Iceland’s Ecological Footprint (ZR)


zoenylargeThat’s right; Iceland has the world’s largest ecological footprint. The country you thought was so green, bubbling with renewable energy, and its people so close to nature, is leaving a larger than most mark on the planet.

This is according to research conducted by environmental scientist and University of Iceland graduate Sigurður Eyberg Jóhannesson as part of his graduate thesis.

The ecological footprint is a way of measuring human pressure on the planet and its resources. It measures how much land and water area in hectares an individual and population requires to produce what it consumes and to absorb its carbon dioxide emissions.

Sigurður researched the consumption habits of Icelanders, including his own. Shocked to learn that his ecological footprint was greater than ten hectares—to live sustainably, an estimated footprint of 2.1 hectares is required—he embarked on a quest to reduce his impact on the environment and try to live within the two hectare limit.

Sigurður, who published his research in 2010 and is in the final stages of production of a documentary on the subject, kicked off the University of Iceland’s annual Green Day’s series of events held earlier this week with a lecture on his findings.

He is however quick to point out the weaknesses in the footprint methodology and warns against using it as a sole measure of sustainability, but rather suggests using it along with other indicators. The current methodology does not, for example, properly account for Iceland’s unique situation when it comes to the fishing industry and renewable energy production.

The fact that most products consumed in Iceland are also manufactured abroad, in most cases with the use of non-renewable energy, and then transported to the country, also needs to be factored in.

The evidence points, nonetheless, to Icelanders being the world’s biggest consumers with an average footprint of up to 12.7 hectares. In comparison, Saudi Arabia has a footprint of 9.46 hectares per person, the United States 9.42, and many developing countries have an average footprint well within the sustainable 2.1 hectares. And the message is clear: current levels of global consumption cannot be sustained; we would require another half a planet Earth to meet such demands for the planet’s resources. What’s more, if we all consumed as the average Icelander, we would need six planet Earths. Either way, many of us are living well beyond our means.

With Fermingar, or Confirmation, a longstanding coming of age tradition for 14-year olds in Iceland, fast approaching, the newspapers are full of advertisements with gift ideas—everything including iPads, flight vouchers, hairdryers, beds, and lots and lots of clothes. But, we may ask ourselves: how many of those electrical appliances, dresses and pairs of sneakers do we really need?

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t buy gifts for our teenage friends and relatives, or that it’s time to wallow in despair. Icelanders have come a long way in recent years too, Sigurður points out. They have taken to recycling reasonably well and there is an increased level of awareness on environmental issues among the population—but it’s high time for these actions to be stepped up.

Zoë Robert – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.