Interview with Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson

September 21, 2021

In a world where government ministers are often in roles for which they have little experience or qualification—and even less passion—Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson is a breath of fresh air. Iceland’s Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources had an interest in the environment and a passion for its protection from the start. He followed a BSc in Biology from the University of Iceland with a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Yale University as part of the Fulbright Foreign Student programme. Afterwards, while serving as guest lecturer at the University of Iceland, the Agricultural University of Iceland, and the University Centre of the Westfjords, he showed he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk—by also starting work as a park ranger in Þingvellir National Park and Vatnajökull National Park. Prior to that, he worked at the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland.


Guðmundur Ingi co-founded the Icelandic Society for Environmental Scientists and served as the society´s first president from 2007 to 2010. He then went on to become the CEO of Landvernd, the Iceland Environment Association, from 2011 to 2017 and was also Chair of the Fulbright Alumni Association in Iceland in 2017.


He became Iceland’s Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources in November 2017. Guðmundur Ingi firmly believes that international cooperation and the conservation of biodiversity are essential to fight climate change. He found time in his hectic schedule to talk to us about European collaboration and Iceland’s progress towards becoming one of the first carbon neutral countries in Europe.


You've previously gone on record to say that "in two centuries, there might be almost no ice left in Iceland". What are your main priorities in terms of diverting this catastrophe and do you believe that collective European climate action can support these objectives?


We are indeed seeing less ice in Iceland. Our glaciers have lost perhaps 15% of their volume since the late 19th Century. We have lost over 50 small glaciers since 2000. Our scientists also warn about increased chances of high precipitation events and landslides due to climate change. We are already seeing this. Adaptation is part of our response. We have stepped up adaptation efforts and are now working on our first comprehensive climate adaptation strategy. But mitigation must be our main emphasis. We can not halt climate change on the spot but we can still avert a major global catastrophe by cutting emissions.


Iceland‘s main emphasis in climate mitigation is to phase out fossil fuels and to employ nature-based solutions to halt and reverse carbon loss from soil and vegetation. As for fossil fuels, we are well on our way. Renewable energy accounts for almost 100% of heating and electricity production. The challenges are mobile sources: cars, ships and planes. We have greatly increased support for electrical vehicles in recent years, with incentives for car buyers and support for infrastructure. Nature-based solutions have also been given a big boost in the last couple of years.


Of course, Iceland can not fix the problem by itself. Climate change is a global challenge that requires a global response and coordination. Iceland takes part in the European climate regime, so our efforts are comparable and in cooperation with EU countries and Norway. We have recently upgraded our ambition so as to take part in a collective effort to reach 55 per cent emissions cuts by 2030. Europe needs to show the way – that we can cut emissions drastically while maintaining high standards of living. Iceland also wants to show an example to the world: Our transformation towards clean energy has increased living standards, and we want to continue to get greener and better at the same time.


Your Government's ambitious Climate Action Plan for 2018-2030 is intended to boost the national effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2040. Three years into this Action Plan, how confident are you that Iceland could indeed become the very first country in Europe to achieve carbon neutral status?


The announcement by the current government to become carbon neutral by 2040 was bold, but is clearly achievable, in my mind.


We need twofold action to reach carbon neutrality: To cut emissions and to enhance carbon uptake from the atmosphere. I am confident that we can achieve good results in both, but of course that will need sustained effort and focus.


As for cutting emissions, we are already seeing some good results. I have called the move towards electric cars our third clean energy revolution; after electricity and house heating, we are now transforming road transport. Government support for clean cars is clearly showing results: Iceland is now in second place worldwide in the share of electric cars in new car registrations, only after Norway. We are also increasing support for public transportation, bicycling and pedestrianism. We need fewer cars, but the cars we will have must be clean. Of course, we need efforts in all sectors – we have 48 actions in our plan, which cover a wide field.


As for carbon uptake, I think few countries have more opportunities than Iceland. We have a long history of reversing centuries of soil erosion, by planting trees and re-greening barren and degraded lands. More recently we have taken steps to restore drained wetlands. We need better science and measurements to account for the climate benefits of such actions, but there is no doubt that they are substantial. Such nature-based solutions are in my view of primary importance in Iceland and globally.


I must also mention here Carbfix, a method developed by Icelandic scientists, that takes carbon dioxide from geothermal steam and pumps it underground, where it transforms into minerals in porous basaltic rock. It may sound odd, turning air into rock, but it works. We want to expand this method; just this summer I signed a memorandum of understanding with Switzerland on cooperation in further developing this method. So, we have a lot of exciting things going on.


We often focus on cost, but we must also focus on the opportunities of climate mitigation – for innovation, health and employment, in addition to saving the planet.

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