scientists raised concern over the future of our climate. Over the years campaigners tried to spread the word about the risk of climate change permanently destroying ecosystems and the need to systematically curb greenhouse gas emissions. Indigenous groups and frontline communities, in particular, were quick to identify the danger of unmitigated emissions. However, just as quickly these groups would be dismissed. In Aotearoa, the youth advocacy group Generation Zero was established eight years ago to campaign for climate solutions around the country. 

Four years ago, a small group of young people from Generation Zero discussed campaigning for a climate law like the UK has to create a legally binding framework that would meaningfully reduce our emissions. A law that would compel our leaders to implement a clear plan to create a just, safe and thriving zero-carbon Aotearoa. To get Aotearoa New Zealand on the right track, we needed to form a consensus around the need to act on climate change. The goal of the campaign was therefore two-fold. Firstly, we wanted an ambitious new climate law that would establish a clear pathway toward a zero-carbon economy. Secondly, we wanted cross-party support for the new law. It would be our biggest campaign to date.

James Shaw speaks to media after the third reading and passing of the the Zero Carbon Bill (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

We quickly got to work. Our team consulted with farmers and academics, researched climate policies, discussed our findings, and developed a Zero Carbon Act blueprint. More than an idea, we developed a body of research that informed our drafting instructions. Our graphs and diagrams even made it into official reports. Around the country, we hosted community events, got endorsements from youth parties and businesses, and talked to elected representatives.

Hundreds of volunteers around the country undertook this campaign alongside work and studies because we believed that our country could power our lives with renewable energy and that New Zealanders could adapt to the impacts of climate change. We were heartened when some political parties picked up our blueprint and campaigned on it for the 2017 election. 

We partnered early on with other organisations including WWF New Zealand, Oxfam New Zealand and Forest & Bird and together we collected more than 10,000 signatures in the first 18 months of the campaign, which we presented to MPs before the second reading of the bill. 

Building upon the momentum of the climate strikes, we also teamed up with School Strike 4 Climate on our campaign tactic – “elbow your elders”. We encouraged rangatahi throughout Aotearoa to urge their older family members to directly lobby MPs. This campaign’s premise was to get the students talking about their concerns about the planet and the need for action to provide a hopeful future for their grandchildren. People from different generations came together with their common values to demand that leaders act on climate change. This display of intergenerational unity continued with the third climate strike on 27 September 2019, especially among our indigenous rangatahi, through groups such as Pacific Climate Warriors and Te Ara Whatu.

The third climate strike on 27 September (Photo: Sylvie Whinray)

Join us and contribute
to our journalism!
Find Out More

The private sector plays a big role in catalysing change and holds a lot of power in urging MPs to act. It was integral that businesses take part in the climate action conversation because if they are part of the problem, they must be part of the solution. We created an open letter to get businesses, influential leaders and community organisations to collectively show solidarity behind the Zero Carbon Bill.  Before the third reading of the Zero Carbon Bill, we drafted another open letter calling for cross-party support. Within a week we were able to get over 215 businesses, organisations and influential individuals to sign this. A clear demand from businesses was that they wanted certainty and clarity in adjusting to a zero-carbon future which our act provided.

One of the biggest successes of our campaign was seeing thousands of people from all backgrounds engaged in the political process in a meaningful way. Our Zero Carbon Act team led the “adopt an MP” tactic, which saw people around the country meeting with their elected representatives. Generation Zero developed guides to make submitting on the Zero Carbon Bill easier. The consultations attracted over 10,000 submissions each. The growing public pressure saw the national conversation switch from “should we act on climate change?” to “how do we act on climate change?”. 

Last Thursday, parliament passed the Zero Carbon Act with near-unanimous support. When it was announced National would support the bill, it was a moment of pure joy. The Zero Carbon Bill as enacted falls short of the ambition we initially called for. But it is a good step forward. Now we need to implement an ambitious plan to ensure a just transition for all New Zealanders. 

Overall this will be a massive undertaking. As said by one of our Gen Zero team members, Dewy Sacayan, “Activism never stops”, and we will continue doing what we think is right to hold those in power to account for providing an equitable, zero-carbon Aotearoa. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for meaningful action is closing quickly. As the IPCC cautioned in 2018, the next decade is crucial to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. A better future is possible if we act now to start mitigating our emissions, rather than our ambitions. The Zero Carbon Act provides a path, but we must now lead with action.


The Spinoff politics section is made possible by Flick, the electricity retailer giving New Zealanders power over their power. With both spot price and fixed price plans available, you can be sure you’re getting true cost and real choice when you join Flick. Support us by making the switch today.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.