Environmental Protection

Ask IR

Environmental Protection

From a recent protest outside Alþingi. Photo: Páll Stefánsson

Q: How do you protect the environment against corporate interests in Iceland?

Claudia, United States


A: Environmental protection is a hot-button issue in Iceland at the moment.

While Iceland made it onto the New York Times’ list of 52 Places to Visit in 2014, the listing was accompanied by an ominous warning to make the journey soon “before it’s too late,” and concluded with the statement: “if you ever want to see Iceland in all of its famously raw natural beauty, go now.”

The NYT attributed their gloomy predictions to the current administration’s lack of commitment to preserving the highlands. This includes the parliamentary economy committee’s submission of a bill last November which would change the status of eight proposed hydropower plants from pending to approved for utilization, in defiance of a framework program regarding areas of potential energy production that was passed by parliament in 2013. Consequently the opposition accused the majority of disrupting a decades’ long consensus on the issue and accused them of going about the bill’s proposal in a dishonest and calculated way in order to avoid scrutiny—particularly in light of the week long period allotted for comments, as opposed to the twelve weeks given when the framework plan was proposed. Hundreds gathered at Austurvöllur in front of Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament, to protest the decision. The bill has yet to be voted on.

An addition of further hydropower plants is predicated on the expectation of a parallel increase in aluminum smelters that will promote economic growth at a low cost to the environment. The argument that utilizing Icelandic hydropower for aluminum smelting adds to global environmental sustainability has, however, been criticized for failing to account for the immense distance raw materials must be transported, and resulting pollution.

Some farmers have also voiced concerns over fluoride pollution from aluminum smelters, citing an increase in health problems among live-stock, although such claims have been disputed by Icelandic authorities, Al Jazeera reported last year.

Initiatives for sustainable tourism that utilize the country’s natural resources have been touted as an alternative to expanding hydropower production. An example is 2011 recipient of the LOCUS Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, Vatnavinir, (Friends of Water), a company that “develops concepts for geothermal wellness centers across [Iceland]” with the intention of giving “fresh impetus to collaborative local initiatives for future economic regeneration.”

Many prominent artists and celebrities, Icelandic and international, have joined NGOs in raising funds and awareness for environmental protection. This past April the Icelandic Environment Association (Landvernd), the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (Náttúruverndarsamtök Íslands) and the Iceland Touring Association (Ferðafélag Íslands), among others, organized Paradise Lost? a colloquium on the importance of protecting the Icelandic highlands. Notable Icelandic environmentalists such as Andri Snær Magnason, writer of award-winning bestseller Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation (Draumalandið), spoke, and Mammút, AmabADamA and other musicians, performed.

Last year these same NGOs, together with American director Darren Aronofsky, Björk, and the organizers of Iceland Airwaves, raised ISK 35 million (USD 310,000, EUR 225,650) through a concert entitled Stopp - Lets Protect the Park, featuring Björk, Patti Smith, Of Monsters and Men, Lykke Li, Samaris, Retro Stefson, Mammút and Highlands. The concert coincided with the release of Aronofsky’s film Noah, filmed largely in Iceland.