In Focus: Growing Environmental Awareness
Words by Ragnheiður Jóhannsdóttir
The environment. You hear about its decline every day. You read about it. You watch it on TV. It makes you wish for Donna Summer’s I Feel Love on the radio instead of reports about rising CO2 emissions. But statistics on climate change are everywhere, including Iceland. Local news reports the vegan population is growing, even as the country’s glaciers shrink. Even the traditionally conservative Icelandic clergy is urging the government to declare a climate emergency.
Despite all this, Iceland’s CO2 emissions have been steadily rising in recent years. In 2016, they were the highest per capita of all EU and EFTA countries. While Iceland’s CO2 emissions dipped between 2008 and 2012, the trend has since reversed, largely due to air activity, marine transport, and basic metal production. The public is growing more aware of the threat of climate change and even calling on the government to make large-scale policy changes. Is the government acting quickly or drastically enough to address the problem?
Individuals and industry
Increase in Iceland’s air activity is both due to locals taking more international flights and growth in tourism to the country. A study shows that 83% of Icelanders travelled abroad in the year 2018, compared to 2009, when only 44% of the nation did. Awareness of the pollution emitted by flying has led to the creation of the term flugskömm or “flight shame,” indicating that at least some travellers’ habits nag their conscience. Unfortunately, the shame does not seem to be changing behaviour, as those surveyed had no plans on decreasing their number of flights in the future.
Icelanders’ flight habits might not be changing, but many are making other efforts to minimise their carbon footprint. In one survey, 62.6% of Icelanders said they had changed their daily habits to lessen their impact on the environment, mostly in regards to their daily shopping habits. Only a small percentage stated they had changed their daily travel habits.
Though the public is taking small steps to amend their consumerist ways, Iceland’s industry needs to get on board to truly make an impact – something it appears reluctant to do, at best. A single silicon plant which is set to resume operations after a long closure could increase the country’s CO2 emission by a whopping 10%. While the surrounding communities have protested the reopening, citing environmental and health concerns, its owner Arionbanki bank so far seems uninterested in changing its plans.
Leading by example
Iceland’s parliament has decided to lead by example and adopted an action plan to reduce its own carbon emissions by 40% by the year 2030. This new policy applies to all of the parliament’s ten ministries, and is intended to contribute to fulfilling the Paris Agreement, of which Iceland is a signatory. Signed in 2016, the United Nations agreement aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change. The parliament’s plan includes the following measures:
- Changing work procedures to avoid international and domestic flights, for example by opting for more phone conferences.
- Encouraging employees to commute to work in a more environmentally way by providing bicycles to employees.
- Switching to fuel-saving vehicles for work-related travel.
- Increasing recycling and reusing efforts.
- Adopting electricity and energy saving measures.
- Increasing vegetarian, pescatarian, and vegan options in the parliament’s cafeteria.
Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has stated that while emissions created by Iceland’s parliament are small in the grand scheme of things, policy has a wider impact. It creates goals and increases the demand for environmental solutions and the importance of neutralising carbon emissions – and sets an example for corporations and businesses to follow. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, points out that it is even more important to reduce carbon emissions all together, saying that parliament’s action plan is sending a positive message to society and encouraging others to act.
Youth in action
If progress sounds frustratingly slow, at least the nation’s youth is taking action. Since February, Icelandic students have been holding a weekly climate strike in front of parliament. Their protest is inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, whose school strike has sparked a worldwide youth movement calling on authorities to act on climate change. Iceland’s youth climate strike organisers support parliament’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality, but point out the policy is in no way radical enough to reach the goal of limiting warming within 1.5°C. The Icelandic government plans to allocate 0.05% of its GDP per year for the next five years on actions to prevent temperatures from rising. The students demand that both the government and the Icelandic labour market reserve at least 2.5% of domestic GDP for direct actions to fight climate change.
Though public outcry has yet to lead to large-scale policy changes on the part of the Icelandic government, many community organisations and small businesses are answering the people’s call to action. Several Reykjavík restaurants have banned plastic straws, while most large grocery chains have stopped selling plastic carrier bags and are working to reduce plastic packaging or eliminate it altogether. Other Icelandic companies are switching to environmentally friendly transport methods or organising tree-planting initiatives to carbon-neutralise their operations. The country’s local authorities are addressing the issue as well – like the City of Reykjavík, which has launched initiatives to restore wetlands on its outskirts as well as close half of its gas stations by 2025. Hopefully, smaller actions will encourage larger ones, and we’ll all have better news to look forward to.
This article appears in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.