I am thankful for the opportunity to address this conference of Parks and Nature which is one example of fruitful cooperation of the Nordic countries.
Browsing through the program of this conference I see a great variety of interesting topics concerning land and nature and urban environments and recreational areas, from all the Nordic countries. Focusing on the co-existence of man and nature and how to respond to natural crisis is important in today´s environmental discourse. You will be looking at how human behavior adversely affects our environments, how this can be countered or dealt with and how tourism is contributing to these impacts. On the agenda is also focus on green spaces in urban environments and how environmental sustainability can be increased/enhanced.
It is clear from the program that here you want to address the contemporary challenges of human kind of which many are directly linked with the interaction of man and nature. Nature is under a lot of stress due to the impact of our actions. Our obligation is to show responsibility by protecting nature and strive to limit our negative impact.
It is of great importance to coordinate efforts for encouraging and enhancing positive impact of our actions. This applies to the many challenges we face and you touch upon here during the conference; health, climate change, biological diversity, soil protection and landscapes. I wish to mention a few undertakings that I have initiated or am about to initiate, that touch upon these issues.
First, the government has decided to protect the central highland of Iceland as a national park. This will most likely become Europe´s largest national park. The area is renowned for it´s interplay between fire and ice, resulting in extraordinary geological phenomena. It is known for it´s open and wide landscapes, wilderness areas and as many of us know - it is a place where you feel far away from the stress of the city life.
Second, I have commenced further development of the current national planning policy for Iceland, to coordinate and stress that physical planning for municipalities and regions takes the challenges of climate change, protection of landscapes and human health and well-being into consideration. This is of great importance since physical planning is a key policy instrument which demands the input and participation of the public. It is therefore a component of our democracy.
I want to highlight one of the three issues mentioned, human health and well-being, since urban planning seems to get quite some space in your program. There is growing awareness and knowledge regarding the impact of the built environment on human health, both mental and physical. This concerns the access to public spaces, green areas and natural areas, and access for pedestrians and cyclists in their daily lives. And of course, air and water quality need to be monitored closely and we must use sustainable solutions to provide healthy environment. Physical planning addresses these components of our environment and we must be aware of the impact these plans, and their implementation can have on human health and well-being. This is therefore, one of the emphasis I have put forward in further developing our national planning policy. I also urge you, the vital people in your communities, to be vocal about these things and to promote good action which can improve the environment in your communities with regard to the impact on human health.
Third, and related to the second one, is increased emphasis on public participation and early participation of the public in order to increase their influence on decision making. In this regard, I will from next year increase the operational grants provided for environmental NGOs by the government. Also, I have put forward a draft plan for strengthening the implementation of the Aarhus Convention in Iceland, including finding ways to increase early participation of the public. As an example of this in praxis, yesterday the ministry held a brainstorming session with various stakeholders on what a new legislation on environmental impact assessment should entail.
Fourth, I wish to mention land reclamation and restoration of denuded areas. I see from your program that you will take a look at this with your own eyes, and believe me, Icelanders are quite good at organizing field trips. As part of increased funding for climate issues, the government now plans to increase restoration efforts, including wetland restoration, heathland and grassland restoration and afforestation. Here, I also expect increased efforts by the public to part take in these undertakings.
Finally, I want to mention that I intend to revisit the national policy on biodiversity from 2008 and the action plan from 2010. I find this important, both in relation to increased funding for land reclamation efforts as well as for protected areas.
Since I took seat in the Icelandic government, further conservation of nature has been my top priority. This applies to further conservation of landscapes, wilderness, geologic heritage and biological diversity. This effort will strengthen the foundation for Iceland’s biggest industry, tourism, which is largely based on utilizing Icelandic nature.
Again, I am thankful for the opportunity to address this conference. I wish you a fruitful discussion and pleasant field trips to enjoy the Icelandic nature. Thank you.