Iceland has low forest cover and will need to increase afforestation efforts to meet its climate change targets, writes the Icelandic Forest Service.
‘Skógrækt ríkisins’, the Icelandic Forest Service (IFS), was established according to the Forestry and Soil Conservation Act of 1907. It was then split into two agencies, the IFS and the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland in 1914. Today, the IFS has a new name, ‘Skógræktin’, which it received after merging with the five regional afforestation projects (RAPs) in 2016. IFS is the state forestry authority in Iceland and is governed by the Ministry of Environment and Resources. Furthermore, IFS manages the National Forests, covering about 7,000 hectares, or 5% of Icelandic forests and woodlands. Most of these forests and woodlands are native birch woodland, but there are also cultivated forests of both native and introduced species.
Forest cover in Iceland is quite low compared to other European countries. At the time of human settlement almost 1,150 years ago, birch forest and woodland covered 25-40% of Iceland’s land area. Today in 2017, a total of 197,200 hectares – or 1.91% of Iceland – is covered with forest and other wooded land. Natural birch woodland cover is 154,700 hectares and cultivated forest covers 42,500 hectares.
State funding of private afforestation started in the 1980s and was in the beginning managed by IFS. The first regional afforestation project was established in Eastern Iceland in 1990. In the next ten years, four more RAPs were established in the remaining regions. The RAPs were independent of the IFS.
Within the farm afforestation grants scheme, contracts are made with landowners. As of 2017 a total of 620 contracts have been signed with landowners and of these contracts, 54,000 hectares are dedicated to afforestation; however, only 26,000 hectares have been planted. Each farm’s afforestation grant covers 97% of establishment costs, including fencing, trails, site preparation, planting and precommercial thinning.
State funding of farm afforestation reached its peak in the period from 2005-2009 but has since then faced severe cut-backs resulting from the financial collapse in 2008. As a result of these cut-backs, annual plantation decreased from six million seedlings in 2007 down to three million in 2016.
A very large area north, west and south of the volcano Hekla consists mostly of desertified land at fairly low elevation. It was wooded at the time of settlement, but the forests were eradicated and grazing, along with blowing volcanic tephra, caused severe erosion in the area. Tephra is not only a problem immediately after an eruption, since in an open landscape it is blown back and forth for years and can be the source of dust storms for decades. In the shelter of a forest however, the ash quickly settles and becomes covered by vegetation.
An ambitious effort to reclaim forest and woodland around Hekla was initiated in 2005. The aim is to afforest up to 100,000 ha of land, primarily with native birch, in the hope of reducing disturbance from future eruptions of Hekla. The ‘Hekluskógar’ project is a joint effort of the Soil Conservation Service and the IFS with special funding from the state budget. These two organisations have in co-operation planned other similar projects but have not received support from the state yet.
Other collaborative projects are in progress, largely with the aim of carbon sequestration. The national power company of Iceland (Landsvirkjun) and Associated Icelandic Ports (Faxaflóahafnir) are examples of companies that are interested in setting environmental goals including carbon sequestration with afforestation in co-operation with IFS.
The IFS has a long tradition of collaboration with the Icelandic Forestry Association, a non-governmental organisation emphasising afforestation. There is also collaboration with the environmental NGO Landvernd on a tree-planting project in the Hekla forests area and wider collaboration with them along with Birdlife Iceland and others on developing best practices guidelines in forestry.
In general, Icelandic afforestation involves planned and cultivated forests managed with multiple-use objectives. These objectives can best be described based on the three principle aspects of forest sustainability: economic (wood production, non-wood products), ecological (ecosystem processes, habitats, wildlife, soil and water conservation, CO2 sequestration) and social (job opportunities for people in rural areas, recreation, spiritual, public health). The main objective of the farm afforestation grants scheme is to build a forest resource and to increase forest cover to 5% of land under 400m above sea level. It is clear that in order to achieve this goal, the government needs to increase the budget of this activity.
Recently, a new government has taken over Iceland and has, among other things, set a goal for Iceland to achieve a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 1990) by 2030.
The government wants to do better than the Paris Climate Agreement envisages and aims for a carbon neutral Iceland not later than 2040. Carbon neutrality will be achieved by a sustained decline in greenhouse gas emissions, but also by changing land use to decrease emissions and increase sequestration in accordance with internationally recognised standards, taking into account ecosystems and planning considerations. Afforestation will hopefully play a major role in this approach.
It is hard to say how and if the new government will achieve these goals. Global warming is a fact and we can’t wait any longer for powerful actions. It will require strong political will to channel funding towards climate change mitigation in general and carbon sequestration through afforestation in particular. Since Iceland has decided to follow the EU in this regard, it would be very helpful to Icelandic forestry if the EU included land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) as an important pillar in their policy and in particular promoted afforestation more strongly. However, looking at these goals, the IFS can only be optimistic about the future.
Sigríður Júlía Brynleifsdóttir
Head of Forest Resources
Icelandic Forest Service
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Government 24, which will be published in January, 2018.