Ladies and gentlemen,
It gives me a great pleasure to welcome you here in Akureyri, to this conference on Arctic Development and Maritime Transportation.
The title of the conference, “Breaking the Ice”, can be seen as a metaphor of the new challenges and opportunities in the Arctic. On one hand the Arctic ice is being ‘broken’ by global warming. On the other, resource development and new shipping technologies are changing our whole vision of maritime transportation in the Arctic.
Transarctic shipping is of course not without some risks. The Arctic is a pristine environment with rich and unique biological diversity. Great care must be taken to ensure that opening of new shipping routes in the north does not endanger the fragile environment of the Arctic.
The ongoing climate change will have significant effects in the Arctic. The international community is trying to slow these changes, and Iceland is in the forefront of that effort. But we must be realistic. Climate change is already under way and we will not be able to stop it. To secure our future we must prepare ourselves and do our best to adapt to these changing circumstances.
It is not new to us to have to adapt to harsh and changing environmental circumstances. In earlier days, we had, however, little means to react, when sudden natural changes brought havoc into our lives. When volcanic eruptions wiped out vegetation and clouded the skies in Iceland, great part of the population died of cold and hunger. But we never gave up, and the survivors worked hard to adapt to the changes brought by Mother Nature.
Today we stand better. Today’s science and new technologies will make it easier for us to adapt to coming changes, and to make use of any opportunities they may bring.
I am born and brought up here in the farming community in this beautiful fjord Eyjafjörður. I have experienced how new technology and knowledge has progressed Icelandic farming, improving its products in harmony with nature.
I also remember learning about how farmers in this region -- the grandparents of today’s farmers -- responded to their harsh conditions by taking advantage of new opportunities in trade and maritime transportation. The farmers took a lead in forming societies to export life sheep in exchange of consumer goods and agricultural machinery. Their courage was to transform both farming and the development of Icelandic society at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, this very hotel where we now are was built by this movement.
Maritime transport is deep rooted in our culture. New shipping technologies brought our forefathers from Norway during the Viking period eleven centuries ago. In those days, Icelanders established settlements in Greenland and explored the coastline of North America. We have old records of voyages further to the north with the Viking ships travelling to lands around the White Sea. In fact, it may be said, that Iceland functioned like a “shipping hub” for the Viking voyages in the middle of the North-Atlantic.
These voyages stopped after the Viking outreach came to an end, and for centuries the people of Iceland were dependant on other countries for communication over the ocean and international trade.
The sheep export of the late 19th century, I mentioned earlier, was the beginning of a new age of shipping in Iceland.
Today we might be reaching yet a new turning-point in shipping. With the melting of the Arctic ice cover, new shipping routes are being opened. What is important is that the new routes will substantially shorten the shipping route for Europe and North-America to important trade destinations in the Pacific. This could mean in some instances a shortening of the shipping distance of up to 40 per cent. In the global perspective, this could provide win-win situation for both the world economy and for the environment.
The two canals, the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal can not easily meet the dramatic increase in sea transport in the near future, and the passes around the Cape of Good Hope is too long. Passing through the Arctic might also mean substantial decrease in fossil fuel consumption of fast increasing world shipping activities.
Iceland is ideally situated for trans-shipment ports for future Arctic shipping. Moreover, development of alternative energy technologies, such as hydrogen technology could help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from shipping. In Iceland we have been experimenting with hydrogen technology in public transport, and we intend to bring this experience and the new technology to maritime transportation.
Iceland is fortunate to have rich sources of clean renewable energy. Today, this energy takes care of more than 70 per cent of our energy needs. All our electricity and house heating is provided for by our clean renewable energy. Our renewable energy moreover provides for much lower carbon emissions in energy intensive industry. With the development of hydrogen and other clean energy technologies we may also be able to cross the Arctic in a more environmentally sound way. This might sound as a daydream. But let us remember that few at the turn of the 20th century foresaw that the bulk of our energy would be supplied by our waterfalls and geysers.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is my firm view that Governments on all sides of the Arctic Ocean should take a serious look at the possibility of opening up a new transarctic transportation route, to connect the Northern Atlantic directly with the Pacific Ocean. The opening of such a route would decrease the reliance of the world economy on present routes and be an important contribution to global security. This conference and your expertise will provide a valuable contribution to our future policy discussion on this important matter.
I therefore wish you success in your conference, which I am sure will be fruitful, while I sincerely hope that you will have the opportunity to enjoy my beautiful home region.