I just spent a week in Iceland and was particularly impressed with the Iceland sustainability ethic.
When I planned our family trip to Iceland, I’d been drawn to the stunning landscape and chance to see the northern lights. What I didn’t realize was that Iceland possesses a culture of sustainability that’s embedded in many aspects of Icelandic life. How do they do it, I wondered, as we traveled through this beautiful country; and is it possible to replicate at home?
What is the Iceland Sustainability Model?
An “Iceland Sustainability Model” is a bit of a misnomer. “Model” implies a conscious plan, but in Iceland, it’s clear that sustainability is a way of life. I’ve learned that Reykjavik is one of the more sustainable cities in the world, but I spotted evidence of eco-friendly behavior even in our travels throughout the countryside.
Renewable Energy Dominates
The first hotel we stayed in was situated, incongruously, near a power plant. This plant, however, wasn’t your standard power station, spewing out noxious smoke. It’s a geothermal plant that uses hot steam to power generators and heat water. In fact, along with hydropower, over 85% of Iceland’s energy supply is from renewable energy sources — more than any other nation. Compare that with the U.S., where our share of renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro) is around 16%.
A Zero Waste Mentality
Signs of a zero waste way of life greeted me the day we arrived. Bleary eyed after the long flight, we went in search of caffeine on the streets of Reykjavik. We found what we needed at Penninn Eymundsson bookstore, which conveniently housed an inviting coffee shop.
While waiting for my coffee, I surveyed the café’s countertop. There was the usual coffee-related paraphernalia – cups and lids, spoons, straws, condiments – but I noted, happily, that all items were either reusable or biodegradable. Instead of plastic straws, for example, Penninn provides customers with a sturdy black paper version. Spoons are either bamboo (for takeout) or reusable metal. Sugar sits in loose bins instead of being packaged in individual sachets. It all was such a sensible way to minimize single-use waste, even in a take-out coffee shop.
During the course of our trip, I spotted numerous examples of zero or low-waste efforts, from bamboo paper cups, to an ingenious reusable box/container that’s perfect for meals, storage, or gift wrap replacement.
Climate Change in the Classroom
You may have read about the debate over including climate change studies in a standard school curriculum. Sadly, several states actively oppose these measures and some have even proposed offering unsubstantiated “alternative viewpoints” to the hard science of global warming.
In Iceland, the situation is different. Sustainability is one of the national curriculum’s fundamental pillars of education, with climate change instruction an integral part of their national program.
We witnessed an example of the Icelandic climate curriculum on our trek to the Sólheimajökull glacier. Since 2010, local students have measured and documented the glacier’s annual retreat (nearly 400 meters) on a handwritten sign, which marks the glacier’s original location. It’s a stark visual of climate change in action.
The Iceland Sustainability Model: Challenges
Is there room for improvement with the Icelandic way of life? Absolutely. I also recognize that my trip to Iceland was brief, and I didn’t have the time to cast a more critical eye on Iceland’s sustainability efforts. Pockets of resistance to sustainable development exist, which I witnessed one night when the general manager at one of our hotels insisted that melting glaciers were not a result of climate change!
Since my return home, I’ve done further research on Iceland’s sustainability challenges. For one, Iceland’s carbon emissions from the transportation sector (vehicle and air) have seen an increase in recent years, partly due to the ballooning tourism industry.
Iceland also lags behind some more aggressively “eco-motivated” (mainly European) nations that take the top spots in sustainability. And its recycling, while better than U.S. rates, need to improve in order to compete with top recycling nations like Germany.
Adopting A Different Mindset Here at Home
Despite these areas where Iceland can – and should – improve, the Iceland sustainability model is still worth emulating. Its ethos of conservation and respect for the natural world combines well with a commitment by the government to sustainable development.
Instead of ignoring environmental challenges, the Icelandic government continues to make a concerted effort to be a leader for its people in finding solutions. This approach, for example, has Iceland now on a path to reducing carbon emissions and outweighs the occasional Icelandic naysayer.
Let’s extract those elements of the Icelandic sustainability culture that lend themselves to a sustainable lifestyle and customize them for our nation. Some observations that we can easily adopt:
- Increasing our reliance on renewable energy.
- Reducing our dependence on single-use disposables.
- Increasing and promoting climate education programs to help inspire and inform a new generation.
- Responding to climate challenges with substantive public policy measures, not greenwashing.
- Pressuring our elected officials and governments to be leaders on and champions of environmental policy.