The Reykjavik Climate March will take place for the third time on Saturday, Sept. 8. The march demands bold action on climate by Icelandic politicians and aims to change the zeitgeist around global climate change, starting at a local level.

Iceland ranks high (11th) on the Environment Performance Index (EPI) created by the World Economic Forum in 2012, which uses a cross-section of 24 performance indicators to gauge how close a country is to meeting established environmental goals. But Iceland has glaring weaknesses in areas like ecosystem vitality, where it is ranked 90th in air pollution and 43rd in climate and energy.

Edda Sif Aradóttir, deputy managing director of Reykjavík Energy, explained that the discrepancy between Iceland’s reliance on clean power and its lower rankings in some categories on the EPI are largely connected to heavy industry.

“The electricity market in Iceland is unique,” Aradóttir said, “because heavy industries use about 80% of all electricity produced. The industry emits substantial amounts of CO2, resulting in high carbon emissions per capita in spite of clean energy production.”

And, to make a difficult matter more precarious, estimates show that Iceland’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 (relative to 1990), in accordance with the Paris Agreement, is currently tenuous. Its carbon footprint has increased steadily since 2011.

“As it stands there is no concrete governmental plan in place to reduce emissions and Iceland will most likely not even be able to meet its commitments to the Kyoto agreement,” said Hildur Knútsdóttir, organizer of the Reykjavik Climate March.

Photo: NASA. Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which has steadily retreated since the 1990s.

According to a February 2017 report by the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies, emissions, including those from heavy industry, will continue to increase from 1990 levels by 53% (baseline case) to up to 99% (worst case)—that model doesn’t include countermeasures (i.e., equipment to defray pollution) taken to decrease emissions.

If countermeasures are both implemented and taken into account, the increase is considerably less—33% (baseline) and 79% (worst case).

It is imperative, Knútsdóttir said, that we “[look] at sectors of the Icelandic economy and [find] cost-effective opportunities for reducing emissions and improving life quality at the same time.”

Do We Sacrifice Something Economically to Invest in Sustainability?

Nesjavellir Power Plant. Photo: Gretar Ívarsson via Wikimedia Commons

According to a 2016 report by the Environment Agency of Iceland, the majority of “emissions from the energy sector stem from mobile sources (transport, mobile machinery, and commercial fishing vessels).”

Emissions from air transportation in Iceland grew by around 13% between 2016 and 2017—Icelandair alone was responsible for nearly half of that figure. And, as Guide to Iceland Now reported earlier this summer, air and oil pollution from luxury cruise liners pose a great threat to Iceland’s environment, partly through soot deposits on glaciers, which attract the sun and quicken the rate of melting.

“Iceland produces most of its energy from renewable sources. Our reliance on oil is mostly connected to our transportation sector and there are big opportunities there […] to reduce emissions,” Knútsdóttir added.

The obvious conclusion is that Iceland’s government must invest in stronger infrastructure by, for example, continuing to add electric buses to its public transportation fleet or using alternative aviation jet fuels (biofuel).

Electric Cars Are One Small Step

The government currently incentivizes the use of electric automobiles over traditional diesel and petrol-powered cars and has executed research into access to electricity at ports. It’s also imposed limitations on the permissible amount of sulphur emissions when ships moor in Iceland’s harbours.

However, [electric vehicle incentives] have only been put in place for one year at a time, which results in unnecessary uncertainty for individuals and businesses wanting to participate in the transition,” Aradóttir said, though Reykjavik Energy’s subsidiary ON Power is installing a “network of fast-charging points for electric cars in Iceland,” which will underpin the gradual decarbonization of the transport sector despite the uncertainty of incentives. 

Driving electric cars and buses isn’t a comprehensive solution; it’s one small step on the road toward sustainability.

“What is missing is political will and action,” Knútsdóttir added. “This is why we demand that the government lead the way with all the tools it has at its disposal; regulation, economic incentives and disincentives, infrastructure, and investment.”

Cleaning Up

Aradóttir, in speaking of tangible actions that energy producers in Iceland have taken to lessen the damage from greenhouse gases, pointed directly to the CarbFix method, “which involves permanent storage of CO2 as rock minerals in the subsurface.” The process involves capturing ambient air (i.e., untreated air), extracting its CO2 content, and reinjecting it into basalt formations 1,600 feet underground.

“We have demonstrated that by capturing and injecting previously emitted CO2 into nearby basalt formations, over 95% is mineralized in less than two years.” 

The CarbFix is one of the most cost-effective carbon capture methods out there at approximately $30 per ton (ISK3.250/€26).

According to Reykjavik Energy, Phase Two of the CarbFix project aims to move the technology from “the demonstration phase to a general and economically viable complete [carbon-capture and storage] chain that can be used through Europe and throughout the world.”

Minute Gestures Affect Larger Change

It doesn’t take a large source to strongly influence Iceland’s total emissions.

According to Environment Agency of Iceland, “a single aluminium plant can add more than 15% to the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. A plant of the same size would have a negligible effect on emissions in most industrialized countries.”

Apart from the eventuality that Iceland must address its aluminium production as part of a strategy of sustainability, the fact of the matter is that minute gestures have a bigger impact on the environment of a small country. And change at a local level lays the groundwork for the health of the environment.

Alcoa aluminium factory in East Iceland. Photo: The blanz [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

The Reykjavik Climate March aims to cultivate small changes in behaviour that can lead to large-scale environmental improvement.  

Knútsdóttir proposes a number of lifestyle changes that are easily implementable: upcycling and recycling used products; using public transportation, bicycling, or walking; not consuming industrial-produced livestock; flying as infrequently as possible.

“Unfortunately, the common narrative is that we have to sacrifice all our creature comforts in order to address climate change and other pressing ecological issues. But, in fact, doing all these things will help increase our quality of life and improve our finances.”

“We can also ask ourselves: what are the sacrifices we are making for our comfort?” she added.

Talking to Local Leadership

Perhaps most importantly, she suggested that individuals support local government officials that emphasize environmentalism as a cornerstone of their platform—using every possible opportunity to make their voices heard above the static. And, of course, that they draw attention to these issues by taking part in the Reykjavik Climate March.

“Governmental institutions must lead the way by reducing their emissions, by green procurement, by making responsible investments.” And citizens can influence those changes.

“Social movements have changed the world before and can do so again – but there is no social movement without engaged citizens.”

“Again,” she concluded, “the solutions and opportunities are there; what is needed is the political leadership and courage to implement them.”

This year’s march is an enormous collaborative effort between local environmental NGOs, Paris 1.5 (an NGO focused on climate change action), the Vegetarian and Vegan associations, the Car-free Lifestyle Association, and Plastic Free September. Climate Change Week began with Plastic Free September on Saturday, Sept. 1, and will culminate in the Climate March next Saturday, Sept. 8. For a full schedule please see the Climate March’s Facebook page.