Published October 14, 2016
The following is a direct response to this article by Ari Trausti Guðmundsson.
Wetlands are the biggest store of carbon on land. During 1950 – 1990 the Icelandic government encouraged and fully subsidized draining of half of the country’s wetlands. The drainage ditches and canals are estimated to be 33,000 km (20,500 miles) long, equal to 25 times around the North Atlantic island. Iceland is the same size as the state of Kentucky. The draining was believed to be necessary to meet the country’s growing demand for agricultural goods, meat and dairy products. Iceland has never allowed any substantial import of these products.
Around only 15% of the drained wetlands has been turned into useful cropland. So, is 85% of this huge investment in mud digging over several decades at taxpayers’ expense just sitting there? If only.
By draining the wet soils containing high organic carbon content, access is given to atmospheric oxygen. The carbons accumulated in the soil for centuries are therefore oxidized. The oxidation leads to formation of vast amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Draining and degradation of wetlands turns them into a net source of greenhouse gas emissions.
In the case of Iceland, the annual emissions from the wetlands alone are 72% of the of the annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, leaving the country’s automobiles with less than 4% and the big fishing fleet with only 3%. This fact finally became public last October in the Minister of Environment’s written answer to a reiterated request I put forward at the parliament of Iceland, Althingi. However, the government has for many years been fixated on reducing CO2, emissions from cars. To serve that purpose it has used taxes on fuels and cars to favor diesel oil over gasoline, a policy that is now considered an utter failure leading to more emissions of soot and NOx. It has also mandated and subsidized imports and blending of ethanol and other biofuels (agricultural products!) to gasoline and diesel fuel with dubious environmental results. Even if we believed the 5% blending of expensive biofuels reduced CO2 emission by 5%, the overall reductions for Iceland would only be 0,2%.
At the same time efforts to close the draining canals and restore the wetlands to stop the emissions have mostly been private enterprises, either by landowners themselves or industries interested in offsetting their CO2 emissions.
The Kyoto protocol has up until 2013 been somewhat indifferent on the emission figures for drained wetlands. According to the protocol, emissions from wetlands drained before 1990 are not included in national emission figures. This is a huge flaw in the protocol as the emissions from drained wetlands keep on for decades and centuries. It would be similar to excluding annual emissions from an automobile of a model older than 1990. This flaw in the protocol became more apparent after the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) agreed in 2013, upon Iceland’s initiative, to take into account restoration of wetlands when estimating reduction in submission of greenhouse gases. Restoring wetlands can now rightly be counted as an offset to meet national targets even if emissions from drained wetlands are still not included in emission numbers.
The lesson to learn from this is that when deciding on a policy, especially when it entails relocation of resources by taxation, it is imperative to take into account all the relevant facts and not let the end justify the means. Those who are really serious about reducing greenhouse gas emission should be looking into the predominant causes of emission and tackle the problem at its roots. War on car owners has highly distorted the task at hand.
The author is a member of parliament for the Independence Party.