The average tourist is primed to think of Iceland as the greenest nation on earth. Advertisements endlessly yammer on about “pure nature,” and shots from ‘Game of Thrones’ and popular movies portray Iceland as a vast, cold wilderness untouched by humans. Every tourist brochure is filled with images of waterfalls, geysers and volcanoes. And when you arrive in Keflavík International Airport, a massive poster from Landsvirkjun—the state power utility—proclaims, “Welcome to the land of renewable energy.” Even the state government’s official webpage boasts that “Iceland is the world’s greenest country.” Each of these claims implies that a) Icelanders have a robust environmental ethic, and b) sufficient regulations are in place to protect the country’s natural wonders, no matter the number of tourists trampling on them or the number of dams the government builds.
No doubt, Iceland is a beautiful place. It’s rare to find another location with such diversity in natural features—where else do glaciers butt up against lava fields, after all? No doubt, too, that the country derives much of its energy from geothermal and hydroelectric sources—although Landsvirkjun’s advertisements are highly misleading, since a host of dams were built for the sole purpose of funneling electricity into aluminum smelters. Still, when compared to industrialized nations of the Global North, Iceland lacks the lagoons of nuclear waste, pesticide factories, mammoth landfills, sprawling metropolises and open pit mines that have come to epitomize environmental desecration and avarice in the 21st century. But is Iceland the environmental haven that many tourists expect? How green, really, is Iceland?
Terms like “green” and “sustainable” have become cliché in the West, abused by companies seeking to sell their products and governments attempting to placate their constituents. Seen in such a light, is Iceland really leading the world in terms of progressive environmental policy, or are its claims mere propaganda? To find out, I asked several prominent Icelandic environmentalists the following: How do Icelanders treat the environment? And what policies is the government enforcing or proposing?
Those cars, though
Excepting a few European microstates, Iceland has the second-highest rate of vehicle ownership in the world—behind only the United States. Cars here are extremely popular, due in part to underwhelming public transit options, and the transportation sector comprises the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Though Iceland certainly has the energy capacity to transition to a wholly renewable electric car fleet, the political will to do so is sorely lacking.
And car sales doubled last year, marking a dangerous trend, says Árni Finnsson, co-founder of the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association, or Landvernd. Due in part to soaring tourism, more vehicles are on the road than ever, sending Iceland’s carbon emissions skyrocketing (see below). Moreover, since the 2008 financial collapse, a strong króna and low gasoline prices have eliminated any financial disincentives for Icelanders to purchase car after car. “The government did not take any measures to guide consumers to low-emission cars,” says Árni. “And we have all this electricity.”
Commodities, trash and other such junk
“If everyone lived like Icelanders, we’d need at least six earths, probably more,” says Katrín Jakobsdóttir, chairwoman of the Left-Green Party and a prominent figure of the Icelandic opposition. Resource use in Iceland is incredibly high, which ought to complicate foreigners’ impression of Iceland from the start: this small island-nation may not be much different from home.
“The big issue is consumer culture,” says Katrín, “not only in Iceland, but in other Western countries.”
Simply put, Westerners use more than our fair share and think little before tossing something in the trash. Though there’s been progress in recent years in terms of Iceland’s recycling programs, the country still only recycles about 30 percent of its plastic—meaning it lags behind the rest of Europe, says Katrín.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” she adds. “The main thing is not just to recycle; it’s to use less.”
The climate, it is a-changin’
In the year leading up to the Paris Convention in 2015, climate change became a prominent political issue in Iceland, says Árni, and the political wherewithal now exists to take action. But the road will be steep. “For two decades, in order to convince the public that aluminum smelters were such a good thing, [politicians claimed] that because these smelters use clean energy, that’s our contribution to the climate crisis.” The reality, of course, was that the government had no incentive to tackle fossil fuel use: Iceland had received an exemption under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to actually increase its carbon emissions. Those emissions are now spiraling out of control: between 2005 and 2013 alone, greenhouse gas emissions ballooned 19 percent to 4.5 million tonnes. Emissions per person stand around 14 tonnes—far above Japan (9), the United Kingdom (8) and Germany (9), and still higher than Russia and South Korea (both 12.5).
Björt Ólafsdóttir, Iceland’s new environmental minister, told Parliament last month that Iceland is expected to miss its Paris Convention targets as its emissions continue to increase. “We seem totally unprepared for climate action,” says Árni. Though the new coalition government—formed of the centre-left party Bright Future and the right-wing Independence and Restoration Parties—has pledged to tackle emissions, the environmental ministry said it would take at least six months to release a plan. “So what does that tell you?” says Árni. “It tells me, at least, that there was no plan in the ministry. It’s incredible. [Year after year], they have done nothing.”
Conclusions: Steam Dream?
In the end, Iceland’s green “brand” is little more than greenwashing—the misconstruing of something as sustainable when it is, in fact, the opposite. Because the government profits from this image of Iceland, it faces little outside pressure to change: if other nations look up to Iceland as a paragon of sustainability, there’s little need to match policies to rhetoric. The only reason Iceland’s total footprint is so low is because its population is a mere 330,000. Scale Iceland’s populace, say, to the size of Germany’s, and this tiny Nordic island would be stripping every last resource from the earth.