04 Oct Novel solutions to climate change
Prior to becoming Iceland’s Minister of the Environment, Energy and Climate in 2021, Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson was Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2017- 2021 and Minister of Health and Social Security from 2007 to 2009. In the following interview, he describes why the country has become a green pioneer.
Do you see your current role as a coherent continuation of your previous ministerial responsibilities?
Iceland needs to be sustainable when it comes to the environment, but also we need to ensure our economic and social sustainability. Sustainability has been central in all of my roles — when I was Minister for Foreign Affairs, for example, I spoke a lot internationally about sustainability, sustainable energy, the environment and the climate. Today I have a different job, but it’s still always about sustainability, which is the key to success. It’s the most important issue in Icelandic politics and the environment is Iceland’s greatest interest.
Iceland has an enviable 100%-green electricity mix, 30% of which comes from geothermal plants and the rest from hydroelectric power. In addition, 90% of houses are heated with geothermal energy and the other 10% with sustainable electricity.
Last year, the country took another step toward its climate-change goals with the inauguration of Carbfix, the world’s largest carbon-capture facility. How did the country become a pioneer in sustainable energy technologies?
Because the global emphasis has been on solar and wind power, geothermal energy has gone under the radar. In reality, it can be utilized in many more parts of the world than people realize — it doesn’t need to be as warm as the geothermal heat is in Iceland — and the technologies developed in Iceland are now being used in numerous other countries, including in Central Europe and China that have comparatively lower amounts of geothermal energy that we are helping them put to good use.
Looking back more than 100 years ago, you might think it was obvious that Iceland should start using its abundant geothermal energy to heat up houses and make electricity. But it was a political struggle: should we stick to gas and coal, or should we do something that had never been done before anywhere in the world?
To solve that struggle, we needed to find inventive ways to harvest the geothermal energy and we succeeded. The same thing is true as we face current climate challenges that require new innovations to address them. With the Carbfix project, we are turning carbon dioxide into rock. It is something that we are proud of, it is working and we see it as a big part of the global solution when it comes to climate change.
How important is Iceland’s sustainable electricity mix for the stability of its economy?
You cannot underestimate how important it is. If we hadn’t gone through our hydropower and geothermal energy transitions, we would have much more pollution in our cities and municipalities, we would not be as competitive and we would have had major inflation during the current global energy crisis.
Then again, we would have been in an even better situation if Iceland had finished its energy transition: if every car was electric and we had e-fuels for our fishing vessels and our flights. That’s where we are going and nobody in the country would regret these decisions.
However, we need to balance this with ensuring the sustainability of our natural environment. We love our natural spaces and a lot of other people come here to enjoy them too. If we don’t keep a careful eye on, for instance, our forests, we could impact bird life and other parts of the extremely delicate natural ecosystems of Iceland and the Arctic.
Last November you appointed the renowned Thor Sigfússon as chair of a new committee tasked with presenting proposals for implementing a circular economy in the country. Sigfússon is best known as the founder of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, a startup and innovation hub that is driving the uptake of sustainable and zero-waste technologies in the fishing industry. Why did you select Sigfússon for your committee?
I appointed him because Iceland can do a lot better when it comes to the circular economy, although fisheries is an area where we have made good progress. Around the world, about 50% of the fish caught is used. In Iceland, however, we use almost 100% and what’s so fascinating is that some of the parts we used to throw away are now more expensive than the fish fillets we kept.
Sigfússon’s job on the committee is to try to use the same ideology to create a circular economy in other Icelandic sectors. To do this, we need new innovations, because things that have been successful in other nations have usually been in cities with large populations. Iceland, on the other hand, has relatively few people in a big country. That means, for example, we have less waste and you need to travel long distances to collect that waste. So we need to find new ways to use it that are economically beneficial for us.
When we have achieved that, our solutions could also be used in other parts of the Arctic, which is a huge part of the globe where about 4 million people live in small municipalities, and this is something we are putting great emphasis on. Thor has done fantastic work with the Ocean Cluster and I know that he and his team will do a great job when it comes to other areas of the circular economy as well.
How crucial is cooperation with the US to Iceland?
I put great emphasis on both public and private bilateral cooperation between Iceland and the US when I was Minister for Foreign Affairs and I’m very pleased that this bore fruit. It’s definitely in the interest of both nations, and the world as a whole, for us to work closely on global challenges such as climate change, security and the sustainability of the Arctic.
Historically, there have been very strong relations between our two countries and Iceland is a good place to do business for many reasons. For instance, it’s simple to get things done, as everyone is just a phone call away, and we have amassed expertise in important areas, such as geothermal energy and carbon capture, that can definitely be of use in the US.