Iceland country briefing - The European environment — state and outlook 2015

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 23 Nov 2020
7 min read
Photo: © Lydur Skulason

Main themes and sectors addressed in the national State of Environment report

Iceland does not publish a national state of the environment report on a regular basis. However, over the last 20 years, three comprehensive state of the environment reports have been published, the latest in 2009.[1] In addition, the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources and Iceland's Environment Agency have recently published several less-comprehensive reports, which shed light on environmental trends in individual sectors.

Taken together, these two types of reports address

  • air quality, 
  • climate change, 
  • water, 
  • waste, 
  • biodiversity, 
  • sustainable resource use, and 
  • the links between environment and health.

Key findings of the State of Environment report 

Climate Change

The rapid retreat of Iceland's glaciers is a very visible effect of climate change. The acidification of the oceans is another equally pressing problem, albeit a less visible one.

From 1990 (the reference year of the Kyoto Protocol) to 2012, Icelandic greenhouse gas emissions increased by 26%[8]. Most of this increase was due to the construction of two new aluminium smelters. In the year 2010 only 18% of Iceland's greenhouse gas emissions came from the waste and energy sectors. It is also noteworthy that emissions over the 20-year (1990-2010) reference period fell by 26% in the fisheries sector and 8% in the agriculture sector. Annual reports have shown Iceland to be on track to meeting its international greenhouse gas reduction commitments for the 2008-2012 period[2]. There are good prospects that Iceland will continue to fulfil its climate commitments for the current commitment period (2013-2020), helped by its participation in the EU's ETS scheme.

Figure 1: Greenhouse gas emissions by category  (Thousand of tons - CO2 equivalent)

Source: Environmental Agency of Iceland, 2014

Healthy and Safe Environment

Air quality in Iceland is generally good, but particulate matter (PM) pollution from road traffic, with sporadic additions from volcanic ash, sometimes exceeds EU limit values, especially during the winter months. Nonetheless, the monitoring values for PM and nitrogen oxide concentrations show a marked downward trend. A new environmental problem in Iceland is the pollution and annoyance in the Reykjavík region caused by hydrogen sulphide from nearby geothermal power plants.[3]


The management of solid waste has improved greatly, and in 2012 69% of all solid waste was recycled or incinerated for energy. Since 1999, all open-pit incineration has been eliminated, and between 2008 and 2012 four waste incinerators that did not meet EU emission standards were closed down.  


The 2013 Status Report on Iceland's water bodies evaluated the main impacts caused by human activity on water bodies, and whether individual Icelandic water bodies met environmental objectives of good quality.[4]

As of 2010, about 73% of the population is connected to some kind of wastewater treatment. The remaining 27% mainly live in remote coastal villages.[5][1]

Seafood and fishing are important economic sectors in Iceland. Contamination by persistent organic pollutants of seafood from Icelandic waters has continued to fall over the last 10-15 years. Iceland considers this positive development to be the result of international agreements.[1]

Conservation of Icelandic nature and sustainable use of resources

Many areas were put under nature conservation during the period 2008-2012. The most important of these areas is the Vatnajökull National Park, established in 2008. Vatnajökull is Europe's largest national park and includes Europe's largest glacier.[5]

Main policy responses to key environmental challenges and concerns

Iceland's National Strategy for Sustainable Development 2002-2020 has stimulated new policy initiatives on environmental issues of national importance. These issues are further elaborated in a report by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources. These initiatives include:

  • A soil conservation strategy for 2003-2014
  • The Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources [6]. This was adopted in 2013 by the Icelandic parliament, and it aims to analyse and identify options for the development of energy resources in Iceland, taking all environmental constraints fully into account.
  • A national action plan for the management of solid waste[7]
  • A strategy and action plan against climate change until 2050
  • A strategy for biological diversity
  • A nature conservation strategy for 2009-2013

Two major cargo ships have stranded in Icelandic waters in the past 20 years. One stranding occurred on the south coast in March 1997 and the second occurred on the Reykjanes peninsula on the south west coast in December 2006. Following the second stranding, a governmental committee was established to conduct a hazard assessment of sailing routes for oil tankers and large freight ships in Icelandic waters. The area off the south coast is the most important spawning ground for cod and other important fish species. In spring 2007, the proposal made by the committee was discussed and accepted by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). As a result, the authorised sailing routes of oil tankers and large freight ships were moved further away from the south-coast shoreline. 

Another prominent policy response to environmental concerns is the new carbon tax on fuel (petrol and diesel) as well as tax concessions for the import of 'green' cars (electric, methane and hybrids). Also, a 2010 regulation has now taken full effect for the purpose of lowering hydrogen-sulphide pollution in the Reykjavík area.         

Country specific issues

In spite of the fact that "green energy" accounts for almost all space heating and electricity (geothermal sources for heat, and hydropower for electricity), Iceland's greenhouse gas footprint (in tonnes of carbon per capita per year) is relatively high compared to other OECD countries. This is mainly because of large emissions from primary metal smelters and the dependence on fossil fuels by the transport and fishery industries. Being a sub-Arctic or semi-Arctic country, with great sensitivity to climate change, climate policies are considered important and are taken seriously. Therefore, Iceland will strive to continue to meet its Kyoto commitments for the current commitment period 2013-2020.

Also, there is continuous debate over the environmental impact of energy projects, which until recently were all considered 'green'. Lately there has been increasing focus and criticism on the externalities associated with geothermal power plants.

Iceland's natural environment is in many ways unique, attracting many tourists every year. However, many areas are vulnerable to intrusion and a constant stream of visitors, and can thus lose their natural value in a relatively short period of time. The value of wilderness areas on the planet is increasing fast in line with increased population and industrial growth. Increasing debate and controversy over both hydro-electric projects and geothermal developments have bolstered the scope for alternative energy solutions such as wind power and tidal energy. There is also increasing focus on electric cars as a way to reduce the country's environmental footprint. Green electricity and relatively short commuting distances should bode well for such a major shift. 

Although not a policy, it should be mentioned that an active campaign has been ongoing against the use of studded tyres (removing the studded tyres would reduce PM pollution) and major steps have been taken to extend and improve bike paths and promote public transport in the Reykjavík area to reduce environmental pressures.

Natural hazards such as periodic volcanic eruptions are an issue of concern for Iceland. The impact these eruptions have on landscape, vegetation, and PM pollution can be very high.

Tourism is another issue causing growing environmental concern. The number of tourists visiting Iceland per year will soon amount to three times the country's population. Almost all tourists visit the same few sites. There is an intense debate over how to manage the Icelandic tourist industry in a sustainable way, especially with respect to the highly sensitive natural sites.


[1] Umhverfi og Auðlindir:  Stefnum við í átt til sjálfbærar þróunar ?" (Environment and Resources: Are we on a path towards sustainable development ?), Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources: October 2009.

[2] "Aðgerðir í Loftslagsmálum”,  (Action Plan Against Climate Change), Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources: May 2013.

[3] "Hreint Loft, Betri Heilsa”.  (Clean Air, Better Health), Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources and the Ministry of Welfare: April, 2013.

[4] Stöðuskýrsla fyrir Vatnasvæði Íslands (Status Report on Iceland's Water Bodies), Environment Agency of Iceland, Nr. 11: 2013.

[5] Iceland: Environmental Performance Review.  OECD: 2014.

[6] Umhverfis- og auðlindaráðuneytið, Verkefni 2009–2013.  Umhverfis- og auðlindaráðuneytið: 2013.

[7] "Landsáætlun um Úrgang" (Natinal Action Plan for the Management of Solid Waste), Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources: April 2013.

[8] Iceland´s Sixth National Communication and First Biennial Report, Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources: 2014, accessed 19 January 2015

Additional references


Picture: Geothermal borehole house


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.


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