Ladies and gentlemen,
Standing here takes me almost exactly 11 years back in time when I as an employee of the Soil Conservation Service helped organizing a big conference on soils and the global society. That particular project may have change me permanently and I may never have recovered after that, as organizing conferences do to people – but nevertheless, the warm memories are such that I will never forget.
I was approached in my former job as a manager of the NGO Landvernd, by the organizers of this conference, and invited to be a key-note speaker. This was indeed the first time I was asked to deliver a key-note at an international conference – and therefore, I was both proud and humble. But then I got another offer, from the Icelandic Prime Minister, to become the minister for environment and natural resources in Iceland. This proved to be the end of my key-note speaker career and dream, since I no longer had the confidence of the organizers to carry out the task. Nevertheless, you are all still stuck with me here.
I was fortunate enough to study biology and environmental sciences. Ecosystems are dynamic, there are many interacting variables, you cannot so easily calculate and predict, there is no clear dose-response relationship – this is no engineering. Ecosystem restoration as a field of study, however, helps us to better understand ecosystems because it is not only theoretical but very much an applied science – where we basically are tasked with putting the different building blocks we try to understand in ecology back together, into a functioning ecosystem. That is what´s so fascinating about this field of study.
Many areas in Iceland can be regarded as a showcase for degradation of ecosystems. Nature and society in this country are greatly affected by deforestation, land degradation and desertification. This is the result of the interaction between human settlement and struggle for survival on the one hand and the harsh environment on the other. Particularly in the proximity of powerful and active volcanoes, areas became more vulnerable when forests disappeared. Fertile soils were blown and washed out to sea and the resource found in forests and vegetated land, which had been the livelihood for people, disappeared.
But what about efforts to halt this development? Indeed, governmental intervention started early in the 20th century and the first law on soil conservation was passed in 1907. Despite this urgent task, initial efforts to fight desertification and deforestation at that time, met considerable skepticism and even opposition among some politicians and local people. This may have been due to lack of belief in these efforts and due to lack of knowledge. Comparing this with another urgent task – climate change – I believe we can learn from history. We need clear vision, clear aims and thought through actions, backed up by science, politics and society at large. I do believe that we are now at the point here in Iceland where all these are indeed emerging – including political will, which often has been lacking.
Here in Iceland we are investing in ecosystem restoration for the future, both for the sake of the ecosystem structure and functioning and to create a resource for future generations to harvest and manage. This kind of long term investment requires that society provides the capital, it requires landowners to provide land, the vision and effort, and it requires the scientists and advisors to provide and transfer knowledge. Ecosystem restoration like any natural resource management, therefore, needs broad approach through planning and stakeholder consultation and engagement. This helps to emphasize the multiple benefits and to integrate multiple land use schemes.
In this conference you are covering multiple themes, restoration of ecological, economic and social functions of ecosystems, multiple functions of ecosystems, factors influencing the restoration success, and economic, ecological and political aspects of ecosystem restoration. The outcome, therefore, should provide us with materials to be used as inputs for the ongoing discussions about ecosystem restoration parallel to other forms of land use.
The Icelandic government aims at the multinational goals of the Paris agreement in 2030. Additionally, the government has set an objective of carbon neutral society in Iceland in year 2040. This is an ambitious goal and we realize that this will not be accomplished only through total shift in energy sources. Our nation is responsible for considerable release of GHG through land use, mainly from drained wetlands and other degraded grasslands and woodlands. Carbon sequestration and strategic change in land use is therefore an essential part of the goal of carbon neutrality. Land use in the favour of climate.
But, in the light of other international obligations through international agreements and our commitment to the SDG, we will strive to reach other goals simultaneously. Namely goals of biodiversity conservation and of land degradation neutrality. So coming back to vision, aims and action, these need to be long-term, but taking into account the short-term.
Policy-making in this field needs to aim at the following: 1) halting soil erosion and reaching land degradation neutrality, 2) approaching restoration from an landscape or watershed angle, 3) restoring degraded ecosystems such as the birch woodland, of which we have lost about 95%, wetlands; where about 50% have been drained; streams and rivers; and wilderness areas, 4) carry out restoration and afforestation in line with biological diversity principles, including no use of alian invasive species, 5) to increase the use of organic waste and better use of phosphorous and 6) encourage the participation of NGOs, farmers and the different industries in restoration. In relation to a new climate strategy for Iceland, I have tasked the Soil Conservation Service and the Forest Service with creating action plans for our carbon sequestration and landuse strategies, taking these emphases into account.
Further into the future, I foresee that we will need to call for ambitious goals of net negative emissions. But let´s do one thing at a time.
This fall I will initiate the review of the national strategy and action plan for the conservation of biodiversity in accordance with the Convention on Biological Diversity. This work is long due here in Iceland and there is strong need for a clear direction in this area in times of climate change, ever faster change in land use and growing tourism. In relation to restoration, this is vital. It should be noted too that new legislation will be taken to the Parliament now in September.
One cannot talk about restoration in Iceland without mentioning tourism and the impact it poses on Icelandic ecosystems must be regulated. We already are making strong efforts to protect nature in popular tourist destinations, and the government has approved my plans to increase funding of tourist destination infrastructure and increasing park rangers in the field, considerably. However, and that relates to restoration, we need to boost our know-how in building infrastructure through learning from other nations, improved collaboration, plan our action carefully and implement professionally. The organizers of this conference are key players when it comes to this.
Later today, the government of Iceland will announce a new climate strategy for the country. Therefore, I cannot stay very long at the conference – I wish I had the time. But, I can tell you that in the new strategy, landuse and landuse change will play one of the key roles.
Finally I want to wish you all a pleasant stay. I particularly want to encourage you to take the most out of the field trips planned, because these people are experts in this particular item of every conference they organize.
I hope and I know that this will be a successful conference and to you guests from abroad, I wish you a warm welcome and I hope you will enjoy your visit.