Is Icelandic agriculture carbon neutral?

1990 was a remarkable year. East and West Germany merged into one but Yugoslavia disintegrated. Sined O’Connor was everybody’s favorite and Björk did a Jazz record in Icelandic. The population of Iceland was about 250,000 but there were twice as many sheep. The carbon footprint of sheep farming was 340,000 tonnes. By then, few had heard of two key concepts of climate debate; lower Co2 emissions and countermeasures.

The year it all began!

1990 is the reference year for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). According to it, Icelanders have pledged to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030, from what it was in 1990. These ambitious goals are achievable, thanks to how hard the Icelanders have worked on emissions reductions and countermeasures such as forestry and land reclamation.

Carbon neutral Iceland 2040! 

But the government intends to go even further and eradicate Iceland’s carbon footprint by 2040. Icelandic agriculture is responsible for one seventh of today’s footprint. Recently the dairy farmers announced they follow the example of the sheep farmers from 2017 and become carbon neutral. And they are talking about going neutral from how things are today, not from how it was in 1990. The methods will be emissions reductions and countermeasures.

Astonishing achievement by the farmers

But back to 1990. That was the year that Icelandic farmers and The Soil Conservation Service of Iceland jointly launched a project called Farmers Heal The Land. In 2003, a new Quality Control Scheme In Sheep Farming was started. Under the cap of these two projects, some 350,000 hectares of poor quality land have been grafted, protected and improved. About 90% of farmers have participated in this work. In the 90’s and 2000’s, this was called land improvement. According to today’s terminology it would be classified as climate change countermeasures.

CO2 footprint down by 22%

But let’s go back to 1990 again. At that time, Icelandic agriculture released 646 thousand tons of carbon equivalent. In 2015 was 616 thousand tons. This is a 5%, or 30,000 ton reduction. Looking at sheep farming alone, reduction is 22%, now standing at 290,000 tonnes per year. 

The two sides of this equation

But what about countermeasures since 1990? About 350,000 hectares have been planted, improved and protected in cooperation with farmers and the The Soil Conservation Service. This land now binds 2,1 ton per hectare according to UN standards, all in all over 730 thousand tons.

Icelandic sheep in the pristine nature on a bright summer night. #nofilter

There are two sides of this equation. Let’s use the UN climate change framework reference year of 1990. On one hand we have the annual carbon equivalent release of 616 thousand tons from Icelandic agriculture. On the other hand we have the overall reductions of 30 thousand tons and countermeasures of about 730 thousand tons. 

They did it – but didn’t know it!

So, Icelandic farmers have worked hard on countermeasures against the climate threat through land reclamation and forestry. Without necessarily knowing they were doing precisely that! The terminology was different back then. This reminds me of an old Italian farmer I met. He doesn’t use chemical fertilizer, antibiotics, pesticides or any of that stuff. He is completely organic! But he never bothered to get the certification. Now he gets the same price for his produce as anybody else.

If only they had woken up to the call of time!

But back to the reality of today. The destingust environment minister of Iceland, Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, was in a Nordic minister meeting recently. In his speech he welcomed the fact that environmental and climate issues are finally on the agenda of politics. I agree with him. But still, it would have been nice if somebody had woken up a bit earlier to the call of time. If only the government or the farmers had thought about some carbon neutral certification scheme for Icelandic agriculture 25 years ago. 

Carbon neutral delicatessen

Perhaps now, it would be possible to certify all the wonderful, pristine and tasteful Icelandic agricultural production as carbon neutral. But nobody did! Instead, Icelandic farmers, in company with that old Italian farmer, will hang around the fringe of the demanding 21st century markets for sustainable specialty products. 

Is Icelandic agriculture carbon neutral? Since 1990, the climate change countermeasures of Icelandic agriculture is 730.000 tons. The release is 616.000 tons.
Carbon neutral delicatessen from Icelandic farmers

But hopefully not for long. It is quite possible that the minister and a new generation of farmers will succeed in getting all the agricultural products of Iceland certificated as the carbon neutral delicatessen they are!

If only somebody had …

Back in the 90´s the logo probably would have looked something like this (see below) but now they could find something much cooler or even cooperate with some third party international carbon neutral certification.

Here is one idea of how the certification label might have looked like … if only somebody had thought of it back in the 90´s.