Arni Finnsson of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association answers questions
How badly does hydroelectric power affect the environment? I thought it was a good alternative to burning fossil fuels for energy. — Corey Bonasso, Morgantown, W.Va.
In Iceland, valleys or lower-lying areas in the highlands, which the power industry would like to use for reservoirs, are usually the most vegetated and biologically rich.
As an example, the Karahnjukar hydropower plant will severely impact one of the largest wilderness areas remaining in Western Europe due to the construction of a number of dams, channels, diversions, reservoirs, and roads. In total, some 380 square miles in the central highlands north of the Vatnajökull Glacier will be directly affected, although the impact area is much larger. The project would irreparably damage a rare oasis of highland vegetation, characterized by diverse plant communities (covering more than 200 square miles), and geological formations and landscapes, some of which are rare on a world scale. It would dam the glacial river Joekulsa a Bru, and it would also involve the damming and diversion of the large glacial river Jökulsá in Fljótsdalur Valley and about a dozen other smaller, clear-water rivers. As a result of habitat destruction and drowning in murky reservoirs, many species in affected rivers, lakes, and wetlands would be impoverished or disappear altogether. The largest reservoir would be 22 square miles in size with a water-level fluctuation of up to 246 feet.
I recently returned from a visit to Iceland. I found both the urban and undeveloped places quite striking, unique, and beautiful. I heard from many Icelanders that currently an unprecedented amount of investment in capital projects is occurring in and around Reykjavik. Does Iceland have any growth-management laws or policies that guide where, when, and how development occurs? — Katie Lichtenstein, Seattle, Wash.
We do have laws on nature conservation and environmental impact assessment (i.e., how to go about development). Yet, these laws do not count when large development projects are at stake.
For example, the environmental impact report (by the developer) for the Karahnjukar power plant was rejected by the Planning Agency of Iceland. However, the developer (the National Power Corporation) appealed the decision, and according to the law on environmental impact assessment, the environment minister is to rule on such appeals. The environment minister, though, belongs to the government, and the government was determined to push the project all the way through the decision-making process. No surprise, the environment minister overruled her own Planning Agency and agreed to the Karahnjukar power project with minor changes.
Has Iceland shown signs of global warming, and what are the theories regarding the future of Iceland if global warming is ignored? — Jeff Ball, Sacramento, Calif.
Yes, there are signs. Glaciers are retreating. Given the present rate of change, they will disappear in 200 to 300 years.
How should we deal with the problem of climate change? Where do you think our efforts are best directed — toward reducing our emissions here in the West, or by influencing the developing world not to increase their emissions in their future development? — Kalle H., Oslo, Norway
No nation can walk alone. We need an international, legally binding structure such as the Kyoto Protocol, which must be strengthened considerably, in order to solve the problem. It is complex and it is difficult, but it must be done.
Keep in mind that developing countries will suffer most from global warming. Due to historical and current greenhouse-gas emissions, and the fact that emissions cannot be reduced to zero overnight, we know we are already committed to future warming and sea-level rise. This will cause increased risk of disease, hunger, water shortage, and coastal flooding for somewhere between tens of millions and some billions of people depending on the impact area and the rate and extent of the warming. Major adaptation efforts will be required to minimize the adverse consequences related to health, food security, water supply, storms, and sea-level rise.
Everything humanly possible must be done to limit global warming increases to less than 3 degrees Fahrenheit (above preindustrial times), and then the warming should be reduced as fast as possible from this peak.
Developing countries must play a role, and their economies must be set on a decarbonization track that would drive the rapid introduction of clean technologies that can reduce emissions and meet sustainable development objectives in developing countries. The industrialized countries would provide resources and technology to drive much of this track.
In principle, we all have equal access to the atmospheric commons. This implies that those who have already contributed to the climate-change problem substantially need to create the space for others to emit more in the future.
In the long run, per capita emissions for individual countries should allow for convergence of per capita emissions. Our generation should not pass to future generations unfair burdens. Delaying action on climate change now would transfer large costs to future generations. The principle of historical responsibility is an important element in determining who should act and when.
Why do you think many Americans are numb to the threat of global warming and other related environmental issues? Do Icelanders react the same way? And is the study of global warming and sustainable development part of the curriculum in schools in Iceland? — Louise Fry, New York, N.Y.
I don’t think Americans are numb to the threat of global warming. I think the White House is. Likewise Texaco is. However, a number of states and cities in America are taking action on climate change. The U.S., being such a large emitter on the global scale, needs a much greater awareness, stronger environmental NGOs, and stronger citizen action to call the federal government and business to the task. We can’t wait because within a decade or so, it will be too late.
In Iceland, we do have different opinions. Recent public-opinion surveys carried out for Iceland Nature Conservation Association show that people are pro-conservation and do feel concerned about climate change.
And no, global warming isn’t part of the curriculum in Iceland. However, there has been progress. Recently, Reykjavik City Council decided to set up a project to assist teachers in the city to work with pupils in natural areas, thus teaching them about nature. How much global warming will come into it I don’t know, but single teachers will have some freedom as to how they form the curriculum.
What, if anything, did your time at Greenpeace teach you about working as an environmental activist? How do you feel about the organization’s suggested boycott of Iceland due to the country’s whaling policies? — Name not provided
Belonging to an organization like Greenpeace is a great asset for anyone who cares for the environment. I worked with a number of highly committed and competent people, and I learned a lot. Yet, also in Greenpeace, it is your responsibility to act. Even in a small NGO like INCA, you can have an influence.
I’m not aware of any Greenpeace plans to boycott Iceland. On the contrary, Greenpeace has repeatedly stated in Iceland that it has no such plans. Iceland did catch 25 minke whales last year for “scientific” purposes. In 2003, 36 minkes out of a quota of 38 were caught. The original plan was to catch 200 minkes during these two years as well as 200 fin whales and 100 sei whales. There is no export market for these products, and the market in Iceland hardly exists. Large chunks of whale meat are being stored in freezers as there is no one to buy it. In a sense, one could say that Icelanders are boycotting whale meat.
On the other hand, whale watching has developed rapidly in Iceland during the last 10 years or so. The number of tourists going on whale-watching trips last year was 81,600. Iceland has become the whale-watching center of the North Atlantic.
Are there environmental effects associated with Iceland’s being such a popular tourism destination? Are there things tourists to Iceland can do in alliance with INCA? — Judith Niemi, St. Paul, Minn.
There are a number of problems. The biggest one is that protected areas get overcrowded during the high season, and there are not enough resources put toward staffing and conservation measures. INCA has called for human-made structures to be in the outskirts of the highlands and other wilderness areas. Also, we are opposed to building roads in the highlands. Then there is off-road driving, but that problem applies just as much to Icelanders as foreign tourists.
INCA has not had a tourism project of any kind, but people have called us for information, and I have given lectures to groups coming to Iceland organized by the Sierra Club.
You say Iceland should take a position as a leading nation, calling for international action on issues like climate change. How do you feel Iceland is faring so far in that capacity? — Name not provided
First, let me say that Iceland played a leading role in calling for international action on persistent organic pollutants — substances like DDT, PCBs, and 10 other toxic substances. Last year, the Stockholm Convention, as it is called, became international law.
In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when Iceland was in the forefront of shaping the new United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, a fundamental change in international law on the oceans, Iceland took action. We got changes there; now we need changes in the treatment of industry.
Iceland needs to ally itself with European states, small island states, and the environmental NGOs calling for strong international action to curb emissions of greenhouse gases.
What would you recommend visitors to Iceland do if they have only seven days to explore the country? — Name not provided
I would recommend you visit one part of the country. For example, the Breidafjoerdur area and the West Fjords.
What’s the cuisine like in Iceland? — Name not provided
On a good summer’s day, we would put lamb meat on the barbecue, but we have to import the wine.
What does puffin taste like? — Bess Floozie, Christchurch, New Zealand
I haven’t tasted one since 1970, when I visited relatives at Aedey Island in northwest Iceland. It was very tasty.