From Iceland — High Hopes

High Hopes

Published February 12, 2010

High Hopes
Photo by
Julia Staples

In December, Iceland joined over 190 nations for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The two-week summit, blasted a failure by many, returned environmental issues to the international spotlight, but ended without a binding agreement on global greenhouse gas emission reductions. Minister for the Environment, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, spoke to Zoë Robert about her reflections on the conference and aspirations for Iceland to lead the way in combating climate change.

During the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen you reaffirmed Iceland’s goal of leading the way in combating climate change. Other Nordic countries have also announced plans to show leadership. How could Iceland achieve such a goal?

Iceland has expertise in many areas of climate-friendly technology and practices which we can highlight and export. We have had a very successful program in training experts from developing countries in harnessing geothermal energy for some years and have just started a similar programme for re-vegetation of eroded land, which is relevant for climate, as trees and other plants take up CO2 from the atmosphere. We use renewable energy for electricity and heating, and if we make positive efforts in sectors where we lag behind, like in transport, I think we can be seen as a leading country in efforts to combat climate change.

The public transport system in Reykjavik is still considered unattractive by many, there are no public recycling bins in the city, few bicycle paths and particle pollution in the capital regularly exceeds the maximum accepted level at certain times of the year. Considering this, would it not be fair to say that Iceland is still behind in many ways?

Certainly, there are a great number of areas where Iceland can and should do better when it comes to environmental issues. These are things the government—both national and local—is aware of, and hopes to change in the near future. The Ministry for the Environment is currently working on an action plan to combat climate change, where emphasis will be put on greener options for transport and constructing taxes and fees so as to favour climate-friendly cars and fuels. In addition to the issues you mention, I would like to add that the draft action plan recommends measures to decrease the emission from Iceland’s fishing fleet.

What are Iceland’s emission reduction targets and how do these targets compare to those of the EU?
Iceland announced a target for 2020 in Copenhagen that is the same as that of the European Union. We take up much of the EU climate regulations through the Agreement on the European Economic Area, and are in fact part of a common European carbon market. We have therefore seen it as sensible to be part of a common European effort within a new global agreement.
I think this will provide Icelandic companies with more certainty about the future and a competitive operating environment, and will enable the government to run a more efficient policy combating climate change.

Overall, Iceland’s emission reduction targets equate to a general increase in emissions. How do you respond to claims that Iceland could potentially have the highest per capita emissions increase?

There has been an increase in emissions in recent years mainly because of the expansion of heavy industry, mostly aluminium. Those emissions are now about 40% of our total emissions. It is no secret that I would prefer that we would use our clean energy in the future for other purposes like, say, powering data centres or providing energy for our cars and ships when new climate-friendly technologies in those fields become competitive. This is not only for environmental reasons, but I think it is unwise economically to put all eggs in one basket, and aluminium has become very dominant in our export profile.
In the near future, emissions from heavy industry will be part of a pan-European emissions trading system that will be regulated by the EU. If we succeed in curbing emissions from transport, I think that the emissions attributed to Icelandic households can be one of the lowest per capita in the developed world.

How could Iceland achieve the proposed reduction target?

In our draft action plan, we have focused on three main areas, which have been identified as the most likely to succeed and the most cost-effective. These are the transport sector, the fishing industry and issues regarding land use. The third point is where wetlands come in. Recent studies have shown that the draining of wetlands releases large amounts of carbon. Reversing this by restoring the wetlands may result in carbon sequestration in the long term. As an added benefit, the restoration of wetlands would be a boost to biodiversity, as many species of animals suffered the effects of wetland-dredging—sometimes undertaken overzealously during the middle of the last century.

How will emission reductions be made in the transport sector? Can you tell me about the proposed methane plant in Reykjanes?

The plans to produce methanol from geothermal gases in Reykjanes is one of a number of exciting research and development projects in the climate and energy sector in Iceland. Others include a project to sequester CO2 in basaltic rock at Hellisheiði, hydrogen projects, deep drilling to enhance geothermal energy and an IT-based system to cut emissions from ships. We should not forget that the drive to reduce emissions and change our energy system carries a lot of opportunities for innovators and companies, not only economic burdens.

Aluminium smelters in Iceland presumably have a competitive advantage under an emission trading scheme (ETS) due to their reliance on renewable energy as they will pay less for carbon emissions. Could you comment on this advantage?

Carbon-free energy will obviously have a competitive advantage over fossil fuel energy under the ETS and any system that puts a price on carbon. This is irrespective of who buys that energy. Icelandic aluminium smelters will face the same regulations for their emissions as smelters in other European countries.

The summit has been blasted by many as a failure for not sealing a binding agreement. What came out of COP15 and how are negotiations likely to proceed from here?

Of course we must all be somewhat disappointed that no binding legal resolution could be reached at COP15, but in my opinion this was not the big news of the summit. In Copenhagen we saw a watershed in the international debate on climate change. No longer were we debating whether or not climate change was a problem, but debating how the problem should be dealt with. Getting all countries around the table to agree on that may seem like a small step, but it is a very important one.
Now we have consensus on the problem, and that gives us a firm basis for future negotiations. Copenhagen can be a success if we build on it, but if we allow talks on climate change to linger in a stalemate we will all lose. The problem will not go away.

Finally, what can the average person in Iceland do to reduce emissions?

A simple answer would be: Buy greener cars. Iceland has one of the highest numbers of cars per capita, and a very high portion of those are gas-guzzlers. By making a careful choice next time each family needs to renew their car, big changes can be made in the very near future. Also, can we perhaps walk and bicycle for shorter trips, for our health as well as for the climate? Educated consumption can make a huge difference.

To make this possible, the government hopes to strengthen public transport and make eco-friendly transportation options more feasible. An increased number of dedicated bus lanes will make travelling on buses more desirable to many people. Also, public employers and private sector businesses will be encouraged to subsidise their employees’ cost of public transport. Working with the Ministry of Finance, we want to lower duties on the importation of bicycles and bicycle parts, and make the taxation of other vehicles correlate with their environmental impact.

Taking these changes on is a difficult task under the current economic conditions, but this is an issue that the government feels strongly about realising. Currently, my ministry is working with the Ministry of Transport to make this happen, and I hope we will see the results of that work soon.

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