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
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.
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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.
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