Environmental Impacts of Iceland and Icelanders

This article was originally published (in Icelandic) by Kjarninn.

Recently an environmental conference was held in Harpa, Iceland. There, many presentations and discussions about various aspects of climate change were introduced. Ranging from its impact on Iceland to how we can best deal with the problem. It was interesting to hear from Monika Araya from Costa Rica on how small countries can affect major international problems by coming up with and implementing big ideas.

Thus, small countries like Iceland and Costa Rica can serve as a model for other countries where it is harder to push bold plans through the system. Then, when Saga Rut and Bríet (Students at Hamrahlíð High School) talked about the lack of discussion and teaching for young people about climate issues, we surely took note.

Picture: Ice melting at the Icelandic coastline, Unsplash

Nevertheless, it was a discussion on Iceland's position on the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Convention that drew the most attention. Simply put, Icelanders are failing to fulfill their commitments in the Kyoto Protocol for the period 2013-2020 [1]. Following that, the Paris Agreement will apply for the years 2021 to 2030 so it is clear that there is a need for great action if we are to meet our commitments.

The situation regarding the Kyoto Protocol

Iceland's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol assumes a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 [2]. Today's situation is that the greenhouse gas emissions have grown by almost 30% compared with 1990’s levels [3], so it is clear that emissions need to be reduced fast in the coming two years.

Kristín Linda, CEO of the Environment Agency, put this in context by comparing a reduction in emissions by 2020 with total emissions from fisheries and road transport. She stated that the reduction needs to be greater than the total emissions from fisheries, or 75% of total road transport emissions. If the commitments are not met, emission quotas need to be purchased, but because of the extent to which we are from the target and how little time there is to spare, it is quite clear that significant funds need to be spent on such quotas.

The situation regarding the Paris Agreement

Iceland’s commitment (and contribution) to the Paris Agreement will probably be close to 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 2005. At the meeting in Harpa, Professor Brynhildur Davíðsdóttir presented the results of a recent report from the University of Iceland Institute of Economics.

This included scenarios of the future, where greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 are increased and estimated to be 33% - 79% higher than in 1990 (with carbon sequestration) [3]. The difference between the minimum value (33%) and the highest (79%) is mainly the increase in heavy industry in Iceland over this period. However, assuming that further heavy industry projects will be stopped, the plan is still considerably higher than the target in 2030. It will therefore be difficult to reduce the carbon footprint without technological developments in heavy industries.

The Eiffel tower of Paris, picture from Godreau from unsplash.

Considering that under the Paris Agreement, the heavy industry sector will be defined within the European trading system and not included in Iceland's emission accounting, the scenarios will change by 2030.

Without heavy industry, greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be lower, i.e. 18% - 12% lower than in 1990 (with carbon sequestration) according to the results of the report from the Institute of Economics [3]. Since Iceland's commitment has not been established, it is uncertain how much of the carbon sequestration can be considered as a counterweight.

But without sequestration, greenhouse gas emissions are projected to be 10% -16% higher than in 1990. It is clear that a lot has to happen in the coming 12 years to reach a 40% decrease. It is worth mentioning that the heavy industry should not be envied about not being a part of Iceland's accounting system because the obligations of parties to the European trading system are likely to be higher than for Iceland.

Icelanders' carbon footprint

But what is the carbon footprint of Icelanders? Iceland's emission accounting for both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement is mainly based on production and is measured by emissions occurring within the borders and jurisdictions of Iceland. Although we are unlikely to pass the Kyoto Protocol by 2020, greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production (2010 USD of GDP) have, however, decreased by 50% in 30 years, according to the World Bank [4].

Icelanders are doing well with regardsding to this, even better than most (Danes are doing better). But Americans, countries in the euro area and the OECD countries release up to twice as much greenhouse gas emissions for each manufactured unit compared to Iceland. Looking at Figure 1, this trend can be seen since 1990 [4].

Greenhouse gas emissions of per produced unit from various countries and continents..

Great success has been achieved in big areas of the world. However, poor countries in eastern Asia have not achieved such results. The picture above shows that the right y-axis of the image applies only to those countries. Emissions in that area, per produced dollar of GDP, is close to triple compared to Iceland, and double compared to the general value in the euro area.

If a company chooses to produce in that area, for economic or other reasons or other reasons, itthey can be assumed that the environmental impact of their production will be considerably higher than necessary. From 1990 to 2001 it can be seen that progress has been made in the poorer parts of East Asia, although in the period between 2001 and 2005, efficiencyutilization was reversed and remained the same in 2005 as in 1997 [4].

Emissions from a polluting industry. Jason Blackeye on Unsplash.

Through globalization, products that we consume here are a part of global value chains and lead to greenhouse gas emissions in many other countries. Greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere in one place affect the global environment, as they stay alive very long in the atmosphere for a long time and spread relatively quickly.

It is therefore worth investigating checking out how the consumption of Icelanders affects climate change in the world. In order to do this, "inter country input-output (ICIO)" tables or "multi-region input-output (MRIO)" tables are frequently sometimes used, containing cross-border data. The OECD calculates carbon footprint based on its production and consumption using ICIO tablets [5].

It is interesting to compare the carbon footprint of Icelanders from the country's production, on one hand, and then consumption over a period of time on the other hand. Then it gets very clear how the economic conditions in the country affect our carbon footprint.

For example, carbon footprint increased in terms of consumption in the years before the economic crisis in 2008, and then collapsed even faster during the collapse and in the following years. Using OECD datafigures, it is also possible to estimatefind out how much of the greenhouse gas emissions from consumption are domestically produced and how much is emitted from from production abroadare produced abroad. From 1995 to 2011, emissions from productioned abroad for consumption in Iceland was 60%.

The carbon footprint of Icelanders from production and consumption, along with the share of emissions produced domestically and abroad.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Cleaner Production by Jack Clarke, Jukka Heinonen and Juudit Ottelin about Iceland's carbon footprint, it states that, although Iceland has “clean” electricity and domestic house heating, its carbon footprint is similar to developed countries that can not boast of "clean" energy [6]. That article stated that the reason was mainly due to increased transportation and consumption of imported goods.

They also mention the fact that the majority of Icelanders' carbon footprint outside of Iceland is emitted in developing countries, producing the goods consumed and used by Icelanders [6]. The environmental impact of Iceland and Icelanders is therefore high and multifarious, but the ways to reduce it are also many and interesting. These ways must be implemented quickly and effectively so we can continue to call ourselves an environmentally friendly country and it would not harm to be truly "green".


[1] Ríkisútvarpið; http://www.ruv.is/frett/island-thurfi-ad-kaupa-losunarheimildir

[2] United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change; http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/doha_amendment/items/7362.php

[3 Hagfræðistofnun. Ísland og loftslagsmál. Skýrsla nr. C17:01

[4] World Bank. World Development Indicators url: https://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/world-development-indicators

[5] OECD inter country input-output tables (2016 edition); oe.cd/icio

[6] Clarke, J., Heinonen, J., & Ottelin, J. (2017). Emissions in a decarbonised economy? Global lessons from a carbon footprint analysis of Iceland. Journal of Cleaner Production, 166, 1175-1186.