Not exactly where you would imagine growing salads and tomatoes. And yet, the icy Iceland has become a vegetable producer for some years, reaching food self-sufficiency in some sectors. Thanks to the greenhouses, a group of visionary entrepreneurs and a state policy that is focusing on sustainability, clean energy and the fight against climate change. The land of ice and fire is an outpost on the global warming front. Rising temperatures are rapidly changing the landscapes of this island-state close to the Arctic Circle: the eternal ice retreats, new lands emerge, marine species change abruptly.
In August 2019, the final disappearance of the Okjökull glacier on top of the Ok volcano, in the north-west of the country, was celebrated as a funeral, complete with a plaque affixed to the place once covered by the white mantle: “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its glacier status. In the next 200 years, all of our glaciers could follow the same fate. This monument testifies that we know what is happening and what needs to be done ”, reads the plaque. Which ends with a message to a hypothetical visitor from the future: “Only you know if we did it.”
The farewell to the glacier was not an event reserved for a handful of radical environmentalists, but a veritable state ceremony, in the presence of the Minister of the Environment Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. The arrival at the head of the government of the leader of the green party in 2017 is the most striking symbol of the new course of Icelandic politics.
Greenhouses and geysers of Iceland, world leader in the green economy
Shortly after her election, the premier called a press conference in which, flanked by six other ministers, she announced a climate plan with great ambitions, which aims to achieve total decarbonisation of the country by 2040. “Climate change is the greatest challenge for humanity and requires cooperation and action from all: government, industry and citizens. Today we are presenting concrete actions, to which we will dedicate resources and the political will to carry them out, ”said Jakobsdóttir on that occasion. Among the measures indicated, a rapid transition to clean energy involving transport, industry, and the primary sector as a whole.
The green turning point of the island had actually already begun a few years earlier, in the aftermath of the great financial crisis of 2008. From one day to the next, Iceland, which since 1990 had built its fortune on the intangible economy of finance, it literally found itself upside down: the three largest banks went bankrupt and were nationalized, while the government had to ask for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. With the local currency – the króna – devalued by 60%, the country has once again focused on the real economy: tourism, fishing and the exploitation of internal resources. In particular, a wealth that naturally leaps to the surface from the heart of the Earth: geothermal energy.
It is since the beginning of the last century that Icelanders have used the steam from geysers to heat their homes. Legend has it that the precursor was a farmer who, seeing smoke coming out of the earth in several places near his property, stretched a pipe between one of these points and his home. The rudimentary system has made school, prompting the various cities of the country to convert to geothermal heating. In the 1970s, under the pressure of the oil crisis, the exploitation of steam to produce energy began. After the financial crisis, the potential of underground heat has definitively established itself as a driving force for a new development model, anchored to environmental sustainability and climate neutrality.
“Geothermal energy is currently responsible for 30 per cent of Iceland’s energy needs and 90 per cent of heating,” underlines Marta Rós Karlsdóttir, executive director of On power, a subsidiary of the Icelandic electricity company that controls two of the seven power plants. geothermal systems of the country. With the rest of the energy needs guaranteed by hydroelectric plants, Iceland is the only country in the world that can boast of producing its electricity 100% from renewable sources (the European average is 29%, in Italy we are on the 34 percent).
With a power of 300 Megawatts, the Hellisheidi plant managed by On Power is the third largest in the world. And, in addition to providing energy and tele-heating to a third of Reykjavik’s homes, it is experimenting with cutting-edge technology to reduce climate-altering emissions. Called Carbfix, it provides for the reintroduction of carbon dioxide into the subsoil associated with the extraction of steam in a compound mixed with water that favors its mineralization. “We basically turn CO2 into rocks,” Karlsdóttir explains over the phone. «Since 2014, when we started this process, we have already fixed 50 thousand tons of carbon dioxide.
We are counting on increasing this quantity in the coming years to participate more and more actively in achieving climate neutrality ». The process of creating clean energy benefits all sectors of society and the economy, from transport to industry, down to the less obvious agricultural production. In recent years, the geothermal potential has favored the development of a new type of agriculture, aimed at guaranteeing a minimum of food sovereignty in an area not really blessed with a temperate climate.
Andri Björn Gunnarsson often remembers that evening in 2016 when, having dinner with friends in a restaurant in Reykjavik, he had the idea that it would change his life: making salad in Iceland. At first his diners took him for insane. “Growing vegetables in this extreme climate country, with lightless winters and freezing soil, seemed like a gamble. But I asked myself: why not use technology to grow high quality agricultural products all year round in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way? “
Said and done, Gunnarsson founded Vaxa, the first vertical farming greenhouse plant. The videos he presents on the site are science fiction: the crops are organized on different levels, minimizing the use of land, water and energy. “We have developed agriculture that is totally independent of external factors: we can produce twelve months a year,” says the entrepreneur, whose company has experienced a real boom in just two years of activity.
If Vaxa is (for the moment) the only example of vertical agriculture in Iceland, greenhouses are now an almost characteristic element of the landscape. There are several producers of tomatoes, cucumbers, salads and various vegetables that are increasingly exploiting the geothermal potential and ecological sensitivity of consumers to offer local products. The tomatoes grown in the large greenhouses of Fridheimar, a hundred kilometers from the capital, have become a tourist attraction, with a restaurant that produces only dishes derived from the local red fruit – so trendy that it is impossible to enter without a reservation.
In Hveragerdi there is even a banana plantation: set up by the University for research purposes, it is still one of the largest plantations in Europe. With its new course, Iceland wants to stand as a planetary example for a new development model, based 100% on renewable energy, on the shortening of production chains and as much as possible on local production.
Of course, the island has just over 350 thousand inhabitants (the same population as Bologna) and a virtually unlimited availability of energy thanks to geothermal energy. But it is also one of the places where the effects of climate change are most evident, spurring its inhabitants more to action. As the plaque in honor of the deceased glacier recalls, “we know what is happening and what needs to be done”. With the hope that a future visitor will be able to climb to the top of the Ok volcano and mentally congratulate his ancestors who in that distant 2019 erected the tombstone showing the world the way to face the upheavals of climate change.
*The article has been translated based on the content of Rss l'Espresso by espresso.repubblica.it. If there is any problem regarding the content, copyright, please leave a report below the article. We will try to process as quickly as possible to protect the rights of the author. Thank you very much!
*We just want readers to access information more quickly and easily with other multilingual content, instead of information only available in a certain language.
*We always respect the copyright of the content of the author and always include the original link of the source article.If the author disagrees, just leave the report below the article, the article will be edited or deleted at the request of the author. Thanks very much! Best regards!