REYKJAVIK – Climate change is top of the agenda when voters in Iceland head to the polls for general elections on Saturday, following an exceptionally warm summer and an election campaign defined by a wide-reaching debate on global warming.
All nine parties running for seats at the North Atlantic island nation’s Parliament, or Althing, acknowledge global warming as a force of change in a sub-Arctic landscape.
But politicians disagree on whether Iceland should take more urgent action to help curb climate change, or capitalize on it as an opportunity for economic growth — as the melting of glaciers and warmer weather offer immediate gains for Iceland’s key industries.
The current government is a coalition of three parties spanning the political spectrum from left to center-right and led by Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir of the Left Green Party. It was formed in 2017 after years of political instability.
Jakobsdottir remains a popular prime minister, but polls suggest her party could face a poor outcome, ending the ongoing coalition.
Still, pollsters say the number of undecided voters has never been higher this close to election day. And the number of parties likely to share the Althing’s 63 seats has also never been higher — the nine parties could all get in.
Polls show strong support for left-leaning parties largely campaigning on a promise to cut carbon emissions by more than what Iceland is committed to under the Paris Climate Agreement. Under their pledges, Iceland would reach carbon neutrality by 2040, a decade ahead of most other European nations.
Minister of Environment Gudmundur Gudbrandsson told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Iceland could lead the way in “bold and ambitious” climate policies precisely due to its size.
“Small is good for change,” he said, highlighting how Iceland is making the shift to electric vehicles faster than any other country except Norway.
Iceland has an outsized energy supply for its tiny population of just 360,000 people, due to massive hydroelectric power plants built to power aluminum smelters and other energy-intensive industries.
Of the nine running parties, three have pledged to stop the building of new energy plants that would expand energy-intensive industries, including cryptocurrency “mines” rapidly plugging into the grid for the past years.
But others disagree.
Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, leader of the center-right Midflokkurinn, backs more energy-intense industries in Iceland because there they use renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
“If an aluminum plant moves from Iceland to China its greenhouse gas emissions increase nearly ten-fold,” Gunnlaugsson said at the launch of his campaign in August. “More production in Iceland is good for the planet and will at the same time improve our standards of living.”
Some plans have never been heard before on Iceland’s campaign trail. The upstart Socialist Party is going to give “everyone who can and wants” a job planting trees. The Pirate Party wants to support a plant-based diet among the population. And the center-right Vidreisn is going to declare a state of climate emergency if they get to govern.
Many parties, left and right, also vow to change government subsidies to farmers for producing more vegetables and less meat. Farmers who want to reduce their livestock can already make up for the financial loss by planting trees.
Hermann Gunnarsson, a barley farmer in Eyja Fjord, said warmer temperatures are an opportunity to expand local production. “The climate coin has two sides,” he said. “But the politicians who talk the most about climate change are afraid to speak about the benefits, too.”
This year’s harvest, he said, has been the best on record. If the trend for warmer summers continues, the barley he now grows to feed his livestock could be sold to brewers and bakers for a premium price.
Climate change is not the only issue on voters’ minds — improving the national healthcare system after the pandemic ranks high, too — but it is the most discussed topic.
That is partly because the country has continued to see extreme weather by local standards.
This summer, from June to August, Iceland clocked 59 days of temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit.) The capital Reykjavík saw forest fires on its outskirts. Mudslides have increased in recent years due to heavy rains.
Rising temperatures have left a dramatically changed landscape in Iceland: in the past 20 years the island’s glacial cover has decreased by 300 square miles (800 sq.km.), or roughly the size of New York City, according to a report by the Icelandic Met Office earlier this year.
That has been a boon for Iceland’s hydroelectric dams powered by glacial rivers. Glacial melting is expected to oversaturate watersheds in the next decades and increase the capacity of hydro-dams. Landsvirkjun, the state-owned national energy company, has reported about 8 percent capacity growth due to increased glacial melting, expected to peak around 2050.
Politicians disagree on whether to use the country’s energy abundance for economic growth or green solutions in the future.
Climate activist Tinna Hallgrimsdottir said the short-term benefits of climate change had “no meaning for an unsustainable future.”
She leads The Icelandic Youth Environmentalist Association which undertook an “climate audit” of the campaigning parties and ranked them based on effectiveness.
“Fancy promises are not enough,” she said. “We had to see a real plan for action.”