Musings, politics and environmental issues

Posts tagged ‘environment minister’

Iceland now has a Left-Green Prime Minister

Katrin Jakobsdottir, leader of Iceland’s Left-Green party, has become Iceland’s latest Prime Minister (within the last two years there have been four of them). Unfortunately, although she initially began discussions about forming a government with the Pirates, Social Democrats and the centre Progressive Party, the latter opted out at the last minute and so she started discussions with the PP and the Left-Greens’ “arch enemy” – Bjarni Ben’s Independent Party – much to the disgruntlement of many Left-Green voters and two L-G politicians. The Left-Greens demanded that Katrín would be made Prime Minister, even though normally BB would have become PM because his party got the most seats.

Surprisingly, those discussions have resulted in a government and they produced a manifesto yesterday (in Icelandic) outlining their plans. Environmental issues rank highly, and they may well establish a national park in the central highlands. The Icelandic Environment Association has been pushing for this for a few years, and the managing director of the NGO has now been made environment minister (the French environment minister also has a background in environmental actions). That’s a good move.

Katrin promises a new way of working so we’ll see what happens. Unfortunately, we have the same Minister of Justice, who was very unpopular in the last government. BB is Finance Minister, and elements of his party’s policies can be seen in the manifesto. Otherwise, it is thought that the Left-Greens and PP have left a definite mark on the agreement, so you never know….

This is what I wrote for ENDS Europe today:

Iceland plans to raise carbon taxes by 50% immediately as part of a raft of new environmental measures announced by the country’s incoming government on Thursday.

The measure, outlined in an agreement between the parties of the coalition government, follows a commitment by the previous government in the draft budget for 2018, which noted that the country’s current carbon tax is generally considered low in comparison to that of other Nordic countries.

The tax will apply to petrol, diesel, fuel oil and associated transport fuels. After the initial doubling, the carbon taxes will be increased in the following years in line with the country’s climate change action plan.

The coalition government – formed by the Left-Greens’ Katrin Jakobsdottir with the centre-right Independence Party and the populist Progressive Party – intends to take measures to develop a bioeconomy, using incentives to reduce the environmental impact of food production. Organic production, which is currently low in Iceland, will be strengthened, according to the agreement.

Despite the black picture depicted by the National Audit Office and the Institute of Economic Studies earlier this year, Iceland now aims to go further than the goals of the Paris Agreement and become carbon-neutral by 2040 at the latest.

The agreement states that all the government’s major programmes will be evaluated in terms of climate change objectives, and a climate change board will be set up. The coalition parties also aim to ban the use of heavy fuel oil in shipping in Iceland’s economic area and to support international agreements on marine protection.

Instead of building new power plants, which is always controversial in Iceland, the existing distribution network will be improved to better utilise existing energy production. New legislation will be implemented regarding wind turbines.

The government intends to tackle the problem of single-use plastic waste, with emphasis on preventive measures and the removal of plastic waste from both land and sea.

Legislation on protection, conservation and hunting of wild birds and mammals will also be reviewed. As Iceland is not a member of the EU, it has not implemented the Habitats or Birds Directives.

The new environment minister, Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, was the managing director of the Icelandic environment association Landvernd until his appointment on Thursday. He is a biologist by training.

No one really expects this government to last the full four years either, and political analysts say that a 3-party coalition has never lasted out. But it’s an experiment.

Fire in United Silicon smelter results in shutdown

I wish I didn’t have to keep blogging about United Silicon, but circumstances demand that I do.
The latest debacle started with a fire on Monday night on three floors of the building that houses the arc furnace. Since then, United Silicon has been under the spotlight of the Icelandic media. And now operations have been (temporarily) stopped by the Environment Agency (EA) – in fact, they tried to close the plant down before Easter, but United Silicon’s  CEO persuaded them not to. However, there’s a complication, as an engineering firm were going to start appraising the smelter the day after the fire, and to do this they’ll have to start up the furnace again for short periods.

The Administration of Occupational Safety and Health said that the fire could have been very serious and workers could have been in danger. They had previously criticized various aspects concerning health and safety, not all of which had been addressed. Sometimes staff had to work in areas with considerable pollution, with inadequate protective gear.

Workers complained to their union, saying that they sometimes had to work with equipment for which they had not been trained.

Bjort Olafsdottir, the Environment Minister, wrote on her Facebook page that operations must stop. She gave four reasons for her opinion, one of which is particularly alarming and concerns the high levels of arsenic that were measured: at a joint meeting of the parliamentary environment and communications committee,  the CEO of US said that a possible reason for the increased levels of arsenic might be that the workers were so hot that they opened the door. Because of this, the pollutants were released from the floor to the plant’s surroundings instead of being channelled through the gas cleaning system. Olafsdottir asks: how much contact do these workers have with undesirable chemicals? She has no power to close the plant, as it’s the EA that has to do so.

To top it all, the contractors that built the plant, IAV, are claiming 2 billion kronur in unpaid bills. This is to go before arbitration.

Plant officials have tried to put the blame on manufacturers of the equipment, saying it must be faulty, so much has gone wrong. But I don’t think anyone believes them.

UPDATE: The EA tried to close the plant before Easter as they’d received so many complaints by local residents, who said that the burning odour was worse than ever before. The EA put this down to pollution peaks which for some reason caused the furnace to malfunction.

The Chief Epidemiologist says that five chemicals could be causing health problems: acetic acid, formic acid, methyl chloride, methyl mercaptane and various aldehydes. None of these are monitored and none were expected.

Apparently the EA will decide today whether to close the plant or not. The management couldn’t operate it anyway after the fire. I very much doubt that United Silicon will be able to persuade the EA to allow operations to commence again.

If you click on the United Silicon link at the top of the page, you’ll see that “United Silicon was founded in 2014 by M.Sc. Environmental Engineering Magnus Garðarsson, M.Sc. Mechanical Engineering Helgi Björn and Supreme Court attorney Friðbjörn Garðarsson, together with the Dutch partners Silicon Mineral Ventures, which handles sales and marketing, through their partner company BIT Fondel in their facilities in the harbor of Rotterdam.” Magnus Garðarsson, who was the largest owner of the plant, resigned from the Board on 6 April. His deputy, Audun Helgason, has also withdrawn from the Board.

Say no more.

Update: There was another fire at the plant on Sunday July 16 due to “human error”, but both the company itself and various authorities do not seem to be taking the matter seriously. Smoke emanated from the plant , but I don’t know whether anyone has analysed the chemical components of the smoke.


Colossal increase in greenhouse gases in Iceland

The emission of greenhouse gases in Iceland rose by 26% between 1990 and 2015 and amounted to 4.6 million tonnes in 2014. At the same time, there was a 24% decrease for the same time period in the EU as a whole. On a per capita basis, this is equivalent to 14 tonnes of CO2 equivalents compared to 7.4 tonnes for the EU. According to a detailed report published in Icelandic by the Institute of Economic Studies last month, emissions could increase by 53-99% by 2030 or by 33-79%, if carbon sequestration by forestry and land restoration are taken into account.

These figures were the subject of debate in the Icelandic parliament yesterday, along with measures to be taken to reduce them. The Environment Minister’s report, which was basically an abridged form of the IES report and again is in Icelandic, was well received by all parties.

The high increase from 1990 is predominantly due to new aluminium smelters and other heavy industry, while new silicon metal plants and projected increases in aluminium production account for future uncertainties. Although emissions from these will come under the Emissions Trading System, they will still have an effect on the environment. Currently, 80% of electricity in Iceland is used by aluminium smelters and other heavy industry.

The policy statement of the new Icelandic government stated that they would prepare an Action Plan in line with the Paris Agreement (Iceland did not prepare one for COP21, but instead lumped themselves under the EU objectives, under something called “part of the collective delivery”). The Action Plan will include green incentives, forestry, land restoration and renewable energy in transport. However, the IES report includes around 30 measures with varying degrees of feasibility.

Iceland is known for deriving virtually all of its energy for domestic heating and electricity from renewable sources. Clearly, more needs to be done if it is to obtain its goals for 2020 and beyond.

Note that a version of this was published by ENDS Europe today.


Paris Agreement omits emissions from various sectors

The recently agreed Paris Agreement at COP21 is a positive step to combating climate change, and should be applauded – especially in comparison to previous attempts such as the Copenhagen summit in 2009.

But many factors were not included. For instance, emissions due to livestock agriculture, shipping, aviation and permafrost were not mentioned. All of these are important.

And some of the US Republican candidates for the Presidential elections next year have said they will tear up the Agreement if they are voted into power.

Iceland’s Environment Minister, Sigrun Magnusdottir, has said that she doesn’t know how Iceland will implement the 40% reduction in CO2. Which is on par with Iceland’s broad aims rather than actual proposals submitted to the IPCC before the Paris summit.

On the plus side, emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) were included for the first time. This is something that the Nordic countries had been pushing for.

Iceland without specific goals for COP21

The COP21 climate summit begins on November 30 in Paris. Much is at stake if we are to keep global warming under control. Countries are supposed to deliver their climate goals before the meeting starts; so far, out of 195 countries that will be represented at the summit, over 160 have submitted their goals. But not Iceland.

Granted, a few weeks ago it appeared as if we were getting somewhere when Environment Minister Sigrun Magnusdottir told the nation that Iceland’s goals would be outlined a few weeks later. Indeed, at the time we were told that Iceland intended to participate in the joint goals of the EU and Norway, i.e. aiming for a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 cf. 1990. But that’s not the same as proposing our own goals.

Now it turns out that Iceland will not decide on a plan until sometime next year.Nevertheless, a large contingent of Icelanders will travel to Paris for the talks.

In point of fact, for Iceland the talks are only half the story, because aluminium plants and other heavy industry come under the Emissions Trading Scheme which will not be discussed at the meeting. And as everyone knows, Iceland currently has three aluminium plants operating as well as a ferrosilicon plant and plans for at least three silicon plants that will also be big polluters.

In the 2007 climate talks, Iceland pushed, successfully, for including wetland restoration as a mitigation measure. But little has been done here since then in that regard.

Many people are feeling positive towards COP21, partly because powerful nations like the US and China have delivered objectives and will take an active part in discussions. But don’t thank Iceland.

Environment Minister wants to dilute wording of Directives

Iceland’s environment minister, Sigrun Magnusdottir, wants to dilute the wording used on Directives that are transposed into Icelandic because of EEA regulations. She is quoted in the newspaper Fréttablaðið that circumstances in Iceland are different to those in other places. In point of fact, European legislation that Iceland has to transpose has long been a thorny issue for her party, the Progressive Party.

The Federation of Icelandic Translations and Interpreters is up in arms, and rightly so. Directives have to be identical all over Europe – you can’t dilute wording because you don’t agree with the Directive, which is basically what this is all about. I have tried to find out which Directives she is upset about, but haven’t yet had a reply from the information officer for the ministry.

Iceland gets new environment minister

At long last, Iceland’s current centre-right government, which has been in power since May 2013, has appointed an environment minister – Sigrun Magnusdottir. Up till now, Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson had taken on the duties of the environment minister although he was primarily the minister for fisheries and agriculture.

Iceland’s first environment minister was appointed in the spring of 1990. Until last year, there had always been an environment minister from that time on. But this government obviously does not prioritise the environment at all – Johannsson had even proffered the view that an environment minister was unnecessary. He certainly seems to have done more to destroy the environment than to preserve it. Let’s hope the new environment minister will do something – though I don’t have high hopes. Magnusdottir is from the Progressive Party, which has traditionally held the post of environment minister when it has been in power with the Independence Party, and I can’t remember much happening due to the actions of the environment minister when someone from the Progressive Part has held the post.

Still, one can only hope for the best. She can’t be any worse than SIJ.