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Tourism pushes Iceland's CO2 emissions to record levels

Tourism pushes Iceland's CO2 emissions to record levels

| Text: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir, photo: Inspired by Iceland

While many countries have managed to cut their climate gas emissions, Iceland has seen a marked increase in recent years according to the latest data from 2016. That year, the per capita carbon dioxide emissions were 16.9 tonnes. The EU average was 7.3 tonnes per capita.

Iceland now has the highest per capita pollution in Europe, according to Statistics Iceland. The emissions mainly stem from increasing air traffic and heavy industry, plus shipping to and from Iceland. 

Statistics Iceland compiles the numbers according to Efta rules, which also include air traffic.

Þorsteinn Aðalsteinsson, a specialist in environmental statistics at the agency, says Iceland’s high emissions are due to the country’s position in the middle of the Atlantic. The only way of getting to Iceland is by boat or plane. Technically, boats do not pollute that much, while pollution from planes is massive. 

“Icelanders have been happy with the increase in tourism, and with the fact that so many tourists fly with domestic carriers. That traffic is part of these numbers,” he says.

A small population

Iceland has three aluminium plants and one ferrosilicon plant (Járnblendið). They are all there because of the access to renewable energy. This production leads to fewer emissions than similar industry elsewhere. Emissions would be double if the same heavy industry was situated in a different country, because of Iceland’s renewable energy, claims Þorsteinn. Iceland does not need to burn coal for production.

CO2 graph 

While Norway and Sweden keep their emissions on the same level, they have increased in the other Nordic countries, with Iceland in the lead 2016. Source: Statistics Iceland.

Albert Sigurðsson, who works with business statistics at Statistics Iceland, points out that Iceland is experiencing a boom right now, both in terms of population growth and economically. Other countries too have seen an increase, but it has not been as rapid as that in Iceland. 

Photo Statistics Iceland

Þorsteinn Aðalsteinsson and Albert Sigurðsson, both at Statistics Iceland.

“Iceland also has so few citizens that the country often gets high per capita scores in international comparisons,” says Albert Sigurðsson.

Kyoto shows a different picture

Icelandic households also have high emission levels because of high levels of car use. There are no trains, and distances are big.

“Pollution from cars is higher than what is desirable. We have managed to cut pollution, but not as much as we would have wanted, says Þorsteinn Aðalsteinsson.

Air traffic, industry and shipping also contribute to Iceland’s position as a top polluter in Europe. But if you look at the kinds of pollution covered in the Kyoto protocol, you get a completely different impression since this is less comprehensive. If you take away air traffic, industry and shipping, Iceland’s pollution levels are at less than 4.7 tonnes per person, if you do not include agriculture and forestry.

Two different things

Kristín Linda ÁrnadóttirKristín Linda Árnadóttir, General Director at the Environment Agency of Iceland, says comparing figures from Statistics Iceland and data from the Kyoto protocol is not realistic, since they show two different things. She says that the EU is trying to cut emissions in Europe as a whole. Right now work is being done on how to measure pollution from air traffic and shipping.  

“How to classify air traffic, for instance, is complicated. Many planes fly via Iceland between Europe and Northern America. We now know that only domestic carriers’ emissions are counted as part of Iceland’s emissions, not foreign carriers, according to the international CORSIA system,” says Kristín Linda.

Icelanders are interested in environmental issues, and Kristín Linda believes they are aware that Iceland has the largest per capita emissions in Europe. Opinion polls show people feel the government has not taken enough initiative.

“The Minister for the Environment has now presented an environment action plan which has led to great expectations. We must show some better results,” she says.

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Surprising statistics

Many see Iceland as a country rich in wilderness and with little pollution (like what you see in the picture from Snæfellsjökull above). But Icelanders score high on CO2 emissions. In recent years, the increase is mainly due to all the air traffic stemming from tourism.


Iceland is a top polluter, but both Luxembourg and Denmark also have high per capita emissions. Luxembourg has the world’s largest cargo aircraft carrier, Cargolux. Denmark has the world’s largest shipping company. Tourism is Iceland’s largest industry.


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