Fresh after the October 2021 parliamentary elections, Iceland’s new coalition government has focused on green energy and climate matters, which had topped the agenda in the run-up to the polls.
Despite differences of opinion on other issues, members of the cabinet have forged a common stand on one critical issue: the impact of climate change on the country’s melting glaciers.
Iceland’s glaciers are widely regarded as among the finest natural wonders of the world. Over 400 glaciers cover more than 10% of Iceland’s total land mass. They are an enchanting spectacle, especially for a tourist like me from the tropics.
Iceland’s geysers also fascinate tourists. I remember being spellbound by the sight of the hot water spouting nearly 100 feet into the air every few minutes. For safety reasons, tourists are only allowed to watch this from a distance.
In April 2021, the International Monetary Fund noted in a statement that Iceland’s dependence on tourism to stimulate its economy has made it vulnerable during crises like Covid.
Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir’s government faces the unenviable challenge of curbing the impact of climate change on the country’s glaciers.
At Sólheimajökull, a popular tourist location about 180km southeast of Reykjavik, warmer conditions caused by climate change are rapidly melting the glacier. Scientists in Iceland are working hard to lessen the carbon footprint here.
At the Hellisheidi power station, the world’s third-largest geothermal power plant, scientist have developed a process to capture carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, and plug it into rock.
Devising strategies to confront climate change will be among the critical policy challenges of the government’s term in office. Iceland is among the world’s most exposed countries to adverse weather changes. Like Greenland, it faces the problem of melting glaciers due to global warming. If this problem is left unchecked, it will have dire consequences for the country’s physical landscape.
The new government had decided to stop granting oil exploration licences around the country, as it now targets a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared with 2005. Iceland hopes to be carbon neutral by 2040.
It had already joined the EU and Norway in seeking a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from the 1990 level. Iceland’s share of the reduction had implied a 40% cut.
The Iceland government is optimistic its new target is realistic even if it appears ambitious.
Climate change inspires everything Iceland is doing at the moment, and the nation is ready to implement measures to tackle this threat.
Nordic countries like Finland and Denmark have set earlier lofty targets. Finland aims to be carbon neutral by 2035, while Denmark’s target is a 70% reduction by 2030 from the 1990 baseline.
Some local environmental groups have called on the government to act faster.
Not everyone in Iceland is happy about Iceland’s current pace. Tinna Hallgrimsdottir, chairwoman of Young Environmentalists, laments that the nation needs more ambitious goals on par with other Nordic countries. Iceland, she feels, is not displaying leadership qualities in tackling climate change.
Hallgrimsdottir believes the government should hike carbon taxes, expedite energy transition in transport, fisheries and aviation, and reconsider agricultural subsidies.
The prime minister defends the government’s position by contending that Iceland is different. While other Nordic countries consume more renewable energy, their emissions of greenhouse gases are much greater than Iceland’s.
Iceland has come a long way in using renewable energy. The volcanic grounds discharging geysers into the air provide ample geothermal energy. The nation also uses carbon-neutral hydropower to generate electricity and heat.
Iceland is also working on emerging technologies, such as capturing carbon from the air and burying it in the ground. The rate of electric car ownership on the island is only second to that of Norway.
Despite these ongoing efforts, Iceland remains among the highest per capita emitters in Europe. Popularly known as the Land of Fire and Ice, Iceland still lags behind other European countries in waste management and landfill use.
Icelanders still churn out high amounts of greenhouse gases as they have to commute long distances across Europe’s most sparsely populated country.
The country’s aquaculture sector also faces the challenge of encouraging its vast fishing fleets to transition to green energy.
The new government’s policy agenda emphasises green jobs. It also hopes to form a highland national park – a plan which it was not able to agree on during its last term in office.
Like many other countries, Iceland has laid out long-term goals. It is committed to the UN’s Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. The government has incorporated UN sustainable development goals into its policies on social, economic and environmental affairs, aimed at creating a peaceful and just society, free from anxiety and violence.
Domestically, the government aims to identify and better serve marginalised groups and to build partnerships to tackle the large environmental footprint of a modern lifestyle.
Though Iceland is still a net contributor to climate change, it is moving zealously towards 2040, when it aims to become a carbon-neutral country.