Is Iceland the Country Best Positioned to Deal With Climate Change?

August 16, 2022
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

A small country so far experiencing modest climate impacts, in many respects a leader in climate action

Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Iceland.
Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Iceland. Photo by Sarah Woodams.

Based on a two-week visit this summer, I can attest there are many reasons to visit Iceland. For starters, the many spectacular waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, the northern lights (visible in darker months), and as recent events have shown, active volcanoes. As the world warms, the country’s cool climate may add another source of tourist appeal. As many places in Europe experienced the hottest temperatures on record this July, Iceland remained cool, with highs rarely reaching 60 degrees F (15.5 degrees C). In several respects, Iceland is among the countries best positioned to respond to climate change. Its abundant sources of renewable energy are just the beginning. What can the rest of us learn from Iceland’s experience?

Power from renewable energy

Electricity is among the few cheap commodities the country has to offer, thanks to plentiful hydropower and geothermal energy. (See geyser photo below.) The resultant low cost of power has attracted some energy intensive industries, including several aluminum smelters; collectively, these plants consume over 70 percent of national power production and generate about a third of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). While public support for more large hydropower projects has diminished, the country has another as yet large untapped source of renewable energy in the form of wind power. The potential for low cost wind power has led to discussion of a possible high voltage electricity cable between Iceland and Europe. Takeaway: it is possible to run a national power grid entirely on renewable energy at a reasonable cost — although it helps to have the necessary resources.

Geysir in southwestern Iceland.
Geysir in southwestern Iceland. Photo by Sarah Woodams.

Aggressive Climate Goals

Iceland has surprisingly high greenhouse gas emissions per capita primarily due to oil imports for transportation — passenger cars, the fishing industry (about 15% of GDP), and aviation (the basis for tourism). The government has adopted aggressive GHG emission reduction goals, including a 55% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030 (compared with 2005) and carbon neutrality by 2040. Climate mitigation measures will get a substantial increase in funding and a general carbon tax will be gradually increased.

Two sectors are high priorities for short-term climate action: electrification of transportation and afforestation. Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, already attractive thanks to low prices for electricity and high prices for gasoline, receive significant government support including a VAT exemption, a minimal ownership tax rate, and in selected places, free charging and parking. Charging stations can now be found in locations along the ring road around the island. (See photo below.) EVs now represent over 80% of the private passenger-car market and uptake is expected to approach 100% by 2025. Tree planting, partly to reduce net carbon emissions, is another priority as the country was largely denuded of trees by early settlers.

Iceland is also a leader in efforts to find ways to capture and remove CO2 from the atmosphere. An Icelandic utility company is injecting dissolved CO2 into reactive rock formations in areas with temperatures high enough to achieve rapid mineralization — conditions widely available in the country. Takeaway: with the right political and public support, aggressive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are possible — even in countries advanced in their use of renewable energy.

EV charging station in the in the Westfjords region of Iceland.
EV charging station in the in the Westfjords region of Iceland. Author photo

Climate Change Risks

Even with these advantages and climate initiatives, Iceland may suffer some adverse consequences from climate change. Global warming could increase the risk of landslides, especially as permafrost in mountains and glaciers thaws. Warmers winters that bring rain rather than show could magnify that risk. Because glaciers keep volcanoes cool, some scientists predict more eruptions in the coming century as the glaciers melt. Another concern is the effect of GHG emissions on ocean circulation and acidification, with potential impacts on the distribution of fish stocks in the seas around Iceland. Predicting such changes remains difficult.

There is sadness about the prospect all the country’s glaciers, a prominent feature of the landscape and national culture, will gradually disappear. Yet the country may be lucky even on this account; this year a patch of cold water (labeled the “Blue Bob”) was discovered in the North Atlantic that may slow further melting for several decades. Glacier melting also reduces the risk of glacial lake outbursts and sometimes enables the emergence of fertile land. Where other countries are losing coastal lands due to rising sea levels, parts of Iceland are rising as glaciers retreat releasing the low viscosity mantle underneath

Lessons for the World?

Iceland may be among countries least at risk from climate change but is among international leaders in its response. While many Icelanders wouldn’t mind the weather being a little bit warmer, the country has nonetheless adopted aggressive climate change policies. The government has also signed all the major international climate relevant agreements including the Kigali amendment phasing down use of HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas, and the Methane Pledge, a commitment to reduce emissions of another potent GHG by 30% by 2030. While a nation with a very small population (about 380,000) occupying a small land area (about the same as Kentucky), Iceland is nevertheless demonstrating an impressive commitment to climate change action.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003). Besides other engagements, Alan is an active editor for Climate Conscious submissions on Medium.

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