Iceland is a sparsely populated island in the North Atlantic, with an economy that relies heavily on its natural resources, including its fishing grounds, abundant renewable energy sources and a natural heritage that attracts a growing number of tourists. Sustainable use of these resources is a key economic as well as environmental priority. Iceland has a strictly enforced quota system in fisheries to prevent overfishing, and has been a leader in the fight against the pollution of the oceans. A national strategy on sustainable development aims to integrate the concept into all major sectors of the Icelandic economy.
Nature conservation is a priority in Iceland’s environmental policy. The country recently established Europe’s largest national park, centered around the island’s – and the continent’s – biggest glacier, Vatnajökull. Soil erosion has long been a problem, resulting largely from deforestation exposing the fragile volcanic soil to wind and water. For the last 100 years, government institutions have worked on halting the erosion and revegetating and reforesting the land. The air and water of Iceland is mostly unpolluted, but authorities aim to further mimimize local pollution, as Iceland wants to remain a healthy place to live, a pristine source of foodstuffs and a clean destination for tourists.
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Climate change is a growing factor in Iceland’s environmental policy. In many ways, Iceland has a unique position in the battle against climate change. First of all, there is a superabundance of renewable energy resources, as demonstrated by the fact that over 99 per cent of electricity production and almost 80 per cent of total energy production comes from hydropower and geothermal. No other nation uses such a high proportion of renewable energy resources. The utilisation of such resources for domestic consumption and for exportation is positive from a climate change point of view, though it can sometimes conflict with nature conservation aims.
Iceland claims to be already well on the road towards climate neutrality, as virtually all electricity and space heating is supplied by renewables, and the domestic energy production sector is therefore almost completely decarbonized. There are minor CO2 emissions from geothermal power plants, and an experimental project is now under way in capturing these emissions and mineralizing them underground.
The Icelandic government adopted a new Climate Change Strategy in 2007, setting forth a long-term vision for the reduction of net emissions of greenhouse gases by 50-75 per cent by the year 2050, using 1990 emissions figures as a baseline. An expert committee is currently undertaking a feasibility study based on the strategy, calculating the cost-effectiveness of different options for reducing emissions, enhancing carbon sequestration and using flexibility mechanisms. It is expected to publicize its findings in spring 2008, allowing for a review of the strategy.
The Strategy sets forth the Icelandic government’s five principal objectives with respect to climate change, which aim toward the realisation of the long-term vision:
- Iceland will fulfill its international obligations according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.
- Greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced, with a special emphasis on reducing the use of fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy sources and climate-friendly fuels.
- The government will attempt to increase carbon sequestration from the atmosphere through afforestation, revegetation, wetland reclamation, and changed land use.
- The government will foster research and innovation in fields related to climate change affairs and will promote the exportation of Icelandic expertise in fields related to renewable energy and climate-friendly technology.
- The government will prepare for adaptation to climate change.
The implementation of the Strategy will also aim at coordinating the Strategy with other environmental objectives, such as the protection of biodiversity and the conservation of nature. The Strategy contains statistical indicators that will be updated in the future. These indicators should provide clues to how successfully the Strategy is being enforced and how much progress is being made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon sequestration.
Carbon sequestration in vegetation is an important factor in Iceland’s climate strategy. Iceland has suffered the worst soil erosion of any European country since its settlement 1100 years ago, as deforestation has left the fragile volcanic soil susceptible to wind and water erosion. Icelandic government agencies have worked toward land reclamation and afforestation for 100 years in an attempt to reverse land erosion, and therefore were engaged in these practises long before the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was acknowledged as a problem. Iceland is a pioneer in developing tools for calculating carbon sequestration by revegetation according to Article 3.4. of the Kyoto Protocol.
With emissions from agriculture largely offset by afforestation and revegetation activities, the three main sources of emissions in Iceland are transport, fisheries and industrial processes, particularly from aluminium factories. There has been a big effort to minimize PFC emissions from aluminium production, with the result that emissions per ton of aluminium are less than half of the world average (counting emissions from power generation) and about as low as possible given current technology.
The potential for reducing emissions from fishing vessels has been considered limited. The fishing industry – which is not subsidised by the government, unlike its competitors in many countries – has a clear incentive to maximize fuel economy and efficiency. In recent years, many fishmeal plants have switched from oil to electricity, but more progress is needed. The government has set up a consultation forum to seek means to further reduce GHG emissions from fisheries, and has supported experimental projects in the field of fuel efficiency and alternative fuels in vessels.
Emissions from transport are substantial and growing, and nowhere are the possibilities for emissions reduction greater. The Icelandic government encourages new climate-friendly technology in this sector, and has for years supported a joint venture in the field of hydrogen-powered vehicles. A discount on fees for vehicles that use climate-friendly technology (such as hydrogen, methane, electricity, and hybrid technology) is in place, and plans are under way to introduce a comprehensive fee system for fuels and vehicles for this purpose.
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