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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Iceland President Focuses on Green Energy During Ohio State Visit

April 3, 2007

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The country of Iceland is looking to transform itself into a living laboratory in the battle against climate change, and is partnering with Ohio State University to launch programs in soil conservation, carbon sequestration and other green energy initiatives.

Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson visited Ohio State's campus April 2 to foster a relationship between his country and the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. The goal is to conduct research that uses carbon to restore soil fertility while offsetting carbon emissions, as well as create political awareness of the seriousness of land degradation in the face of human misuse and natural activity.

"We believe that with the scientific collaboration between Iceland and Ohio State in the areas of modern agriculture, soil conservation and soil carbon sequestration, we can counteract the effects of climate change with green energy solutions that will benefit not only Iceland and Ohio, but also the rest of the world," said Grímsson. "The environmental problems plaguing Iceland are not unique to just my country. I sense a new level of interest here in United States, and I am happy to offer our experiences as an inspiration to others to seek new green energy solutions."

Iceland is a European island in the middle of the northern Atlantic. It's a small nation, roughly the same size land area as Ohio and with a total population of about one-third of that of the city of Columbus, but its contributions to the environment in the way of renewable energy resources is enormous. In its short 63 years of independence, Iceland has shifted its energy dependence from coal and petroleum to renewable energy sources. Today, 70 percent of the country's total energy needs and 100 percent of its electricity are harnessed from geothermal springs and glacier-fed lakes and rivers. Iceland is also a leader in hydrogen power, which fuels the nation's buses and automobiles.

Despite these renewable energy riches, Iceland's interior is a desert, the largest throughout Europe and a source of severe soil erosion caused by centuries of land degradation. The desert has not only made more than one-third of the country uninhabitable, but it is also contributing to carbon loss into the atmosphere -- believed to be one of the chief causes of global warming.

"Iceland is a beautiful country, but it has become so desertified due to soil erosion and denudation that the degraded landscape doesn't look much different than sub-Saharan Africa," said Rattan Lal, an internationally known soil scientist with Ohio State's School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Lal is looking at ways to incorporate carbon sequestration in land restoration efforts to reverse a process that began when the Vikings settled the island in the ninth century. Carbon sequestration, also known as carbon farming, refers to the storing of atmospheric carbon in plants and soil so that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reduce or slow.

Icelandic institutions and organizations have identified soil preservation, soil reclamation and forestry rehabilitation as fundamental pillars of national programs. With Lal's research assistance, Iceland is moving forward to finding solutions that can be applied not only within the country, but also to Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world suffering from similar soil degradation problems.

Lal, director of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, said that on the surface, the issues facing Iceland may not appear as important to citizens of the United States or of other parts of the world, but pointed out that globalization is bringing such environmental impacts closer to home.

"We are linked globally. What is being done in Iceland impacts us and what we do here impacts Iceland," said Lal. "Climate change, whether you believe it is happening or not, is a global issue."

Ágúst Sigurdsson, rector of the Agricultural University of Iceland, said that Ohio is the perfect state to partner with in green energy efforts because of its strong ties to agriculture, its research strength through Ohio State and its focus on carbon sequestration efforts.

"We see this collaboration with Ohio and Ohio State University as not only a focus on soil science and carbon sequestration, but also as a way of presenting opportunities to use Iceland as a model in regard to larger energy development programs, as well as to expand our collaborations into other disciplines, such as health and medicine," said Sigurdsson.

Grímsson launched his visit with Ohio State President Karen Holbrook signing a Memorandum of Understanding intended to foster student exchanges, visiting professors, graduate student research, collaborative research and coordination of activities between Ohio State and Iceland's three chief universities: the University of Iceland, the Agricultural University of Iceland, and Akureyri University.

"Iceland's vision and goal is to be carbon-neutral in the next 25 years," said Lal. "Now the challenge is to figure out how we do that through research, Extension, and student exchange programs."

The research collaborations with Iceland are part of Ohio State's Climate, Water and Carbon Program — one of 10 high-impact programs chosen by the university for its Targeted Investment in Excellence (TIE) initiative, a $100 million commitment over five years to address some of society's most pressing challenges.

The program brings together faculty experts from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, the College of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, the College Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Byrd Polar Research Center, and the John Glenn School of Public Affairs.

Grímsson rounded out his visit to campus with a lecture at the Wexner Center for the Arts, where he addressed nearly 300 participants on the environmental issues surrounding Iceland and how his country and universities, like Ohio State, can partner to solve environmental problems associated with climate change. Readers can listen to his lecture by logging on to the following Web site:

"The issue of climate change is our biggest threat of the 21st century. Human activity is leading the world to the brink and if we do not take action in due course, we will be in deep trouble -- and not 200 years from now, but during our own lifetime," said Grímsson. "If my country, very poor when it first became a republic in 1944, can move from coal and petroleum to renewable energy use, it can be done in other countries as well, even the United States. But no matter how rich or powerful a country is, no one nation will solve these problems on its own. I invite you to become partners with us in finding solutions and use my country to transform those efforts into a symbol of what we can do together."

Climate change efforts between Iceland and Ohio State will continue later this year. Representatives of Ohio State, Icelandic universities, the Icelandic Office of the President, and the Icelandic Soil Conservation Services -- the oldest operating soil protection agency in the world -- are organizing a global forum to be held in late summer in Iceland. The purpose of the forum is to continue driving home the need to reverse land degradation, to emphasize how soil erosion impacts climate change, and to foster global awareness of the benefits of carbon sequestration. The conference will be jointly organized by the Soil Conservation Services of Iceland and Ohio State University.

Candace Pollock
Rattan Lal