Adapting to Climate Change: The Energy Situation in Iceland

  • 2019/03/20     Dresden, Germany

    Image: iStockphoto/danielsnaer

    By Defne Altiok, Communications and Advocacy

    Climate change presents itself as one of the biggest environmental challenges of our planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2014) reports that the human impact on the environment is the main reason for the rise in global temperature in the 21st century.

    Mainly due to fuel burning and production of greenhouse gases, “a broad range of changes including rising sea levels, shrinking mountain glaciers, accelerating ice melt in Iceland, Antarctica, and the Arctic” have been observed (NASA 2016).

    The redesign of environmental management strategies in response to these changes emerges as one of the biggest challenges of our time.


    In Iceland, the need to tackle risks associated with climate change is particularly evident. Immensely affected by changing climate trends, it is a pioneer in the use of natural resources for the production of renewable energy.

    The primary sources of Iceland’s energy sector depend on geothermal energy through hydropower assets on river flows. Since the 1950s, well-documented transformation in the historical and seasonal climate trends establishes climate change as the reason for glacier melts (Sveinsson 2016). These developments will require careful management of energy resources, since 85% of the country’s total primary energy supply is derived from renewable sources and 100% for its electricity system.

    In his policy brief “Energy in Iceland: Adaptation to Climate Change”, Oli G. B. Sveinsson from Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, discusses the adaptation process of energy production in a warming climate as part of the DNC2015 Publication Series.

    Sveinsson (2016) particularly points out the various implications of climate change on hydroelectric stations since “among all the renewable energy sources, hydropower has the largest share of worldwide electricity production”. Furthermore, he highlights how resilient this climate-dependent infrastructure is to change and increased natural variability.

    In this case, the increase of volume and historical seasonal distributions of river flows as well as the elevation of surrounding land play a crucial role in balancing complex power systems of hydroelectric production. Glacial rivers are the primary sources to Iceland’s hydropower systems. The structure of the regional landscape is expected to change dramatically due to transformations in glacial melt and this will have effects on reservoir storage, battery, and flood control and water storage.

    The temperature increase necessitates operational regime adjustments as well as decision making for future investments that potentially have massive repercussions on energy systems. Concurrently, the potential implications of miscalculation of environmental resources need to be closely monitored by governance systems. In this framework, Iceland develops long-term projects to carefully design the present and future of the energy sector through advancing a step-by-step approach to prepare themselves for potential risks of investment decisions in power systems.

    Ultimately, Sveinsson advances policy recommendations that consider the local and global impact of climate change, pointing out the need for asset modification such as increasing the storage capacity of reservoirs, decreasing fossil fuel-based energy systems, and investing further in hydropower to transform the regional demand for electricity and improve Iceland’s climate-dependent infrastructure.


    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2014. “Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”, edited by Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer, 151. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC.

    Sveinsson, Oli G. B. 2016. “Energy in Iceland: Adaptation to Climate Change.” DNC Policy Brief. Dresden: UNU-FLORES. (Available for free download)

    NASA. 2016.“What’s in a Name? Weather, Global Warming and Climate Change”.  Accessed July 02, 2018.