With its extensive problems of past deforestation, land degradation and desertification, and experiences from a century of practical soil conservation, afforestation, and revegetation, Iceland provides an interesting venue for a dynamic dialogue on challenging LULUCF issues.
Vast areas of land in Iceland have undergone extensive deforestation and subsequent vegetation degradation and soil erosion since the beginning of human settlement in the ninth century. As much as half of the original vegetative cover may have been destroyed, caused in part by overexploitation through wood cutting and overgrazing under harsh natural conditions. About 95% of the forests and woodlands once covering at least 25% of the area of Iceland may have been lost, and a national survey completed in 1997 revealed that serious soil erosion still characterizes about 40% of the country. During the last 50 years, extensive drainage of wetlands has taken place. In some areas 80-90% of all wetlands have been affected yet only a small portion is at present cultivated. This drainage is a threat to the large carbon stock stored in peat land soils and accordingly causing large emissions.
To halt the destructive forces, a legislation was passed in 1907 (“Act on Forestry and Mitigation of Soil Erosion”) aimed to halt soil erosion, conserve existing woodlands and expand forest and woodland cover through afforestation. Iceland“s 100 years of such national operation is one of the longest standing in the world.
Numerous success stories about stabilizing desertified land and making it productive amply demonstrate how current international goals can be achieved. A large proportion of the Icelandic farmers and a great number of individuals, municipalities and NGOs participate in soil conservation, revegetation and afforestation schemes. Such actions are important in carbon sequestration into soils and vegetation, restoring biological diversity and in providing opportunities for productive human use. Land restoration programs, afforestation and land use decision making is closely interlinked with numerous research programs. The Government of Iceland and the Icelandic community have a history of working together to develop successful afforestation, revegetation and ecosystem restoration schemes for vast areas, and to protect existing ecosystems and unique landscapes. This experience is being utilized in the development cooperation oriented Land Restoration Training Programme, that is presently being considered to become a part of the United Nations University programme.
The Icelandic government has in its Climate Change Strategy for 2007-2050 decided to consider wetland restoration as one option in reducing GHG emission. Conservation of carbon stock in wetland could be approached in a similar way as suggested regarding reduced deforestation.
Carbon sequestration, based on multiple environmental, social and economic goals, is one of the tools in Iceland“s strategy for meeting Kyoto commitments, and subsequent higher targets. Iceland is an excellent platform to study and debate the dual role of conserving and restoring soils and vegetation for mitigating climate change and simultaneously sustaining society and other environmental goals.
The main institutions in Iceland linked to LULUCF issues
Five Icelandic partners are working with the local organizing committee on the preparation of this Informal Dialogue on LULUCF that will take place in Iceland:
Soil Conservation Service – www.land.is
The severity of soil erosion and land condition in Iceland prompted the establishment of the only designated soil conservation service in northern Europe, Landgraedsla Rikisins (the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service, SCS), which directly translates to “the State“s Institute for Healing the Land”. The main goals are mitigation of land degradation and desertification, rehabilitation and restoration of degraded land, ecosystem protection and sustainable land use. Tools include improved understanding of problems and solutions, education and advice, enhanced land user responsibility and participatory approaches, and regulatory tools. Support schemes include the highly successful Farmers Heal the Land and Land Improvement Fund projects, which reflect an increasing focus on land user and community involvement. The SCS also has direct involvement in reclamation work. The institute has well supported professional facilities, including remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) tools. It is building up an extensive research and monitoring scheme for carbon sequestration by revegetation.
Iceland Forest Service – www.skog.is
The Iceland Forest Service (IFS) was established in 1907. It is the state forestry authority in Iceland and is under the Ministry of Environment. The IFS manages 57 national forests throughout Iceland, totalling about 10 000 ha. Traditionally, species and provenance trials have been the mainstay of forest research in Iceland and they are still important. In recent years have seen increased emphasis on research into forest ecology, carbon and nutrient cycles, establishment problems, insect pests and pathogens and the effects of afforestation on plant and animal communities. Icelandic Forest Research (Research branch og IFS) monitors carbon stocks and carbon sequestration in Icelandic forests and woodlands. Along with woodland conservation, afforestation of treeless, degraded former rangeland is the mainstay of Icelandic forestry. Five Regional Afforestation Projects (RAPs) have been established to manage the government grants scheme for afforestation on farms, each in its own region of the country. Around 700 farms currently participate in afforestation and/or establishing shelterbelts.
Agricultural University of Iceland – www.lbhi.is
The Agricultural University of Iceland has a mandate to cover all aspects of agriculture and environmental sciences. AUI was established in 2005, founded on previous research and educational institutions that had a long history of research related to assessment of land condition, grazing, soils and soil erosion, restoration and soil conservation research, an emphasis that reflects national priority to combat land degradation and desertification. The national assessment of soil erosion and desertification, published in 1997 and led by AUI in cooperation with ISCS, received the prestigious Nordic Nature and Environment Award in 1998. The AUI has currently a leading role in employing GIS and remote sensing in environmental research in Iceland and hosts large GIS national databases for land and land use. The university is also involved in international climate change research, focusing on both ecosystem carbon flux and carbon sequestration in relation to reclamation and land use change. It has ties to several US and European universities and institutions. The AUI has a B.Sc. program in forest science, restoration ecology and management (FS-REM Program), and also offers M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees on these topics. Other university programs include agriculture, landscape architecture and environmental planning, nature and environmental science. The University has a leading role in research on carbon sequestration in soils and by afforestation and revegetation, in close collaboration with the Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service.
Land Restoration Training Program
Land degradation, manifested in vegetation deterioration, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and eventually in a more persistent form as desertification, is a global problem of major proportions. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment ranks land degradation among the world’s greatest environmental challenges. Severe land degradation affects climate and biological diversity, reduces environmental security, destabilizes societies, reduces food security, and increases poverty. In Iceland, invaluable experience and knowledge on combating land degradation and re-vegetating denuded landscapes has been gained over the past century. In light of that, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Iceland has initiated a training programme aiming at assisting developing countries in building their own capacities to mitigate land degradation and desertification problems. The programme is jointly conducted by the Agricultural University of Iceland (AUI) and the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service (SCS). This training programme is built on the same concept as the UNU Geothermal and Fishery training programmes that are already operating in Iceland. Carbon sequestration issues are included in the programme.
The Farmers Association of Iceland – www.bondi.is
The Farmers Association of Iceland has about 3000 members. Since Icelandic farmers usually own their farms it is also the largest association of landowners in Iceland. Icelandic farmers are very aware of the problems of soil erosion and land degradation caused by centuries of grazing on sensitive Icelandic volcanic soil. Recent decades have brought significant reductions in produced quantities and the number of farmers, not least sheep farmers. Many farmers have also chosen to give up traditional farming, partly or fully, to participate in extensive reforestation and land rehabilitation projects that are run in cooperation with the Soil Conservation Service and the Forestry Service. The largest land rehabilitation project is called Farmers Heal the Land (Bęndur gręša landiš) with about 600 participants. The largest afforestation project consists of five regional afforestation projects has about 700 participating farms. It is therefore clear that the issues of land improvements trough revegetation and afforestation are of major importance to Icelandic farmers.