Facing a green future - Ávarp á ráðstefnu sveitar- og héraðsstjórna í Evrópuráðinu í Strassborg
Ávarp flutt á ensku á ráðstefnu sveitar- og héraðsstjórna í Evrópuráðinu í Strassborg 22. mars 2023
It is an honour for me to address the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities on behalf of the Icelandic Presidency of the Council of Europe and leading up to the fourth summit of heads of state and government in Iceland in May.
Iceland took over the Presidency of the Council of Europe in November last year, at a critical time for unity in Europe. The priorities of the Icelandic Presidency reflect our commitment to the Council’s core values.
We also use this platform to champion the rights of women and girls, the environment, and children and youth.
These four pillars are the priorities of our Presidency.
Firstly, Iceland has put a strong focus on human rights, democracy, and rule of law - the core principles of the Council. We must return to our fundamental principles and the framework that has kept us together. In a time of democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism, democracy cannot be considered in isolation from the rule of law and human rights.
Secondly, the Icelandic Presidency prioritizes the environment – where the interrelationship between human rights and the environment is highlighted. We also promote innovative solutions in green government. In Iceland all governmental institutions are encouraged to take steps to limit their environmental impact.
These steps are called the green steps and the organisations can receive governmental vetting of their progress, increasing awareness both among staff but also the general public.
Thirdly, we place a strong emphasis on the rights of children and young people and including young people in decision-making remains our priority. During our Presidency, consultative meetings with young people have been held and we will ensure the voices of young people will be recognized at the summit in Reykjavík.
Iceland promotes child-centered policy making through integrating services and protection systems for children. An early model of this approach is the Icelandic Barnahús – or Children’s house – a child-friendly, interdisciplinary, and multi-agency response center for children suffering from sexual abuse.
For a small nation, the Congress has truly been a valuable platform to gain knowledge and valuable connections across the European local government level. One of the most important products of this cooperation is The European Charter of Local Self-Government. Few things are more valuable to local authorities than the freedom of municipalities to serve their residents and shape the local environment in present and future.
Local authorities know the needs of their residents, develop services and conditions best suited in each area. As a result, they often are at the forefront of implementing an innovative approach towards services. I know local authorities often feel the state is slow to react and conservative in implementing innovations. The dialogue between the levels of administration can therefore be challenging.
Icelandic authorities are indeed facing challenges regarding the local government level. The biggest one is undoubtfully the number of small municipalities. As a surprise to many, we are only 360.000 people living in 64 municipalities. This means we have 18 municipalities per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 4.6 municipalities in the other Nordic countries. Almost half of our municipalities have less than 1.000 inhabitants. Ten municipalities have less than 250 inhabitants.
There is a wide range from the biggest municipality in the capital city Reykjavík with 136.000 inhabitants to the smallest one, located in the Westfjords, with only 42 people.
Facing the future, Icelandic authorities have a clear vision for the local government stage. We want all parts of the country to have flourishing settlements with access to basic services, exemplary living conditions and employment opportunities. To reach these objectives, so-called freedom of residence (búsetufrelsi) is crucial. With this concept we refer to the right of people to choose their place of residence anywhere in the country in the assurance of our goal to promote equal access to services, good living conditions and job opportunities as possible in the whole country.
The government’s policy is stated in a strategic action plan in municipal affairs every three years. The action plan aims to enable local authorities to deal with existing challenges and strengthen the local government stage to face the future. In the light of our emphasis on coordination, a wide consultation for all five policies of the ministry in the field of municipalities, regional affairs, transport, planning and housing was sought for the first time jointly in the years 2022 and 2023.
The first step of the consultation process consisted of a list of detailed questions sent to the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities and all municipalities in the country last summer.
The second step of the consultation consisted of project workshops with local authorities, the public and other stakeholders last autumn.
The third step of consultation consisted of an open consultation about the green paper of a new strategic action plan in municipal affairs in the Icelandic government consultation portal in the end of last year.
Finally, we received valuable input in all our strategic planning with a survey among young people aged 16-20 in the beginning of this year. In the survey we asked a group of 400 people in this age group some basic questions about their present and future lifestyle. With the results it became clear that employment opportunities are the most important factor for young people when choosing a place to live. Those results are a matter of contemplation for the government.
Now the white paper on a new strategic action plan in municipal affairs is back in the consultation portal. We are interested to see the reviews as soon as the start to come in. After the process of the consultation portal is completed, the proposed parliamentary resolution process and traditional consultation within the parliament will take place. If everything goes as planned, we will have a new strategic action plan in place in the middle of the year.
The sustainability of municipalities is promoted with mergers of municipalities and other actions within the strategic action plan in municipal affairs,. Another improvement within green administration is rooted in the Covid lesson of the advantage of online communication. This lesson reflects in many positive ways within the municipalities, e.g., in the increased flexibility of holding local government meetings online, which can be practical in a sparsely populated country like Iceland.
Digital transformation has in some areas overturned our criteria for approaching various projects. The location of jobs is a good example. Previously, we assumed all state jobs were local unless otherwise specifically stated. Now, we assume all state jobs are non-local unless they need to be processed in a certain place.
Green administration goes further than legislation and strategic plan in municipal affairs. All five ministry policies, i.e., in the field of municipalities, regional development, transport, planning, and housing, contain environmental and climatic actions. This has led to a special action within the new strategic action plan in municipal affairs to map out all defined actions of municipalities leading to improvements in the field of the environment and climate issues.
This action will not only give a better overview of ongoing projects, but also lead us to more opportunities to achieve even better results in the field of environment and climate issues.
Another fundamental action within the strategic plan in municipal affairs is analyzing criteria for sustainability in the fields of environment, society and finance in accordance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
We must never be too busy dealing with present problems in our immediate environment to lose sight of the broader picture. Like many nations all over the world, Icelanders face big challenges such as declining democratic participation, population demographics and environmental threats. Icelanders take their responsibility of reducing greenhouse gas emissions seriously.
Our aim is to reduce emission under Iceland's direct responsibility by 55% compared to emission in 2005. Projects in progress will deliver between 40 and 46% reduction in greenhouse gases. Our next step is to update the plan with more ambitious goals for each sector in consultation with local authorities and the business community. This way we are optimistic about reaching our goal.
The Agreement on the Platform for the Coalition Government emphasizes the will of the government to work in a close collaboration with local authorities to ensure the success of actions in the field of climate and environmental issues. It refers to the introduction of a circular economy, actions in the field of sewage, pollution control, water conservation, nature conservation and biodiversity protection.
Municipalities play a key role in the fight against climate change and adapting society to the changes that will inevitably occur because of global warming. Environmental issues are constantly rising on municipalities priorities list. Emphasis is placed on the need to better integrate municipal and regional planning policy to promote better utilization of infrastructure and services, support climate goals and adaptation to climate change, create a better overview of the supply of land and housing and support planning administration.
All municipalities are obliged to adopt a climate policy according to the Act on Climate Matters. The purpose of the policy is to make it easier for local authorities to systematically reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from their activities and to set an example with direct and indirect effects on Iceland's climate commitments.
The strategy must contain quantitative goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the municipality's carbon offset, along with an action plan on how to reach those goals.
The current legal provision covers direct greenhouse gas emissions from activities controlled by the municipalities. Leading municipalities have taken a step further and included all activities within the municipality. More municipalities will undoubtfully follow in their steps soon. In some cases, this work has been done at the level of reginal associations. Some municipalities are members of the Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy.
All policymaking must consider present status, public policy, and the uniqueness of Icelandic living condition in a sparsely populated country. Thanks to the foresight of grandparents and great grandparents, 97% of space heating in Iceland is done using renewable energy sources.
Because of our decarbonized electricity grid, based on hydropower and geothermal energy there are great opportunities to be successful in the upcoming energy transition, that is the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Work is currently underway to facilitate and accelerate the energy transition in transportation, on land, sea and air.
Our goal is to be carbon neutral and independent of fossil fuels by 2040. We have experience of being self-sufficient in terms of energy used for space heating and electricity. We envision our future where we have also achieved that goal in terms of transportation.
Moving towards a green future, we believe few key elements will lead us the way towards freedom of residence in favor of the environment. Firstly, we will continue to emphasize the use of natural resources such as geothermal heat and electricity from renewable resources for house heating and transport. Secondly, we will continue to develop digital technology to facilitate communication of various kinds as has been mentioned. Thirdly, there is the growing interest of companies in taking on social responsibility for the benefit of the population and the environment.
For the last few years, we have talked a lot about the threats our environment is facing. Now I feel we are more focused on solutions. We have an obligation to empower people, not to frighten them. We must use the knowledge of science and the creative energy of people and businesses to build a greener future. Looking back to the history of Iceland in the last century, and how we shifted from coals and oil to renewable energy to heat our houses and to power our businesses, can be a valuable lesson for the 21st century. We need optimism, rational optimism, to move on and to create a sustainable future.
Thank you for listening.