Guest blog post on behalf of Grugg and Changemaker-Iceland,

Nína M. Saviolidi

Hrönn G. Guðmundsdóttir


On Friday October 16th, climate activists were present at the opening of the Arctic Circle conference at Harpa in Reykjavík, Iceland.

They handed out small origami dragons and letters of encouragement to guests who are here to talk about matters related to the Arctic, urging them do their best to curb greenhouse gas emissions to prevent further damage to the area and the planet. They also reminded the attendants that the Government of Iceland‘s plans of exploration and drilling for oil in the Dreki area (so aptly named the Dragon area in Icelandic) are incompatible with Iceland‘s pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions. However, a conference staff member demanded that the three activists inside Harpa‘s lobby stay outside as they did not have “express permission“ to stand inside and interact with conference attendants.

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At the UN leaders’ climate summit in New York last year, our Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson said that “Iceland is committed to becoming an entirely fossil fuel free economy”. Upon his return to Iceland he was questioned about how exactly the newly issued permits for oil and gas exploration and drilling in the so-called Dreki (Dragon) area can be reconciled with that pledge. PM Gunnlaugsson did not seem to see the paradox in his own words and said he hoped we would find oil and gas in the area. Such a glaring contradiction of words versus actions is emblematic of the way Icelandic politicians conduct our affairs in our names. To the world we project an image of the green utopia while filling our coffers with unsuspecting “eco-tourist” money capitalizing on the words “pure”, “natural”, “unspoiled” nature, green energy, water, and what have you. At home the truth reels its ugly head with more industrial expansion planned (already responsible for more than 42 % of Iceland’s greenhouse gas emissions), oil exploration and dreams about arctic shipping channels opening up.

A year later and with the Paris summit looming, Iceland still has no concrete plans on how it is going to achieve a “40% reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030,” another apparently empty promise that our Prime Minister delivered at the UN Sustainable Development summit. Good cheer back home for that pledge was short-lived since, as it turned out, what PM Gunnlaugsson really meant to say at the summit was that Iceland would participate jointly in a European Union initiative to cut emissions by 40% by 2030 and any specific figures for Iceland’s “fair share” had yet to be decided. If the world was truly following Icelandic news this could have been embarrassing. Either that, or politicians can say what they like at international meetings sure in the knowledge that few will scrutinize their words and put two and two together.

And yet, the paradox of oil and gas drilling in the melting Arctic which is the direct result of fossil fuel combustion seems to escape many politicians not just in Iceland but around the world. In Iceland we are exposed to the “Arctic opportunities” discourse every year when the Arctic Circle conference (hosted in Iceland for the third year now) gets into the local news. Leave it to politicians and private interests to put a positive spin on the biggest disaster in the history of humankind. The Arctic could be summer ice free by 2020 wreaking havoc with our already unstable climate and yet still we dream of all the oil and gas resources locked in the ice. The real opportunities for Iceland (and for the whole world really) lie in the immediate and radical reduction of emissions. Iceland’s lucrative fisheries are already threatened by ocean acidification and warming waters and could be further impacted by oil spills from either drilling or increased transportation through our waters.

This is not to say that the conference itself is not a laudable attempt to diplomatically solve disputes that are likely to arise in the race for valuable resources in the Arctic. When our activists gathered outside the Harpa conference center early last Friday morning they mainly wanted to draw attention to the inherent paradox in Iceland’s plans for oil and gas production in the Dragon area. Their banner read “Let us not wake sleeping dragons” and they handed out dragon-shaped origami inscribed with the most severe climate change impacts. Although the campaign targeted that single oil and gas exploration and drilling project, local appeals like this one are allied with all campaigns which demand that fossil fuels be kept in the ground and all new (and mostly risky) projects be halted altogether. As President of France, François Hollande, said in his keynote speech at the Arctic Circle conference: “Economic progress cannot be based on environmental disaster”.

Iceland may be a small country but that can be an advantage when big policy change needs to be implemented and whole systems overhauled. And we have done it before when we decided to harness geothermal power to heat our homes instead of relying on imported coal. We could serve as a concrete example of what can be done with enough political courage and true leadership. If we are truly serious about mitigation then any oil/gas that might be found is essentially unburnable carbon. In many ways it is just simple accounting: do we want to spend our credit on glittering black gold or do we want a safe future by investing in real climate solutions such as diversifying and electrifying our transport sector? Unfortunately, our government, in addition to taking its promises lightly, is also very short-sighted.

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