Iceland is taking actions to address climate change

I am reasonably optimistic that action to limit climate change can be taken in time. While it is my nature to be optimistic (otherwise I would not have survived in the business I am in for such a long time), I believe my optimism stems from more than this. I have seen a big change take place in the global debate and in my own country. Iceland is at the forefront in seven areas that we believe are of importance not only to us, but also to others. By showing what can be done in a very short time, indeed, in only one lifetime, imagine what we can do if we pool our resources.

Many say that Iceland is a special case, that it is blessed with volcanoes and geysers and so on — this is, of course, correct, as the Almighty was very generous when he created Iceland. I sometimes say that when we read the opening account in the book of Genesis about how the Almighty created the Earth in six days and then decided to rest because the work was finished, that account is not entirely accurate because when it came to the creation of Iceland, the Almighty became so fascinated by the possibilities that the creation has continued in my country up to the present day, with new volcanoes and lava fields and earthquakes, and other examples of continuing activities.

This still-active environment has affected the mindset of our people; geological creativity and the natural world have had an impact on our souls, and we have realized, perhaps because we grow up with this sense from early childhood, that we are not the masters of the universe, that there are forces stronger than ourselves, and, despite all the achievements and progress of science, technology and business, that the forces that dominate the Earth are still much stronger than our capabilities. That is why this issue is so important, and our seven efforts are so varied and intense. They are:

1. Geothermal Energy. The first applications of geothermal energy involved heating houses and, since then, geothermal energy has developed into a major resource. We are now building geothermal power stations that will produce electricity for large aluminum smelters, and these will be the first aluminum smelters in the world that will be driven by electricity from geothermal resources. We are now receiving a stream of visits from all kinds of corporations in different fields, corporations that want to come to Iceland to build stations or factories there because they want to be able to tell their customers and clients that they produce goods using clean energy. It is not only the aluminum companies that are coming. There is also a group interested in building a research and development center that is powered by clean energy. I am sure that this type of experience is also happening in other parts of the world.

2. Hydroelectric Power. The second element is the development of hydroelectric power, including building large hydro dams. We are now producing almost 85 per cent of our electricity in this way.

3. Hydrogen for transportation. With heating and electricity now provided by renewables, the remaining challenge is transitioning to renewable fuels for transportation and shipping. In cooperation with Daimler-Chrysler, Shell and others, we initiated a hydrogen project a few years ago. The first public hydrogen station in Iceland has now opened, and a few buses and private cars are taking part in the early testing; indeed, I had the distinction of being the first person in Iceland to break the speed limit by driving a hydrogen car. This early success, coming within a decade of starting the project, has overcome early skepticism about hydrogen fuel. And Iceland is an ideal test case for determining how a nation and a community can transition to hydrogen-powered transportation. The results have been very positive — so positive that Reykjavik had to issue certificates to foreign tourists who wanted to come and ride on their hydrogen buses. So, hydrogen-fuelled vehicles have become not only an interesting element in our traffic system, but also a strong tourist attraction, which is yet another good sign of how mindsets are changing.

4. Carbon sequestration. In order to share in the global effort to get rid of CO2, we have begun a cooperative effort involving the Reykjavik Energy Company and three universities to carry out sequestration experiments in the next three years at the new geothermal construction site close to Reykjavik. The experiment will evaluate the potential for taking CO2 from the atmosphere and pumping it down into the basalt layers. If the experiment succeeds, it will represent a very important step. We have already entered into preliminary discussions with the government of India to undertake a second experiment with them in their country if the Icelandic experiment looks promising in two years time. This could lead, within five or six years, to an operating system in India. In addition, our experiment will be linked to an effort to take some of the exhaust stream from the aluminum smelters and pump it down into the ground. Working with the global scientific community, we are thus seeking to develop a new approach to the dramatic challenge that mankind faces in the coming years.

5. International participation and leadership. Our chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and the publication of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment was one important step, but we are doing more. For example, the Global Roundtable on Climate Change, which was created by Jeff Sachs and others a few years ago and is based in New York, held its only meeting outside that region in Iceland earlier this year, and we are trying to be even more active. We see international participation and leadership as our obligation and our duty, even though it is quite a challenge for a small country. With the end of the cold war, the importance of nations is not measured in military strength or financial power; the importance of nations is measured in what we can contribute to the solutions of some of the challenges that face people all over the world, and what we can offer in terms of ideas. In these areas, my small nation, and other small nations, can indeed play important parts.

6. Financing of clean energy solutions. Our financial community, led by the Glitnir Bank, has decided to make global financing of clean energy solutions one of its major portfolios (and, if the banks have grabbed onto the need for renewable energy, we have indeed moved a long way). It is a confirmation of their serious intent that the leaders of that effort within the banks are actively participating in events around the world. I think their efforts are also sending the message to other financial institutions in different parts of the world that, if the banks have concluded that clean energy is good business, they better also face up to the climate change challenge.

7. Creating partnerships and cooperation with other countries. Iceland has now entered into partnerships on firm projects with countries such as China, India, Russia and many European countries, and even with the State of California. We are in the process of expanding our efforts into Indonesia and Africa, because many countries in eastern Africa have huge geothermal potential, and it could be a very interesting aspect of the evolution of Africa and the need to develop Africa to combine economic development there with the use of geothermal and clean energy resources. The Geothermal Department of the United Nations University has been based in Iceland for 25 years, and we have educated over 300 experts from different parts of the world. These partnerships that we have now created and are in the process of creating in almost every part of the world are, I believe, a confirmation that governments, regional authorities and others have woken up to the fact that there is the possibility of creating renewable energy resources where people were not aware of them before.

Of course, all of these activities will never be the solution to the problem or the road we can travel to fully combat climate change, but I believe they can be a very important part of the solution. Our efforts are also a confirmation that a country that 60 years ago had its capital covered with coal smoke and a large part of its harbor taken up by the coal depot can, in the lifetime of one generation, become a global leader in the field of renewable energy, creating partnerships with countries as different as Russia and the US, India and China, and many others. If we can do it in my small country, the potential for others with greater resources is enormous.

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