Iceland is—against all common notions and expectations—not a very environmentally friendly country. In many ways, the environmental legislation does not go as far as EU rules command. But the problem already starts in the minds of the people.
Every year, thousands of tourists take pictures of the green-painted parking spaces on Laugavegur. After having seen the Geysir, waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, beautiful coastlines, highlands, boiling mud pots and cracks in the earth, they probably assume that these parking spaces in Iceland’s capital are a mirror of the downright environmentally progressive attitude of this amazing country.
Not long ago, one could see bicycle paths marked in green on Hverfisgata. Even though this was a most welcome contribution to Reykjavík city life (however short-lived it was), we should bear in mind that it was a long overdue action considering that bicycle paths have been common in other capital cities for decades. And after all, Iceland is not as environmentally friendly as it might appear at first glance.
LAGGING BEHIND THE EU
When looking at the Icelandic environmental legislation, it becomes apparent that the environmental protection is substandard; Iceland even lags behind the often-criticised EU environmental legislation in many ways. In February 2010, after Iceland had submitted its answers to the questionnaire concerning EU membership, the European Commission issued its opinion on Iceland’s readiness to join the EU. While recommending the opening of accession negotiations, the opinion stated that “serious efforts” are required in several areas—among them environmental policy—in order to meet the accession criteria. This is interesting considering that environmental legislation in the EU often operates with minimum standards and has been subject to very reasonable criticism over the years.
The underlying analytical report of the Commission clarified that in the policy areas that are not covered by the EEA agreement Iceland still needs to work towards achieving the same level of environmental protection as the EU countries.
Some examples from the report:
-It is not required under Icelandic law to draw up ecological maps and work in a structured manner towards building a network of protection zones.
-The protection and conservation of wild flora and fauna and natural habitats demand further efforts.
-National investment in the environment is very low, as well as the level of enforcement of environmental law. Mechanisms for integrating environmental concerns into other policies are not widespread.
-And, unlike other European countries, Iceland has still not ratified the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context and the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.
Nature protection and conservation in Iceland mainly takes place under the Nature Conservation Act 44/1999. Iceland does protect many areas of its environment, including special landscapes such as volcanic craters, waterfalls, hot springs and lava fields. All in all, about 23.461 square kilometres of Iceland are under some kind of protection, as Jón Örvar Geirsson Jónsson from the Environmental Agency of Iceland tells us.
“This includes two large water protection areas around Lake Mývatn and Þingvellir. It also includes Breiðarfjörður”, he explains. This number roughly corresponds to the protected areas in the EU, which protects about 20 percent of its nature as habitats of animal species.
However, we should consider that most, if not all, EU countries are more urbanised and more densely populated. In contrast to Iceland, ‘natural areas’ in the European countries are often fragmented due to high levels of infrastructure. This should make us wonder why the vast areas of pristine nature in Iceland are not comprehensively protected.
ICELANDIC RECYCLING BEHIND EU RESULT
In its report, the European Commission also detects slight differences in the waste management systems of Iceland and the EU. The EU Waste Framework Directive establishes the so-called waste hierarchy, according to which waste shall first and foremost be prevented and re-used before being recycled or otherwise recovered. The disposal of waste shall be the last resort. At the time, Iceland had not yet transposed the directive into Icelandic law and numbers from Eurostat and the Environmental Agency of Iceland show that this difference in legislation has already had consequences. In the year 2006, Iceland recovered around 43 per cent of its total waste, while the EU countries recovered almost 50 per cent on average. And in comparison to countries like Denmark and Poland—that recover even more than 80 percent of their waste—it becomes apparent how badly Iceland was lagging behind other parts of the continent.
By the end of last year, Iceland had started to transpose the Waste Framework Directive into national law. However, some provisions of the Directive and of amendments to the Batteries and Mining Waste Directives still need to be addressed.
NO EFFORTS TO REDUCE EMISSIONS
The situation is similar with regard to air pollution policies. According to Statistics Iceland, the total greenhouse gas emissions in Iceland have risen since 1990. By emitting 20 percent more greenhouse gases in 2006 than in 1990, Iceland does not comply with the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Iceland is allowed to emit 10 percent more greenhouse gases until 2012 compared to 1990 levels. In contrast, other industrialised states agreed to reduce their emissions by 5,2 percent.
The EU countries, for example, committed themselves to jointly reduce emissions by 8 percent. And in fact, data from the European Environment Agency show that the emission of many air pollutants in Europe has fallen substantially since 1990.
Even though many countries in the EU had problems complying with their emission reduction targets for 2010, it should be acknowledged that they are at least trying. That is not the case with Iceland. Even though it is completely independent of conventional emission-intensive energy—unlike the EU countries—Iceland does not seem to undertake big efforts to participate in the global emission reduction endeavours. The Icelandic exception in the Kyoto Protocol illustrates this.
THE PEOPLES’ RESPONSIBILITY
Eventually, and despite all common expectations, Iceland is not the environmental pioneer it has every opportunity to become. And the aluminium smelters are not exclusively to blame. It is the Icelandic people who do not seem to have much of an environmental conscience. Where are the electric cars that are supposed to park on those famous parking spaces? How many Icelanders would choose a fuel-efficient car over fancy jeeps? Are there many Icelanders who separate their garbage and go the extra length to SORPA? Is it really necessary to leave the water tap running for minutes to give it enough time to cool down or heat up? And why do so many Icelanders not turn off their cars’ engines when they are not actually driving? It cannot be because of the cold, because people leave the engines running in winter- and summertime, while in other countries people do not freeze to death turning them off, even during the cold, continental winters.
It is the little everyday efforts that make a difference in the minds of people, and that can make a difference on the long run influencing politics as well.
With its small population and abundant natural resources, Iceland could easily and should become an environmental pioneer in international environmental protection. There are huge possibilities in Iceland with regard to green energy in particular and green policies in general. Not only would this pay ethical respect to its unique nature, it would present the country with many much needed financial opportunities.
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