Green and going greener: a story from Akureyri, Iceland


About a decade ago, the Icelandic city of Akureyri asked itself a question: Can we become carbon neutral? Catch and repurpose literally all of our pollution? They decided to try.

Burned by the 2008 financial crisis that crushed Iceland's economy, the nation learned a lesson that they've applied to the climate crisis: don't spend what you don't have. That attitude drove Akureyri's carbon neutral revolution.

From methane-powered buses, to biodiesel plants running on used cooking oil, to composting the town's food waste, Akureyri is close to its goal. But has this green shift been a just transition?

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Iman: It isn't all doom and gloom on the climate front. 

Iman: Today on "Just Transition", we're hoping to let a little light in.  

To do that, we're going to tiny Iceland. Population? Hardly anyone, that is around 340,000 people. We're focusing in on the country's second largest city, Akureyri, in the North. Akureyri has been changing a lot in recent years.  

Eyrun: We have insects now that we didn't when I was young because there's a warmer climate now.  

Iman: It's actually been cold and snowy lately in Akureyri. But Arctic scientists are warning not to be fooled. The far north is warming up to three times faster than the rest of the planet. Ice sheets are on the retreat. Snow darkened by soot is absorbing more heat. Snow cover has decreased by 10 percent over the last 30 years.  

Clip 1: We are here standing near the place where Okjokull once lived.   

Clip 2: We're hoping that this memorial may serve as a prototype for other communities around the world who are interested in finding ways to come to terms emotionally and intellectually with the loss of glaciers, as with climate change, more generally. 

Iman: This is from a recent funeral in Iceland, for a glacier. It's the first to melt away. But scientists predict many of Iceland's glaciers will be gone in 200 years if global warming continues.  

Just so you have an idea. Since 1970, the world's largest glaciers have lost 90 feet of thickness. That's seven stories worth of ice. In response to these changes, the people of Akureyri have set themselves an ambitious goal to become carbon neutral, to stop wasting energy or anything, for that matter. The town is inching closer to its goal, its citizens motivated in part by lessons learned from the Great Recession of 2008 and the U.S. housing collapse. But Islanders are lucky. They have a few natural advantages.  

Rakel: Not everywhere in the world is so lucky to have so many green energy sources, and I don't remember having to use oil or coal to heat anything.  

Iman: Akureyri, Iceland, green and going greener, creating new jobs and maybe becoming a model for the rest of us.  

[MUSIC] 

Iman: Welcome to "Just Transition". This podcast is bought to you by Context, a platform powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Just Transition" is about the effort to make the planet cleaner and greener.  

Clip 3: And recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.  

Iman: Without leaving anyone behind.   

Clip 4: Just transition, but affecting people and communities.  

Iman: I'm your host, Iman Amrani.  

This podcast will look at how we are to ensure a just transition and what's at stake if it's ignored.  

Clip 5: There is so much that we can do to keep this from getting worse.  

Gudmundur: So, in 2010, we built the composting plant. In 2011, we built the biodiesel plant to collect the cooking oil. In 2014, we built the methane plant from the old landfill site.  

Iman: That's Gudmundur Sigurdarson with a quick overview of Akureyri's carbon neutrality campaign. Gudmundur has a bird's eye view of things. He runs Vistorka, a company that oversees the programs.  

Gudmundur: We bought the first methane bus in 2016, and now we have four of them, of a six bus fleet. And we've been planting trees around Akureyri and we hope to have that what we call the green scarf completed in a few years.  

Iman: So now that we've got a hint of what Akureyri is up to, let's dig in a bit deeper.  

Eyrun: Yeah, OK.  

Iman: Eyrun, could you just tell me about where exactly you are today? I find it really weird doing these calls with people and trying to like, workout outside your window what's going on? 

Eyrun: Outside my window is mostly snow because we had snowstorm yesterday, so there were no schools or anything. But luckily it wasn't as bad as predicted it would be. Some people didn't get electricity for some while.  

Iman: Oh, really?  

Eyrun I live in northeast Iceland in the biggest town in that area, which is called Akureyri. We have 19,000 people and that is big here in Iceland, probably not big where you're from. So, I have two dogs and when we are all at home, I have five girls. So, kids.  

Iman: This is Eyrun Káradóttir, a mum and a native of Akureyri.  

Eyrun: Ok, girls. Here in Akureyri... [GIRLS GIGGLING]. 

Iman: Those are her daughters.  

Iman: Can I just quickly ask because you were saying that there was a snow storm outside and the schools were closed, but where you are, are snowstorms like quite frequent? Does that usually happen?  

Eyrun: Yeah, it usually happens every now and then we have like these big storms. Like last year, the similar sized storm was in February, but we have like these big ones - in 2019 it was really bad. A lot of houses didn't get electricity for a long time and there were animals like horses that got outside that were suffocated in the snow and tragic things happened.  

Iman: So is that the way, has it always been like that since you were growing up?

Eyrun: No, that's way less snow, as it used to be. When I was young, I would remember in the morning my family opening the door and we couldn't see anything but snow. So they had to throw me out and the shovel and I had to shovel the snow from the door so that my family could get out of the house. But my kids have never had to do that, so it's completely changing.  

Iman: And can I ask traditionally, what's the area known for like historically in terms of the work that people would do? 

Eyrun: Like in most places in Iceland, there were fisheries. The boats, there's a harbor here. We have like this long fjord, so that was the main - their agriculture. There are good lands here. There are a lot of sheep farms and cow farms here... 

Rakel: I am in charge of a show called (“Icelandic name”), which just means from the north.  

Iman: We're also connecting with Rakel Hinriksdottir, a local TV reporter, also born and raised in Akureyri.  

Rakel: So I travel around in the north and interview people just about what they're doing for daily life, I guess.  

Iman: Daily life. That's what we want to hear about because it's changed a lot in Akureyri, from recycling to riding electric bikes. About a decade ago, the city asked itself a question: "Can we become carbon neutral? Catch and repurpose literally all of our pollution." They decided to try. They now capture much of the methane gas that seeps from their landfills. They've got about 40 pipes drilled right down into the buried dump. The methane is caught and pumped to a plant where it's converted into biofuel for buses and fishing boats.  

Gudmundur: Since 2014, we have extracted around one million liters of methane from the landfill site just to compare it to something. A normal family car uses around 4000 liters of petrol per year.  

Iman: The goal, Gudmundur says, is not to let any greenhouse gasses escape to turn carbon flows into carbon loops; recycle and repurpose everything. It's a collective effort, and it starts at home heating.  

Eyrun: [SPEAKS ICELANDIC]  

Iman: We're peeking in on breakfast at Eyrun's house. Never a dull moment as she gets her teens ready for school.  

Iman: And could you tell me a little bit about your kids and your family just to start off? I mean, you said that you have five children. Yeah, that's quite impressive.  

Eyrun: Well, me and my partner, we have combined, we have five girls. I have three from my former relationship, and she has two.  

Iman: And what's the-  what's the kind of family schedule that you must have a lot of sports classes, things going on like crazy mornings and things like that?  

Eyrun: Well, yeah, when we're all there, it's kind of. Because now we are renovating, so we just have one bathroom. So with two girls living together with five girls, so we're seven girls, all with long hair and in the same house. So... 

Iman: Oh my goodness. Just in terms of how a day plays out and how you can go about making sustainable decisions where you live, could you just walk me through some of that?  

Eyrun: Yeah. If I take just an example of one normal day, maybe I would start in the morning making my kids breakfast. They would boil eggs or just fry them on a pan. Then, for example, they would go off to school and I would put the egg shells in the green basket as we call it for food waste and also put the used cooking oil from the eggs in a plastic bottle through the green funnel that we use and on my way to work, I could use my electric bike, cycling to work. We have here in town 11 recycling stations and there we have like this orange bin for the cooking oil and the cooking oil would go to a company called Orkey, which changes the cooking oil into biodiesel. But the food waste would be picked up by a truck that picks up our trash, and it would drive it to the composting plant, which is here in Eyjafjörður, in the fjord. Not far from us. And there it will be composted into mulch or soil.  

Gudmundur: We actually call that plant our climate hero.  

Iman: Here's Gudmundur again. 

Gudmundur: Because compared to putting all the organic waste into landfill, it reduces the emission from Akureyri of 10000 tonnes of CO2 per year.  

Eyrun: We have like piles of compost for three different places in town where people can get it and use it in their own garden.  

Iman: So once Eyrun has wrapped up her recycling, she pedals to work.  

Eyrun: And then coming home and making dinner, that would be like a typical day or asking my girls to take the bus to their football practice, volleyball practice or gymnastics or acting class. They have a lot to do.  

Iman: Eyrun actually works with Gudmundur. She was his first hire. For the moment, it's just the two of them. But as this transition continues, they say they'll be creating more jobs.  

Eyrun: And my role in the company as a teacher and a biologist is teaching people in this town and kids in the school and elderly people and just companies and everybody about the climate actions we are doing here in Akureyri and how they can help.  

Iman: Could you tell me a little bit about the CO2 challenge and exactly what that is?  

Eyrun: Yeah, the CO2 in the air is invisible to us. So we don't have any sense of how much we pollute when we drive our petrol car. So we wanted to tackle that problem and see if we could do a little challenge to make people realize how much CO2 was coming from their car, their own car. So we made like two big containers filled with water.  

Iman: Imagine here like a weight lifting barbell with a heavy bucket attached to it.  

Eyrun: And so we have a challenge asking people to try to lift the weights that we have put up and guessing how much it is and telling them then that is just a week emissions from a petrol car and asking them also if they could lift this weight 52 times, which would be what you pollute with your car in a year.  

Eyrun: What kind of car do you have?  

Gudmundur: I have a Skoda small petrol car.  

Eyrun: And how much petrol do you think you use in a week?  

Gudmundur: I don't know. Maybe 20 liters   

Eyrun: Here I have the CO2 challenge to see if people can lift their own CO2 emissions for one week. So do you like to try? So what would you guess this is?  

Gudmundur: I don't know. Maybe 40 or 50 kilos?  

Eyrun: Yeah, you're close.  

Iman: The correct answer is 48 kilos.  

Eyrun: They're really shocked at how heavy it is. So just by- just that, just this awareness of: 'Really? Is it this heavy? Like, how can that be? It's just in the air. I don't even see it.'  

Eyrun: Eyrun's got other tricks up her sleeve, including a plan to fly huge black balloons over the town so neighbors can see how much space a car's exhaust actually takes up. She's basically scheming all the time.  

Iman: So you've got a hectic kind of family life, lots of bustle and energy going on. How important is the environment, sustainable habits and practices and all of these types of things fit into your daily life with the family?  

Eyrun: Yeah, it's just your routine and it involves everything you do. So my kids, with the recycling, everything we do, they don't know anything else. And also it's in their school, it's everywhere. So this has just become the way we live.  

Iman: I'm also wondering how can we have a just transition moving away from practices that are damaging the planet and damaging people to something that's more sustainable?  

Eyrun: Yeah, exactly. Just make it the obvious option. Yeah, just make it like the normal obvious option. And then I think it will just become a habit and routine and nobody will think about it. And that's how I feel like in the recycling system here, we've done it for 11 years and we have generations now that don't know anything else than to recycle. Like, I have nine categories at my home.  

Iman: Nine categories of recycling. Yeah, Eyrun's gotten her daughter, 14 year old Alice, to run through the list for us.  

Alice: We recycle three different kinds of paper: glass, metal, plastic, food waste and cooking oil. And lastly, we have a bin for the things we can't recycle.  

Iman: These kids are seriously up on the environment. Here's Eyrun with daughters Sigyn, 11 and Briet, 12.  

Eyrun: OK, girls, the bus is free and we have methane bus and produce methane from the old landfill and we try to not drive our cars. Is that important?  

Eyrun’s children: Yes, very.  

Eyrun: Why is it important? 

Eyrun’s children: If we drive cars and throw away food that becomes CO2 and it's very bad the world changes and then becomes hotter, and then the rainforest is burning and the ice is melting, and then all the animals are at risk.  

Eyrun: And you know all these things because I told you or you learn it in school?  

Eyrun’s children: Both.  

Iman: How do you raise kids to be aware of this? And how do you get them involved from a young age?  

Iman: If you're passionate about something, just as if I was a passionate soccer player or something, your kid will be involved in soccer and soccer practice and so on. But of course, they don't like it all the time. Like this discussion of 'Can you just drive me?' And when I say, use the bus, it's better for the environment. If I use some logic like that, they're like, 'Oh my god, I wish you were just a normal mom.' But of course, my oldest one was in a test recently where they were talking about environmental issues, and as he just got on and on and on and talked and talked-.  

Iman: Were you quite proud when you saw that?  

Eyrun: Yeah, I was. Yeah, I was. And especially for her to realize it wasn't that uncool.  

Iman: A mom who makes saving the environment cool for her teenage kids, no less. Eyrun's even got them helping the cause and TV.  

(Eyrun and daughters in an Icelandic TV ad.) 

Iman: If you're watching this ad made by Iceland's public broadcaster RBU, you'd see three of Eyruns' girls, Alice, Sigyn and Paris, sitting in a sushi restaurant chatting about composting food waste, as teens do right? At the end, they ask their waiter for a doggy bag for their leftovers so the food doesn't get tossed in the bin. 

Iman: Which changes have you really seen a transition into that has had a really kind of powerful impact?  

Eyrun: I think actually what it's like most has gone the most rapidly is kind of the electric bikes. When I was younger, they were not that many people go and you can see people in the wintertime having this really thick winter tires under their bicycle and they are cycling to work all year round and have nails in their bicycle tires because of the ice.  

Rakel: Right now, very cold, and there's snow everywhere. I'm not using my car. It's stuck in snow.  

Iman: This is Rakel again, the local reporter in Akureyri. Like Eyrun, she's a mum and grew up here. She's only 36, but she's lived in a lot of places. It's given her perspective.  

Rakel: I have lived in Copenhagen, which is probably one of the greenest cities in the world, I think. But I did live in the United States for four years as well, in Connecticut. And I don't really remember anything sort of besides the incredibly wasteful consumption.  

Iman: She sees that in Iceland, too, but it's new. When she was a child living with her grandparents nothing went to waste.  

Rakel: They were very, very environmentally conscious. They were making compost way before a lot of people that I know. And we were always discussing, you know, if I wanted to throw something out, my grandmother would ask me, ‘Are you sure you can't use it for something?’ And she would keep all the cereal boxes and we would create something out of them.  

Iman: There were still people like that around.  

Rakel: So I interviewed this 90 year old man right before Christmas, now last Christmas. Because he was raised in what I guess we call a mud hut in English, which is basically this type of house that people in Iceland used to live in because they couldn't build houses out of anything else. So they would just build houses out of mud and rocks. People were sleeping in the same beds to keep warm, and sometimes even there were farm animals in that room just for warmth. And this sort of reality seemed so distant for me now. But here is this person alive, and these are his memories and the real and his first Christmases that he remembers, he only got one present and it was a candle. And they were super happy with their candle.  

Iman: But then people lost sight of things, Rakel says. Let's fast forward just a couple of generations to the 2000s. Iceland is on fire, so to speak. Its economy is modern and booming. Icelanders finally feel like they're on the map. Rakel says it was a blessing and a curse.  

Rakel: Everyone was really excited about us being important. It sort of made everyone excited to hear news about Icelandic businessmen buying this and that hotel in Copenhagen. Or, you know, us sort of becoming something. We were actually noticed in some way, I guess. And we've always been very happy about making some sort of international appearance because I guess it's just being a small island with few inhabitants.  

Iman: Problem was the financier of those boom years, Iceland's overleveraged banks.  

(Montage of news recordings)  

Clip 6: “Data released this morning confirmed the difficulties facing the housing market.” 

Clip 7: “I would say by any common sense definition, we are in a recession.”  

Clip 8: “The most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression.” 

Iman: When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, Iceland's Big Three banks were holding seven to 10 times more debt than the country's entire GDP. The economy crashed, Rakel says. No one saw it coming, or wanted to.  

Rakel: People were so eager to get out of this sort of poverty and the opportunities and all the jobs people earning a lot of more money. It just seems like people sort of jumped from having nothing to having everything and not controlling what to do with it. You know, people get used to the new good things way too quickly, and they sort of forget where we came from  

Iman: In the credit crunch, thousands of Icelanders lost their savings. They had to hand over their nice cars, sometimes even their homes. But unlike the rest of the world, Iceland held its banks accountable, even sending some execs to jail, and Rakel says they learned a lesson you can apply today to the climate crisis. Don't spend what you don't have.  

Rakel: So, I mean, we've sort of moved even further, trying to find other things that we can do better. And, definitely nobody is stopping being just happy with the fact that we have green energy. We are thinking about our consumption as well. And I think that that is something that everyone, not just here, but everywhere, needs to think about more.  

Iman: That's the attitude that's fueling Akureyri's carbon neutral revolution. But one key question is whether this transition is just.  

Iman: So in terms of those changes happening in Iceland, and Akureyri specifically, has that provided any kind of employment for people?  

Rakel: The thing is that the sort of need for technical jobs has risen a lot and sort of people with technical knowledge, there are more jobs for them now because there's so much new machinery that you- I mean, you can't trust technology 100 percent. You need, you need people.  

Iman: So capturing methane, making biofuel, composting on a large scale, fixing electric bikes, setting up charging stations, all of those gigs require highly skilled workers. You need people running the recycling stations around town where a room drops off her metal plastic paper. All nine categories. 

Eyrun: Because of the climate change, it's more that we're creating jobs here. Just direct jobs here in Akureyri are at least 20 because of the climate actions we are taking. They're just creating new jobs. Engineering, for example, they're working with us. So there are a lot of in home pages, a lot of computer programming we're doing an- in my workplace and the advertising and so on. So, yeah, it's been quite good here in Akureyri, at least being able to contribute to the employment market.  

Iman: So Akureyri is creating jobs as it moves towards that holy grail of carbon neutrality. But there's a sense of urgency bordering at times on despair as climate change accelerates.  

Iman: What could you say to people who are feeling depressed, looking at the way things are at the moment and they're feeling kind of pessimistic about the future in terms of sustainability? What keeps you getting up every morning and kind of pushing ahead this agenda?  

Eyrun: What I feel is here, for example, we have this small town and we decided to do things differently from the capital city or where most people here in Iceland live. So we didn't need the capital or the government to decide anything for us. This just town decided to do this. So I think it doesn't matter where in the world you are, your town or your community or just your house. You can start doing something. Because I get emails from students in Mumbai, India, asking about the YouTube video that they saw from my company. So the world is so small and they're so easy to interact with people from all over the world.  

Eyrun: OK? Does the atmosphere become warm or cold? Because of all the CO2, we are putting in the atmosphere  

Eyrun’s children: Warm, really warm.  

Eyrun: And what can we do to change that?  

Eyrun’s children: Help the environment. 

Eyrun: Very good.  

Eyrun: Of course, it's crucial to have hope and believe you can change. I think it would be difficult not to if I didn't believe in the project myself.  

Iman: And there it is - hope in the face of incredible challenges in Akureyri Iceland and all before breakfast. Thank you, Eyrun and family and Rakel and Gudmundur. And thank you all for listening to Just Transition. If you'd like to read more about just transitions elsewhere, head to the Thomson Reuters website. Links are in the show notes.  

Just Transition is made by Antica productions and Context, a news platform powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

This episode was produced by Gerry Hadden 

Our associate producers are Abhi Raheja and Paula Sant’Anna. 

Sound design by Reza Dahya. 

Legal help from Melissa Tesla and Murshed Anwar. 

Our executive producer is Kathleen Goldhar. 

The president of Antica productions is Stuart Coxe. 

Our Context team includes Just Transition Editor Megan Rowling, and Editor-in-Chief Yasir Khan. 

The CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation is Antonio Zappulla.