From Iceland — Icelandic Government Makes Tentative Environmental Policy Progress

Icelandic Government Makes Tentative Environmental Policy Progress

Published May 7, 2020

Poppy Askham
Photo by
Vilhem / Visir

The Icelandic Government has revealed several new environmental policies and proposals recently, including fresh funds for projects tackling climate change and a bid to ban certain single-use products. Although the measures are by no means radical, they suggest that environmental concerns may be a greater government priority post-pandemic.

“Unnecessary Waste” Ban

Minister for the Environment, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, submitted a bill to ban “unnecessary waste” in Iceland on May 5th, Vísir reports. The proposal principally aims to tackle plastic pollution in the sea by banning various single-use plastic items. If passed, the law would ban the sale of disposable plastic cutlery, earplugs, plastic cups, straws, plastic balloon sticks and foam food/drink containers. Medical equipment would be exempt.

“I think this is of the utmost importance to reduce the burden of these products on the ocean,” Guðmundur explained to MPs. Sustainable alternatives to all the products he plans to ban are readily available, so Guðmundur sees no reason why the policy cannot go ahead.

Guðmundur believes that the government should take a strong lead on waste reduction and that such prohibitions are far more effective than relying on individuals’ consciences, Vísir reports. He cites last year’s single-use plastic bag ban as an example of the positive impact of top-down environmental initiatives. According to Guðmundur, litter pickers have noticed a sharp decline in the number of plastic bags they find on Reykjavik’s streets.

COVID-19 Package Funding

As reported, the government awarded grants totalling 550 million ISK to projects addressing climate change as part of its second COVID-19 economic stimulus package. Further details about the allocation of these funds were released on May 5th. The investment will be used to increase carbon sequestration, accelerate switches to sustainable energy sources and fund further climate research.

Carbon Sequestration
Around 200 million ISK will be invested into projects aiming to naturally store carbon dioxide long-term in order to reduce levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. Carbon sequestration is a key part of the government’s plan to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement’s terms. Grants include:

  • 75 million ISK to create new birch forests
  • 25 million ISK for land reclamation projects
  • 60 million ISK for land quality recovery schemes (20 million ISK of which will be dedicated to wetland recovery)

Energy Consumption

A further 300 million ISK will be used to reduce Iceland’s energy consumption and reliance on fossil fuels. Two-thirds of the funds will go towards port electrification. Around 40 million ISK will be used to research domestic fuel production and switching vehicles to sustainable energy sources.

The final 50 million ISK has been allocated to the government’s climate fund. The fund was launched at the beginning of this year and aims to support climate change research and projects raising awareness of the impacts of global warming. There have been 212 applications so far and the first grants are set to be allocated later this month.

The funds seem to be a positive indicator that the government intends to factor environmental concerns into its economic recovery plan. However, less than 1% of the latest package’s 60 billion ISK budget is expected to go towards the tackling climate change.

Paris Climate Agreement Goals

Guðmundur also set out how the government intends to meet the requirements of the Paris Climate Agreement 2015, Visir reports. Iceland aims to reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. Guðmundur’s new bill aims to establish the legal framework for the implementation of regulation agreed upon with the EU in 2016. Principally, Guðmundur aims to create a legal requirement for close monitoring of companies’ carbon outputs, including airlines. The bill also seeks to clarify companies’ obligation to reduce their carbon emissions.

When questioned in parliament, Guðmundur failed to explain why it had taken the government four years to take the crucial next steps outlined in the bill. However, he pointed out that a fully financed climate action plan was passed in 2018. This plan is set to be updated this summer.

Prosperity And The Environment

The government recently passed Prime Minsiter Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s bill to use social and environmental indicators, as well as existing economic metrics, when assessing the nation’s prosperity. The new model is based on the UN’s global goals. Air quality, climate change, energy usage, levels of recycling and waste production now factor into the government’s assessments of the country’s prosperity.

Environmental progress is not the expressed aim of this policy, but it may encourage government offices to monitor environmental issues more closely. The indicators could also encourage ministers to integrate environmental and economic policy, allowing a shift towards a ‘green economy’.

Glacial Retreat –
Breiðamerkurjökull (Photo by the Icelandic Meteorological Office)

Whilst the COVID-19 outbreak has reduced road traffic in Iceland and all but eliminated air travel, alarming rapid decline of the country’s glaciers serves as a reminder that climate change has not gone away. Politicians now have the chance to place environmental concerns at the forefront of economic restructuring and recovery plans as they address the long-term consequences of the pandemic. Despite recent tentative steps forward, it still remains to be seen whether the Icelandic government will fully seize this opportunity.

The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass, but humanity will be left facing yet another existential threat—the climate crisis.

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