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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol
Article by Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs
Published in Morgunblaðið, 3 March 1999

As is commonly known, the Government has decided that the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will not be signed by Iceland, the time-limit for signature being fixed at 15 March 1999. This Protocol, adopted at the Kyoto Conference of Parties in December 1997, provides for the commitment of indivi-dual industrial states to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases. According to the Protocol, average greenhouse gas emissions in Iceland for the period 2008 to 2012 are not to increase by more than 10 per cent compared to emissions in 1990. During the final stages of the Kyoto Conference, Iceland already declared that, since it would be unrealistic to attempt to honour such a commitment, we would not be able to accept it.

However, we also stated that the implementation of a provision adopted by the Conference of Parties parallel to the Kyoto Protocol might enable Iceland to become a Party to the Protocol. This provision, which has been referred to as "the Icelandic provision", was adopted in the light of the argument of the Icelandic Delegation at the Kyoto Conference pertaining to the special conditions in Iceland. According to the provision, the situation of countries for which single projects would have a significant proportional impact on emissions is to be considered and action taken, as appropriate.


Action Taken Before 1990
There are two reasons why Iceland cannot accept the aforementioned commitment of the Kyoto Protocol as it stands. Firstly, the possibilities for Iceland to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases are very limited, mainly because action was taken before 1990, the reference year, to replace fossil fuels by geothermal resources for space heating. In the absence of such measures, greenhouse gas emissions would have been 40 per cent higher in Iceland in 1990; that level corresponds to average emissions per capita in the OECD countries.

In Iceland, emissions have already been reduced as far as possible in the energy sector, where most other nations intend to attain the greatest results in the near future. Potential emission reductions in the field of transport and fisheries are as yet limited, since for this Iceland is to a great extent dependent on international technological progress. It is important for us to monitor and participate in international cooperation on these matters. Iceland has taken an initiative as regards research on the development and production of hydrogen as an energy source, this being a field of enormous potential in this country. Further refinement of the system of catch quotas may also lead to a reduction in emissions.


A Small Economy
Secondly, Iceland's problem lies in the fact that in such a small economy single heavy industry projects lead to a relatively massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions, a fact recognised by the Icelandic provision. As an example, the aluminium smelter of Nordic Aluminum, which will have a capacity of 180,000 tonnes and the first part of which is already functioning, will increase the amount of emissions in Iceland by 11 per cent. In most other countries the effect would be negligible.

This difficulty is reflected in the forecast of the Environmental and Food Agency of Iceland, which is based on the assumption that the Icelandic Aluminium Company, Nordic Aluminum and Icelandic Alloys will take full advantage of their respective operating licenses. According to this forecast, total emissions in Iceland will be about 46 per cent higher in 2010 than in 1990, the reference year. This prediction does not take into account any specific measures to reduce emissions, nor any other heavy industry projects during this period. A potential aluminium smelter in East Iceland and a magnesium plant in the Reykjanes peninsula are therefore not included.


Renewable Energy Sources
Iceland has stressed that the possibility to take advantage of the country's renewable energy sources for energy-intensive heavy industries must not be restricted, even if production is accompanied by a local increase in emissions. Such emissions will of course occur wherever production takes place and efforts should therefore be made to promote locations where renewable energy sources are available and total greenhouse gas emissions can be kept at a minimum. A different approach would be in contradiction with the objectives of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and with Agenda 21 on sustainable deve-lopment, where emphasis is placed on the increased share of renewable energy sources in the world's energy economy.

In this context it must be kept in mind that total emissions connected with aluminium smelters using coal-fired power are approximately seven times higher than in the case of smelters using hydropower or other renewable energy sources, all greenhouse gases taken into account. It would therefore be irrational and unjust if states were to be deprived of the right to exploit renewable energy sources for industries at the same time as new industries using fossil fuels are being allowed elsewhere, leading to emissions that are many times greater.

The operating license of the Straumsvík aluminium smelter provides for an annual production of 200,000 tonnes of aluminium. If a smelter of that size were to use coal-fired power, emissions connected with the production would almost equal the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions in Iceland today.


A Misleading Discussion
In Iceland some have tried to exploit discussions on climate change in their fight against heavy industry, advocating the view that Iceland should tie its hands by an international agreement. It is remarkable that some of these people are among those who, in other contexts, have explicitly warned against Iceland becoming dependent on supranational power. This is evident duplicity.

Clearly such arguments do not withstand scrutiny, since the use of domestic renewable energy sources ensures that emissions connected with the production are minimised, thereby contributing toward a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. The production of light metal alloys also leads to a reduction in emissions.

On the other hand, power stations and other uses of natural resources always have various environmental impacts. The conservation of nature must of course be a priority, and economic imperatives, regional development and environmental issues need to be reconciled. This, however, is entirely a domestic issue which is irrelevant to climate change. Decisions concerning these matters will be taken at home, not on an international level.


Continued Negotiations
The Icelandic provision was discussed for the first time at a session of the subsidiary bodies of the Framework Convention in Bonn last summer, a proposal as to its implementation being presented by Iceland. The issue was addressed again at the Conference of Parties in Buenos Aires last November and received considerable attention.

The Buenos Aires Conference concluded that discussions on this matter were to continue, with a view to taking a conclusive decision, as appropriate, at the next Conference of Parties, to be held this autumn. Parties were invited to submit written observations on the Icelandic proposal to prepare discussions at the session of the subsidiary bodies of the Framework Convention in Bonn this summer.

Although understanding of Iceland's special situation as a small economy is increasing, no binding decisions have been taken, as stated above, as to how the case will be dealt with, formally or in substance. It is not clear when and in what way the Icelandic provision will be implemented. A number of states have declared support to Iceland's proposal regarding the implementation of the provision, whereas other Parties are opposed to it. Under these conditions it would be quite irrational for Iceland to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Signing the Protocol would obviously undermine the belief of the negotiating parties that an acceptable implementation of the Icelandic provision constitutes a sine qua non to our becoming Party to the Protocol, this being the declared position of the Icelandic Government since the final stages of the Conference of Parties in Kyoto. Iceland's position in forthcoming negotiations would therefore be weakened if the Protocol were to be signed. It should be kept in mind that the signature of an agreement is generally considered to be equivalent to a declaration of intent of the country concerned that the agreement will be brought before its parliament with a view to obtaining an authori-sation for ratification.


Future Participation of Iceland
Although 15 March this year has been fixed as the time-limit for signing the Kyoto Protocol, it will clearly not enter into force within the next few years. Thus there is still ample time to become a founding Party to the Protocol.

There are two ways in which states can become Parties to the Protocol. First, by ratification following signature; second, by accession without prior signature. The legal status of Parties is in no way affected by the method chosen.

The explicit policy of the Government is that Iceland should become a Party to the Kyoto Protocol, provided that we can continue to take advantage of our renewable energy sources. This is extremely important in order to ensure progress and prosperity in this country, and has the further advantage of diminishing the use of polluting energy sources globally.

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