It is an exciting time to be an environmentalist in Iceland. Exciting, and a bit confusing. Nearly two million tourists will visit Iceland this year, many drawn by the country’s imposing and unspoiled wilderness. The image of Iceland as a green paradise is sold to folks abroad who thirst for adventure beyond a vacation relaxing in the sand with a pink cocktail you drink from a coconut with a little umbrella. It sounds too good to be true, and it kind of is. Here are a couple of the hot-button environmental issues facing Iceland these days.
Power to the people!
Iceland makes more electricity per capita than any other country on earth. When it comes to electricity, Iceland gets roughly three quarters from geothermal power, and the remainder is hydropower.
This abundant access to renewable energy is attractive to foreign investors in energy-intensive industries like aluminium production. Energy here is so cheap, it makes sense for the bottom line of corporations to ship bauxite mined in Australia to Iceland for smelting. While most other countries on earth agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in 1997 under the Kyoto Protocol, Iceland has a provision to increase greenhouse gas emissions for heavy industry.
This mentality is behind the push to dam rivers exclusively for use in heavy industry, the poster child for which is the much-disputed Kárahnjúkur hydropower plant in the east of Iceland, which came online in 2008-9. That project made a lot of money for a few people and opened a nationwide discussion about how far Iceland is willing to go to sell off its precious natural energy resources. How do you do a cost-benefit analysis when nature is free? The debate rages on. Nobody seems to wonder about how we will harness hydroelectricity when all the glaciers melt away because of climate change.
Soil erosion. Where’d the dirt go?
You wouldn’t guess by looking at it, but 900 or so years ago 60% of Iceland was covered with trees. The Iceland you see today looks really different than what the first settlers saw. Those virgin birch forests made life possible on this cold rock in the middle of the North Atlantic, so you can’t really blame the people who settled here for chopping them all down for fuel and heat. As an added bonus, hacking the trees back made space for grazing livestock. The only trouble is that the native vegetation held the soil fast to the earth, and all those centuries of whacking back forests and grazing the land too hard loosened the topsoil so much that the wind blew it away. In some sensitive areas, communal grazing is still a problem despite efforts of conservationists and farmers alike to protect the highlands. Throw in a few volcanic eruptions spewing ash across the highlands and those sensitive little plants don’t stand a chance.
Here’s the real puzzle. Tourism has recently become the biggest sector of the Icelandic economy, overtaking both fisheries and manufacturing/aluminium for the first time last year. Many of these tourists come to Iceland to see unspoiled wilderness, but sadly what they find is a “wilderness” full of other people. We don’t know how to solve this, and we don’t know how the spike in tourism will affect the more sensitive ecosystems.
Iceland has an export-driven economy. We export fish and aluminium, and tourism is considered an export as well. We are essentially exporting nature. When you account for all those airplanes carrying people and goods to and from Iceland, the resulting impact we have on our environment is abysmal. Even in spite of its wilderness and clean energy, Iceland has the highest ecological footprint on earth, at 12.7 hectares per person. For the sake of comparison, Saudi Arabia needs 9.46 hectares per person.
But, there is good news as well, so if any shards of your image of Iceland as an environmentalist paradise still remain intact, it is time to pick up and reassemble the pieces of your broken dream. Iceland is full of environmental warriors who are fighting everyday to keep this place healthy and intact. Landvernd, Iceland’s nature conservancy, is campaigning to protect the highlands (you should give them some money if you can). Recycling levels are on the rise, as is as composting food and yard waste. There is a soil conservation strategy, a waste management plan, a biodiversity strategy, a nature conservation strategy, and research is underway to find the best path to develop the renewable energy resources. Overall, things are looking better than they did a decade ago, but there is a long way to go to until Iceland becomes the environmentalist paradise you have been fantasising about.