A Canadian in Iceland: The country's first lady on how her adopted home is tackling climate change

Iceland is profoundly experiencing the impacts of a changing climate, with warmer winters and melting glaciers. With the UN climate summit set to begin on Sunday, the country's Canadian first lady says it's made some headway in dealing with the challenges.

With the United Nations climate summit poised to begin, Iceland touts its record

President Guðni Jóhannesson of Iceland and first lady Eliza Reid, a Canadian, at the presidential residence near Reykjavik. She says the country is a 'global leader' in renewable energy sources, with as many as 85 per cent of homes heated by geothermal energy. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Through the window of her home at Iceland's presidential residence, Canadian Eliza Reid is in the unique position of being able to gaze out at some of the country's most outstanding natural wonders — from volcanoes to spectacular vistas.

"There have been people living here [in this location] since the time of settlement, over a thousand years ago," Reid, who is married to Iceland's president, said in an interview with CBC News.

Icelanders have proven exceptionally skilled throughout history at adapting to all sorts of environmental challenges, she said, including the latest one: a warming climate.

A patio at the residence overlooks a dramatic ocean bay with a skyscape of the capital city of Reykjavik and a silhouette of the still-smouldering volcano, Mount Fagradalsfjall, in the distance.

Grazing and agricultural areas, including near the capital Reykjavik, are being restored to their traditional wetland state. Iceland's environmental agency estimates that roughly one-third of the tiny country's greenhouse gas emissions come from the agriculture sector. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

But it's the wetlands and bird sanctuary, just a few metres away on the presidential estate, to which Reid and her husband, President Guðni Jóhannesson, draw the attention of a visiting CBC News crew.

"We had ditches there," Jóhannesson said, pointing to a grassy area close to the shoreline. "They were dug in the 1930s to cultivate the land. Now, we are filling up those ditches [with water]. It's a case of wetland reclamation."

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With the United Nations climate change conference poised to begin Sunday in Glasgow, the couple's conversation with CBC News focused mainly on Iceland's efforts to hit COP26's target of net-zero emissions by mid-century.

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it's known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in the early 1990s, and subsequent climate agreements.

WATCH | Eliza Reid on her adopted country's solutions for climate change:

Iceland's Canadian-born first lady sees solutions to climate change

1 year ago
Duration 1:49
Canadian-born Eliza Reid, married to Iceland's president, talks to CBC News about climate change and what others can learn from her adopted homeland.

Dry ditches being filled with water

Iceland's environmental agency estimates that roughly one-third of the tiny country's greenhouse gas emissions come from the agriculture sector.

It has become a national priority to return tens of thousands of kilometres of dry ditches back to their original watery state to better absorb those emissions, putting the island one step closer to hitting net zero.

The Seljalandsfoss waterfall in the south region of Iceland. A rapidly expanding tourism sector is contributing to the country's high per-capita greenhouse gas emissions — the highest in Europe, according to its environmental agency. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"I absolutely see a changing environment," Reid said, noting that a glacier that once almost touched Reykjavik's city limits has receded by five kilometres since she moved here in 2003.

"But there's also wonderfully optimistic examples of work that we're doing to try to improve this."

Reid, 45, has been Iceland's first lady since Jóhannesson was elected president five years ago. Iceland's president is the head of state, but executive power is in the hands of the government.

Reid grew up near the Ottawa Valley community of Ashton, Ont., and the couple met while they were both studying history at Oxford University in England.

The Fjallsárlón glacial lake. The lake has been expanding rapidly over the past 20 years as the glacier above it melts. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

After they became engaged, she followed him to Iceland, eventually learning Icelandic and raising four children.

"There is no job description, which is the scary and wonderful thing about it," Reid said of her position as spouse of the head of state.

"But it's an honour and a privilege to have the opportunity and the platform to serve my adopted country in this way."

Reid has also just published a book on gender equality in Iceland featuring the stories of prominent women and their successes.

Home to world's largest CO2-removal plant

In Iceland's most recent parliamentary election last month, the choice for voters was often described as being between those parties and candidates pledging to reach carbon neutrality by 2040 — a decade before most other European nations — and opponents arguing that the date for net zero should happen even faster.

"Iceland is a global leader in terms of renewable energy sources," Reid said. "You know, the building that we're sitting in now is heated with geothermal energy or the electricity is provided with renewable sources."

A farm at the foot of the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap in Iceland. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

As many as 85 per cent of the homes in Iceland are heated by geothermal energy — perhaps not surprising, given that the island sits atop a series of burbling volcanoes.

Throughout the capital, people enjoy luxuriating year-round in outdoor swimming pools heated by the energy of the earth.

But Jóhannesson says the technology to tap into geothermal energy can be applied almost anywhere.

"All around the world, you can find Icelandic companies trying to develop, with interested parties, geothermal energy. So this is one of the keys to tackle the climate crisis — not just to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but also to create cleaner, better cities."

The beach and pool at Nauthólsvík in Reykjavik. In the summer, water heated by geothermal energy is pumped into the ocean, raising the water temperature and allowing people to swim comfortably. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Iceland is also the new home for the world's largest direct air capture plant. Swiss company Climeworks has spent $10 million US to build the facility, next to a geothermal station on the outskirts of Reykjavik.

Until now, carbon capture has primarily focused on industrial operations, such as emissions from oil refineries, where the gases are concentrated and easier to trap. However, the technology used in the Climeworks facility allows it to separate and collect dispersed CO2 in the atmosphere.

The captured gas is then entombed underground, where it chemically reacts with Iceland's volcanic rocks and petrifies,  sealing up the gas forever.

The presidential residence, Bessastaðir, outside of Reykjavik. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The Iceland plant's yearly capacity of 4,000 tonnes of CO2 a year is modest compared with capture operations attached to refineries — which pull in hundreds of thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gases annually. However, direct air capture has the potential to offset emissions from any industry, anywhere.

"So this technology of capturing CO2 in the atmosphere and drilling it down into the Earth can be applied elsewhere. It's just a matter of finance and the right conditions," Jóhannesson said.

Despite successes, Iceland faces challenges

Still, Iceland faces major challenges in order to hit its own net-zero milestones.

Though it's home to just 380,000 people, the country's environmental agency says it has the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in Europe.

A CBC News crew interviews Jóhannesson, centre, and Reid, left, outside Iceland's presidential residence near Reykjavik. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Iceland has several large aluminum plants that are big emitters, and the need to fly or ship in most goods also adds to increased emissions.

The tourism sector is also expanding rapidly, Jóhannesson said, and now outpaces the income from fishing, the previous top earner. Those extra visitors only add to the country's emissions footprint.

Reid says Icelanders share a common trait with Canadians in that their lives are shaped by a northern climate, and she says they share a similar outlook about the need to slow the pace of climate change or face grave risks.

"We know that nature is the boss."

WATCH | Arctic nations meet in Iceland to discuss mitigating effects of climate change: 

Arctic nations discuss mitigating impact of climate change

1 year ago
Duration 2:10
Arctic nations met in Reykjavik ahead of the United Nations' COP26 climate summit to discuss their unique perspective on climate change and how to mitigate its effects.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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