This year’s Arctic Circle Assembly, held in mid-October in Reykjavik, provided masses of information. At times there were up to 5 interesting seminars scheduled at the same time which would have been worth writing about. I had the task of writing up the event for InDepthNews, the flagship of International Press Syndicate, but it was difficult to write up the event in 1000 words or so as each session I went to could have formed the basis of an article.
Although I personally thought that the article I sent off read extremely well, I was told that it read too much like minutes of the event and my articles were usually more “journalistic”. So I rejigged it, but that meant that some bits had to come out. The final article can be read here, but here are a few tidbits that I had to take out.
- Some issues came up repeatably, such as pressures affecting Arctic youth; indigenous peoples, traditional knowledge and climate change; education in remote areas; sustainable development goals; energy; the South Pacific; environmental issues and the military, and fisheries in a warming climate. Some of the presentations can be viewed via the Arctic Circle homepage.
- In July this year, the Cook Islands unanimously passed a resolution to open up a new marine reserve, the Marae Moana, to tackle environmental and economic issues such as fisheries and the new threat of sea-bed mining. The energy scenario of the Cook Islands aims for 100% renewables by 2020.
- In her introduction to the first of the monthly discussions on implementing sustainable development goals (SDGs) in the Arctic, which will report back to the next Arctic Council meeting in September 2018, Dalee Sambo Dorough from the University of Alaska Fairbanks told participants that “We can’t preach one goal without working towards the others… Most of the SDGs are very applicable to the Arctic.”
- Mitchell White, a Canadian Inuit now working at the Gordon Foundation, brought up an often neglected issue when he pointed out that “Third World decisions really exist at home, for instance in Inuit communities in Canada.”
- Action appeared to be a key word at the Arctic Circle this year, as UNFCC Chief Executive Patricia Espinosa said in her speech, “The weather won’t wait for us to act,” while Peter Seligmann, Chair of Conservation International, summarized the Roadmap session by saying, “We cannot address climate change without protecting nature.”
- Ragna Arnadottir from Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company, pointed out that Landsvirkjun’s newest hydropower stations had been redesigned to increase capacity by 10% before being built, in order to take advantage of increased flow due to climate change.
- Very little research has been done recently on the environmental effects of the military, and most of the existing literature is at least 20 years old.
- Canadian Michael Byers from University of British Columbia gave an account of the problems caused by UDMH rockot fuel and its toxic effect on three Inuit communities.
While writing my latest article about hydrogen-fuelled cars in Iceland, I came across two things I found disturbing. Firstly, the section on transport in the detailed report on Iceland and climate change was actually written in 2015, though the report itself only came out in February this year. This meant that at least some of the information was out of date.
I became curious when I read that it was assumed that two hydrogen-refuelling stations would be set up each year from 2015 to 2030. Um, none have been set up yet. The report also says that it assumes that hydrogen vehicles in Iceland would be of the Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engine type (HICEV) rather than Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (HFCEV). This surprised me as much of the article I wrote was based on a multi-fuels seminar at which the only type of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles mentioned were HFCEVs. However, Jon Bjorn Skulason from Icelandic New Energy told me: “As far as I know, no one is looking at the internal combustion engine for hydrogen in cars today.”
So I contacted the author, Darri Eythorsson, who is currently studying in the US. He confirmed that the section had been written back in 2015. Asked why hydrogen cars with fuel cells were disregarded, he replied: “At that time there were no grounds for measuring either the efficiency of the generator or the cost of the technique, as at that time there were no HFCEV cars on the market.” I feel the report, which was written for the Environment Ministry, is providing out-of-date information. And if the information on hydrogen vehicles is out-of-date, what about the rest of the section? This information is meant to provide the government with ideas on how to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in Iceland, which are huge.
The other thing that concerns me is the lack of communication between ministries. An Action Plan on Energy Conversion (APEC) is currently being discussed in one of the parliamentary committees in Iceland and came into public domain last month. It was compiled by the Ministry of Industries and Innovation and includes information such as targets for renewable fuel in marine operations and such like. At the seminar I asked the Director-General of the ministry, Ingvi Palsson, about hydrogen vehicles, and referred to the Environment Ministry report. He said they might well be an option, but said he wasn’t the best person to talk to as he hadn’t read that report. That disturbs me.
I like the Arctic Circle Gathering. It has now happened for the fourth time in Reykjavik, and takes over most of the impressive Harpa concert and conference centre. Indigenous artists also perform and/or display their art.
This year, over 2000 participants from about 50 countries attended the three-day event, which is the largest event of its kind. People seem to use the event for networking as well as gaining more knowledge (or disseminating more knowledge) about Arctic matters. Lectures, plenary sessions, seminars and information stands cover a wide range of issues, from economics and investment issues to shipping and renewable energy. There are also sessions organized by a particular country, e.g. Switzerland and the Arctic.
This year I wrote a short piece about the North Atlantic Energy Network (underwater energy cables) for the European environmental news bulletin ENDS Europe, and a longer piece on sustainability and the Arctic for InDepthNews/ International Press Syndicate. Last year I wrote about permafrost and climate change for Al Jazeera. Interestingly, last year there were very few media outlets covering the event, but this year the number seemed to have tripled or even quadrupled (but we were allocated less working space than last year…). Clearly, interest has spread.
There are smaller Arctic Circle forums during the year: in Singapore, Alaska, Greenland and Québec. The latter will be held for the first time December 11-13 and will focus on renewable energy. Québec ranks second to Iceland in the proportion of its energy derived from renewables, in its case hydro. The blurb for the Québec forum includes: Discussions will focus on the sustainable development of northern regions, including Alaska, Greenland as well as northern areas of Norway and Sweden.
Last week, Iceland’s national power company, Landsvirkjun, announced that they had successfully negotiated a new electricity price for 161 MW of electricity for the expansion at the Nordural (Century Aluminium) smelter at Grundartangi. The price will be valid from 2019 for four years and, for the first time ever, will be linked to the market price for electricity in the Nord Pool electricity market instead of being linked to the world price of aluminium, which is extremely low at the moment. This is a breakthrough, as up till now the aluminium companies have negotiated very low prices for contracts lasting much longer than four years – Landsvirkjun sells 37.5% of its energy to the Alcoa Fjardaal smelter in East Iceland, which came on line 10 years ago, and that contract doesn’t run out until 2048.
The Rio Tinto Alcan plant at Straumsvik, which reported a loss for the last financial year, also has a contract for cheap energy for a long time.
Meanwhile, out at Helguvik on the southwest tip of Iceland, what is supposed to be Nordural’s second aluminium plant remains half-built.
The Rio Tinto Alcan plant at Straumsvik
How about a competition: What can be done with a half-built aluminium smelter? I think that something along the lines of the Eden Project in Cornwall would be brilliant. It’s logo sums up the situation: Transformation: it’s in our nature.
When the debate about building Karahnjukar dam and the corresponding aluminium plant in East Iceland were at their highest, one of the arguments used was that it would provide employment in the area and people would no longer move away from the area in search of jobs. But that hasn’t come to pass – once again, although there has been a 1% increase in population in Iceland as a whole, three areas have seen a decrease over the past year, and one of them is East Iceland – home to the Fjardaraal aluminium smelter, owned by Century.
Of course, the construction of the dam and smelter led to more people living in the area, but a goodly proportion of these were brought in from other countries. And accommodation had to be provided. Houses and apartment blocks were hastily constructed in local towns such as Egilsstadir, but residents of the new buildings have complained about mould problems in the buildings which have led to health problems. And I seem to remember that many buildings are empty there.
Increased employment was also one of the arguments given by proponents in favour of an aluminium smelter in Northwest Iceland. But if the Fjardaraal smelter hasn’t encouraged people to stay in the area, wouldn’t the same be true of a plant in the northwest?
Increased employment was also given as an argument for building the Helguvik aluminium plant in the southwest. That plant was meant to be completed in 2010 but nothing has happened recently and it remains only partly built. At the time the plant was started, the area had high unemployment because the US military had just left the area. But now the area boasts the highest population increase in Iceland, and the airport authorities say they will need to bring people in from outside Iceland to work at the airport (to cope with Iceland’s growing number of tourists) as the local area won’t be able to supply them. The prosperity there has nothing to do with aluminium plants or silicon plants that are also planned for Helguvik.
Meanwhile, close to Reykjavik, the management and owners of the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminium smelter at Straumsvik have been in pay negotiations with the workforce there for over a year. One gets the impression that the Icelanders working there are seen as pawns by Rio Tinto and are not taken seriously.