Grindavík, Palestine, and Whaling Questions Loom in Alþingi

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, will convene at 3pm today for the first time since before the holidays. The first item on the docket is Grindavík, but Vísir reports that the cabinet of ministers will also convene today to discuss and subsequently announce how the residents of Grindavík can be best served in the wake of an eruption that did significant infrastructural damage to the town.

Although the topic of Grindavík looms large over Alþingi’s agenda, there are a number of highly debated issues likely to be brought up during today’s scheduled ministers’ question time. Opposition members have criticised Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson after his recent comments on Palestinian asylum seekers and their protests outside of Alþingi. Furthermore, a vote of no confidence is likely to be brought up against Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir for violating the law when she temporarily stopped whaling last summer.

Coalition solidarity in question

These topics and others have tested the strength of the government coalition in the last few weeks. The coalition is comprised of the Progressive Party, the Left-Green Movement, and the Independence Party, with the latter two clashing on a number of issues. Independence Party MPs have been highly critical of Left-Green Movement Minister Svandís’ handling of the whaling issue and a vote of no confidence from opposition MP and People’s Party leader Inga Sæland will force them to pick sides. Vísir has also reported on a rumour swirling among MPs that the category of whaling will be moved from Svandís’ ministry to the Ministry of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, thus taking it from her hands. This would give control of whaling policy to Independence Party member Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson.

On the other hand, the opposition is likely to test the Left-Greens’ allegiance to the coalition by bringing up Independence Party Leader Bjarni’s comments on asylum seekers and his calls for stricter border controls and increased police powers. Palestinian protesters have been camped outside of Alþingi since December 27. The group has made three demands of Icelandic authorities. Firstly, to carry out family reunifications for residents of Gaza whom they have already granted visas. Secondly, a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. Thirdly, to stop the ongoing deportations of Palestinian people in Iceland and grant them international protection.

Calls for Grindavík buy-out

The Grindavík topic, however, remains the most urgent one. As reported, two lava fissures opened up near Grindavík, on the south coast of the Reykjanes peninsula, on January 14. Lava flow from these combined fissures caused interruptions in electricity and both cold and hot water, damaged the shortest route to the capital area, and set three houses on fire. Ground swelling and related seismic activity has also done widespread damage in the form of crevasses.

While Grindavík had been evacuated of its residents the day before, they now face an uncertain future regarding what steps the government should now take. Most residents of a recent community meeting want to be bought out, and for others, they would like to see the government take steps to ensure that their housing loans do not spiral out of control with the cost of maintaining property in the town.

Minister Alarmed by Plastic Pollution on Eldey Island

Eldey island, off the coast of the Reykjanes peninsula

A recent scientific expedition to the island of Eldey has revealed significant plastic pollution in gannet nests. The Minister of the Environment admitted that the images were shocking and stated there was reason to investigate the source of the plastic.

One of the world’s largest gannet colonies

Last weekend, a team of experts from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, the University of Iceland, the Southwest Iceland Nature Research Centre, alongside wardens from the Environment Agency of Iceland embarked upon a scientific expedition to the island of Eldey.

Eldey is a small, uninhabited island 13 km off the southwest coast of Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, covering 3 hectares and rising 77 metres above sea level. Notably, its sheer cliffs host one of the world’s largest northern gannet colonies, with approximately 16,000 pairs.

The purpose of the expedition was to measure the island´s erosion and height, assess gannet mortality following bird flu, and examine the extent of plastic pollution on the island.  

Nests primarily made from plastic

The expedition revealed that gannets have easy access to plastic, as their nests are mostly made from plastic debris. Hundreds of dead gannets were also observed by the experts, with it being estimated that three factors played a role in their deaths: natural attrition, bird flu, and plastic pollution.

“We knew it was bad, but this is very shocking. Almost all nests are made more or less out of plastic. So, this is terrible,” Sindri Gíslason, the head of the Southwest Iceland Nature Research Centre, told RÚV earlier this week.

“Striking” images

“The images were striking. This is the real upshot when we, or someone else, disposes of waste,” Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, stated in an interview with RÚV yesterday

As noted by RÚV, monitoring by the Environment Agency on Icelandic shores and the Marine Research Institute’s recordings of plastic have revealed that the largest source of plastic in the sea around Iceland comes from the fishing industry. 

Although the origin of the plastic on Eldey is not clear, the minister believes there is ample reason to investigate. “We are in a constant dialogue with the business community, and there is every reason to delve into this matter and analyse the origin of the plastic on Eldey,” Guðlaugur Þór observed.

Electricity Shortage “Unacceptable” Says Environment Minister

Low cost of electricity in Iceland compared with the rest of Europe

Icelandic fish processing plants will need to power their operations with oil and diesel generators for the third winter in a row due to an electricity shortage, Vísir reports. This burning of oil and diesel cancels out all of the emissions saved by electric cars in Iceland thus far. Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson says the lack of green energy is unacceptable in a country that’s aiming for a green energy exchange.

Guðlaugur Þór says that the current shortage is the result of very few power plant construction projects in Iceland over the past 15-20 years. “This is not acceptable at all and we must do everything we can to resolve this as soon as possible,” he told reporters. The Minister criticised the red tape that delayed the approval of the construction of new power plant projects and called for streamlining the system.

Read More: 2021 Electricity Shortage Impacts Local Industry

Last June, the Environmental and Natural Resources Board of Appeal revoked the construction permit for the proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant in South Iceland, after the local council decided to review new information on the plant’s potential environmental impacts. The Board of Appeal emphasised that the National Energy Authority (Orkustofnun) had not followed the guidelines of the Water Council when preparing to issue a permit to the hydropower plant.

The Hvammsvirkjun plant would have an estimated capacity of 95 MW. For comparison, Iceland’s largest hydropower plants are the Kárahnjúkar and Búrfell plants, with respective capacities of 690 KW and 270 KW. Both were built to provide power to aluminium smelters. Hellisheiði Power Station is Iceland’s largest geothermal power plant, with a capacity of 303 MW.

Data centres use more electricity than Icelandic homes

There are also those who are sceptical of the need for additional power plants in Iceland, shifting the attention to energy-intensive industries that arguably contribute little to the country’s GDP. Snæbjörn Guðmundsson of the nature conservation organisation Náttúrugrið has expressed concern that the proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant would be used towards Bitcoin mining, a growing industry in Iceland. The National Power Company has stated that it would not build power plants for the express purpose of providing energy to Bitcoin mining companies.

Data centres (of which Bitcoin mining centres are a subcategory) in Iceland use 30% more energy than all Icelandic homes put together, and while the percentage of this energy that goes toward Bitcoin mining is not public knowledge, it could be as high as 90%.

Minister Booed During Fish Farming Protest Last Saturday

Laxeldi Austurvöllur sjókví Lax

A protest against open-sea aquaculture drew a significant crowd at Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík on Saturday. Minister of Environment, Energy, and Climate, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, who was booed, acknowledged the need for action and expressed appreciation for the public’s defence of Icelandic nature.

Insecticide poured over dead fish

On Saturday, Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík became the focal point of a protest against open-sea aquaculture in Iceland. Farmers and landowners from across the country converged at the square, with a procession originating from the University of Iceland’s parking area leading up to the main event at Austurvöllur.

The event featured several speakers, including fisherman Árni Pétur Hilmarsson and biologist Jóhannes Sturlaugsson. During his address, Sturlaugsson emphatically stated, “We all protest!” – a reference to a protest of Danish imposition in the 19th century led by Independence leader Jón Sigurðssons – a sentiment that garnered considerable applause from the attendees.

Musician Bubbi Morthens set the tone for the protest by performing two songs to open the event. Inga Lind Karlsdóttir took on the role of moderator, guiding the event and addressing the gathered crowd.

As reported by Vísir, the protest witnessed an unexpected turn of events towards its conclusion. Inga Lind directed the protestors to pour insecticide over Austurvöllur and on dead fish, using containers that the organisers had placed near the stage; the act was meant to symbolise the numerous instances where poison has been released into the fjords of the country.

Minister booed by protestors

As noted by RÚV, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, the Minister of Environment, Energy, and Climate, faced criticism for the government’s inaction regarding salmon farming issues at the protest. He stated that the matter did not fall under the purview of his ministry, acknowledging, however, the challenge posed by the organisers for the authorities to take responsibility, protect nature, and prohibit open-sea aquaculture near the coast.

Following this, Guðlaugur Þór expressed appreciation for the significant turnout at the protest and thanked the public for defending Icelandic nature. There were subsequent calls for the authorities to take similar actions:

“People can criticise me as they wish. But if one looks at what I’ve said and done, perhaps there would be less of it. That’s beside the point, as I’m not the main focus here. That’s evident. Your message is clear, and I thank you for taking the initiative to organise this, for showing up and demonstrating solidarity with Icelandic nature. Actions will be taken based on this, and this meeting truly matters. I sincerely thank you for that,” Guðlaugur Þór remarked.

In an interview with Vísir after his speech, Guðlaugur Þór iterated that aquaculture was not within his purview but acknowledged its significance, referring to the alleged violations of Arctic Sea Farm.

“We Must Adapt” – Authors of Iceland’s New Climate Report

Waves crashing over Reykjavík lighthouse

Altered weather patterns, increased landslides, and heightened flood risks are among the challenges Icelanders will face in the coming years, according to an expert from the Icelandic MET Office. A report entitled “Climate Resilient Iceland, which was unveiled yesterday, emphasises the urgent need for Icelandic society to adapt to the already evident impacts of climate change, Vísir reports.

“Humans have always adapted”

Yesterday, a report titled “Climate Resilient Iceland” (i.e. Loftslagsþolið Ísland in Icelandic) was unveiled. Commissioned by the Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, a steering committee produced the report to assess the necessary measures for society to adapt to climate change, emphasising that the impacts of climate change are already evident.

When questioned by a Vísir journalist about whether emphasising adaptation to climate change signified a form of resignation, Anna Hulda Ólafsdóttir, Office Manager of Climate Services and Adaptation at the Icelandic Meteorological Office and a co-author of the report, replied, “Yes and no; this is the reality we are facing. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth. Humans have always adapted to changing circumstances.”

Anna Hulda emphasised that environmental changes are accelerating and becoming more evident through natural events. “We’re witnessing an increase in landslides, floods, and shifts in precipitation patterns, with intense rainfall in short durations followed by prolonged droughts,” she stated.

Data collection and dissemination

As noted by Vísir, the report delves into the consequences of these threats. Drought conditions elevate wildfire risks, which can jeopardise human lives and threaten infrastructure. The global warming phenomenon is reshaping ecosystems and heightening the risk of infectious diseases. Intense rainfalls escalate flood hazards, causing potential damage to infrastructure. The melting of glaciers is redirecting river courses, and the thawing of permafrost is triggering landslides, each with its inherent risks. Furthermore, marine ecosystems are changing due to ocean acidification and warming, affecting marine biodiversity.

The report recommends a comprehensive approach, suggesting an evaluation of the insurance system in light of these risks. It outlines four priority actions, with an emphasis on enhancing data collection and dissemination.

One of the highlighted actions, for example, is the development of a “Climate Atlas,” envisioned as a visual guide to the United Nations’ climate change projections. Canada’s existing model, which provides insights into shifts in precipitation, temperature, and other elements, serves as an inspiration for this initiative.

The report also advocates for a comprehensive monitoring strategy to assess the repercussions of climate change. It recommends the launch of a data portal, offering access to historical records of natural phenomena. This portal would also help pinpoint risks tied to global climate shifts, such as potential disruptions to supply chains and migration patterns of refugees.

A comprehensive approach is necessary

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, the Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, acknowledged that while some of these initiatives are funded, there’s potential to optimise the use of human resources: “To simplify, when implementing countermeasures and adaptation strategies, it’s crucial to have a comprehensive understanding to guide our actions. A consistent team should manage this effort. Furthermore, it’s essential to disseminate accurate information to all, particularly those involved in infrastructure planning and zoning.”

Milk Cartons to Be Recycled in Sweden

recycling in iceland

After an investigative report revealed that recyclable milk cartons from Iceland were being shipped to a cement factory in Europe to be incinerated, the Icelandic Recycling Fund and SORPA have decided to send Tetra Pak cartons to Fiskeby Board in Sweden for proper recycling. An independent party will also be appointed to monitor the implementation to ensure adequate recycling.

Shipped to Sweden

As reported Monday, an investigative report by Heimildin found that SORPA – the municipal association for waste management – was shipping recyclable milk cartons to a cement factory in Europe to be incinerated.

After the story broke, the Icelandic Recycling Fund and Sorpa released a public statement saying that they would modify protocols; Tetra Pak cartons would henceforth be sent to the company Fiskeby Board in Sweden to ensure that recycling was carried out correctly and would deliver the expected results.

“The Recycling Fund and SORPA jointly intend to obtain assurance that the recycling party that will from now on receive containers from SORPA will deliver the expected results,” the statement reads. The statement further notes that the decision had been taken following the discovery that Smurfit Kappa, SORPA’s paper recycling partner, could not recycle cartons in its processing plants.

A meeting with Guðlaugur Þór

The press release also notes that representatives from the Icelandic Recycling Fund and SORPA had met with Guðlaug Þór Þórðarson, Minister of the Environment, Energy and Climate, yesterday. The upshot of the meeting was that the Icelandic Recycling Fund and SORPA would appoint an independent party to monitor the implementation and confirm adequate recycling.

“The Recycling Fund has required other service providers, Terra and Íslenska gámafélagið, who have collected the milk cartons for recycling, for confirmation that adequate recycling has taken place abroad. Information is expected to arrive in the coming days.”

The press release concludes by stating that the Icelandic Recycling Fund had recently revised its terms and conditions vis-à-vis the fund’s service providers to ensure traceability and knowledge of the final disposal of the waste covered by the fund.

State to Subsidise Rental EVs with ISK 1 Billion

Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson.

In further efforts to meet its commitments to reduce CO2 emissions, the state will support car rental companies this year with some ISK 1 billion [$7.2 million, €6.7 million] in subsidies to accelerate the electrification of their fleets.

Minister of Environment, Energy, and Climate Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson stated recently that Iceland’s tourism industry must also play a role in the energy transition. This includes not just the electrification of the rental fleet, but also an expansion of charging stations at hotels and guesthouses throughout the nation.

Iceland to Buy Emission Allowances to Meet Kyoto Commitments

The matter was discussed at a cabinet meeting last Friday, March 17.

Minister Guðlaugur stated: “We will be supporting the car rentals to acquire electric cars. This is extremely important in order for us to achieve the energy transition,  as car rentals are naturally a large part of the national car fleet. And if we are going to reach our goals for electric vehicles, then car rentals have to be included. And it’s by including the car rentals, that we will be able to reach our goals much sooner.”

Read more: Public Transport Funding

According to the Minister, the higher average cost of electric vehicles has until now been a barrier to these companies from buying more of them. The subsidies will be structured like the subsidies already available to individuals, which remove VAT up to a certain limit on EVs.

In his statement on the EV subsidies, the Minister also highlighted the lack of charging stations across Iceland as a bottleneck.

“It is likewise very important that hotels and guesthouses cooperate, for this to be a viable option […] And in order for us to prevent ‘charging anxiety’ and for this to be as efficient as possible, people must be able to charge at night,” Guðlaugur said.

Iceland to Buy Emission Allowances to Meet Kyoto Commitments

Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson.

The Ministry of Environment, Energy, and Climate has decided to buy emission allowances from other nations in order to meet its commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, an international environmental treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It has been clear for some time that Iceland has fallen significantly behind meeting it climate goals, far exceeding its original allotment of carbon credits in the quota system established by the Kyoto Protocol. By the time the figures are settled in the middle of this year, Iceland will need to buy emission credits for the equivalent of 3.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the Environment Agency of Iceland.

Read More: Energy Credit Market Means Only 13% of Icelandic Energy is Renewable

Notably, Iceland has up until now refrained from buying emission allowances. In a recent memo by Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, however, buying emission credits will become key to Iceland meeting its environmental commitments.

According the results of a working group commissioned in 2020, Iceland could best make use of AAU and CER credits. AAU credits, or Assigned Amount Units, correspond to the original emission allowance given to nations under the Kyoto Protocol. Nations with unused emission credits can sell these on the market to other nations exceeding their allotment. CER credits, or Certified Emission Reduction, are given to nations engaged in climate-friendly development projects in under-developed nations.

Vísir reports that no decision has yet been taken on which credit is to purchased by government.

Current estimates indicate that some 800 million ISK [$5.7 million; €5.3 million] will be needed to purchased the required credits. The decision to buy credits is still under consideration, so the funds are not currently allocated. Such an expenditure would require a budget authorisation to finalise.

Critics Say Emission Allowance Leads to No Change

Some critics have vocally opposed Iceland’s intention to “greenwash” through accounting. One particularly outspoken critics has been Pirate representative Andrés Ingi Jónsson.

In a statement to Vísir, Andrés Ingi said: “Iceland will get away with not having implemented real, systematic changes for environmental issues. It will instead be able to resort to accounting tricks and paying fines, actions which have no actual affect on improving the climate.”

According to Andrés Ingi, flaws in the Kyoto system have led to an oversupply of emission credits, meaning that Iceland is allowed to buy these credits at a significant discount. At current market prices, Iceland will be able to buy off each tonne of carbon dioxide produced with around 235 ISK [1.$67; €1.57].

 

 

‘If we decided it was our goal to reduce food waste, we’d do it’

Food waste in Iceland is not only a climate problem, says Minister for the Environment Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, it’s also disrespectful. The Minister says the Icelandic public needs to completely change its attitude towards this serious problem, and more creative solutions need to be considered to deal with it. RÚV reports.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a third of the world’s food is thrown away. Food waste has long been a major topic of concern in Iceland; the Environment Agency in Iceland has found that 7 out of 10 Icelanders say they want to do their part to reduce food waste. Moreover, reducing food waste is one of the major prongs of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources’ national policy on waste, which is in effect from 2016-2027. The policy is underpinned by the “ideology of the circular economy, where the priority is to reduce the creation of waste and thereby decrease the demand for finite natural resources.”

But although food waste was the first of nine focal points that this policy targeted from 2016-2017, thus far, there’s been little observable change in the actual amount of food wasted in the country over the years.

 

Iceland’s National Policy on Waste Timeline, 2016-2027; via the Environment Agency of Iceland

Guðlaugur Þór says it’s hard to legislate controls or punishments related to food wastage. What’s really needed, therefore, is a complete attitude shift amongst consumers, retailers, and producers—the whole chain must stand together, he says. It’s a matter of public will above all else.

“We Icelanders can be very quick to adapt to anything and everything, so if we decided it was our goal to reduce food waste, we’d do it.”

The Environment Agency’s website, Together Against Waste, is part of broader awareness-raising campaigns and includes many suggestions for ways in which individuals can do their part to reduce food waste, from taking a picture of what you have in the fridge before you go grocery shopping to cooking from leftovers to “using your nose” to determine if food is still good after its “Best By” date has passed.

One creative solution that has been suggested to aid in food waste reduction is to open stores that specifically sell food items that are approaching their “Sell By” dates.

However the issue is addressed, addressed it must be, says the minister. “One third of all food [in the world] is thrown away,” concludes Guðlaugur Þór. “We can all see that that’s unacceptable.”

Reshuffling of Environmental Agencies Merges Ten into Three

Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson.

Plans to reorganize ten agencies in environment, energy, and climate into three were announced today by the government.

The plans were first discussed yesterday at a meeting where Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson. He highlighted the need to have fewer, stronger agencies to streamline regulations, while also highlighting the benefits of institutional knowledge that will allow employees to work in and move between what were previously different agencies.

Under the new organization, environmental regulations in Iceland will be split between the Nature Conservation and Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Environmental Sciences, and the Climate Agency.

environment iceland
Stjórnarráð Íslands

Under the new schema, the Nature Conservation and Heritage Foundation would combine Vatnajökull National Park, Þingvellir National Park, and the Nature Conservation Department of the Environmental Agency. The new Institute for Environmental Sciences will bring together the Meteorological Office, the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, the Icelandic Land Survey, Iceland GeoSurvey, and the Natural Research Centre at Mývatn. The new Climate Agency will then comprise of the National Energy Authority and all departments of the Environmental Agency outside of Nature Conservation.

The new structure will hopefully bring greater flexibility to energy and environmental policy in Iceland, with projects now more easily transferred between formerly separate agencies.

While final details of the new structure have not yet been decided, minister Guðlaugur also announced that they will prioritize job creation in rural areas, and involve the municipalities as much as possible in the decision-making process.

In the announcement, the minister stated: “the main goal is to strengthen the institutions of the ministry to deal with the enormous challenges that await us as a society, where climate issues are at the top of the list. With the new institutional structure, the aim is to increase efficiency and reduce waste resulting from redundancy and lack of cooperation. There is also great scope for increasing the number of jobs in rural areas, and creating more desirable workplaces.”

The reorganization will affect approximately 600 employees in various agencies, some 61% of which are in the capital region.