How a regional clean development mechanism for the Arctic could more effectively combat climate change

OPINION: Reykjavik is already pretty eco-friendly. It could do more to reduce emissions by working with other Arctic communities, than by focusing on incremental improvements at home.

Reykjavik is already one of the greener cities in the Arctic. (Kjell Jøran Hansen / CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Reykjavik is a global leader on climate change. It’s working to be carbon neutral by 2040. To most people, this is a success story. But to me, it’s starting to look like a missed opportunity. Why?

One, making a green city like Reykjavik even greener is kind of expensive. The city is already powered almost entirely by hydroelectric power and geothermal heat. So, in order to become carbon neutral, it is betting on investments in bus rapid transit, light rail, vehicle electrification, and bicycle lanes, as well as land use changes that can increase density and reduce demand for transportation. However, these kinds of investments, while largely positive, may not produce the most cost effective emissions reductions.

Two, there are many towns and villages across the Arctic that aren’t very green. In fact, most remote Arctic communities use diesel as their primary fuel. A recent study of communities in the Canadian Arctic found opportunities for savings of up to $30 million per community and for reducing a community’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75 percent. However, financing capital-intensive investments like renewables can be a challenge for these smaller communities.

And three, the climate doesn’t really care where you cut emissions — just that you actually do it. Focusing on emissions within one’s own city limits can be tempting and familiar. However, the challenge of climate change is also to focus on the networks of emissions in which one’s city is embedded and upon which one can have a positive impact. Many of these networks of emissions, like food and manufacturing systems, extend even beyond national boundaries.

So, that made me wonder, how could a city take credit for cutting emissions somewhere else?

It turns out that there are more than 850 communities in the Arctic that are off the grid. These communities primarily import diesel fuel to heat and power their homes. However, many lack the financial and administrative capacity to reduce their diesel consumption or switch to reliable alternatives themselves. Diesel use in the Arctic produces immense amounts of soot, which blackens Arctic ice and contributes to climate change impacts experienced throughout the Arctic. It causes health problems. And it can even take up around half a family’s monthly budget.

So, my question to cities like Reykjavik: Why not create cheaper emissions reductions outside the city, while investing in Arctic communities that depend upon dirty fuel imports at the same time? As a leader on climate change, Reykjavik could serve as a kind of regional infrastructure and development bank, investing in other Arctic communities, reducing fuel consumption, improving air quality, protecting Arctic ice, and creating green jobs, while meeting their goals for carbon neutrality in a cost-effective manner.

How would this work? A city like Reykjavik would share their intent to invest in Arctic communities. Towns and villages that had enough interested families would commit to participate in the program. The city would send a team to improve insulation, lighting, appliances, and other quick wins, hiring and training local workers when possible. It would train residents to monitor the projects over time, to ensure the improvements are working as intended. And, at the end of it all, the city would take credit for all of the emissions reductions and could even share in some of the cost reductions that result.

So, why would a city like Reykjavik do this? One, you get more emissions reductions for significantly less money, while reducing the impact of diesel soot on Arctic ice. (In fact, replacing diesel generators with renewables actually saves money in the long run.) Two, you would improve the lives of families across the Arctic and help stabilize their communities in the face of climate change. And three, you would elevate Iceland’s influence and leadership on climate change, uniting the Arctic as an emerging region through shared, high impact investments.

How you get to carbon neutrality shows not only what you value, but who you value. Do you focus only on the people in your city? Or are we all in this thing together? Climate change is one of those issues that demands we act beyond borders. But no city is really going to do that, unless they can take credit for their emissions reductions and share in the financial benefits. So, let’s continue to look for innovative approaches for cities like Reykjavik to meet their aggressive climate goals, while ensuring that no one in the Arctic is left behind.

Sanjay Seth is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

This piece is one of a series of op-eds written by student-scholars of the Arctic Innovators Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. You can read the full series on this site.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)