Olafur Grimsson

3 minute read
Krista Mahr

POLITICIAN About halfway between Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík and the small town of Hveragerdi, the smell of sulfur hangs in the air. White plumes of steam billow from deep under the earth into the blue sky, and moss covers the lava-strewn ground. It’s a dramatic scene, and if Icelandic President Olafur Grimsson has his way, it will be the stage for the next big advance against global warming.

Over the next two years, a team of scientists will try to inject carbon dioxide–charged water into the basalt beneath the ground through boreholes drilled by a nearby geothermal energy plant. The CO2 will, in theory, react with the porous rock and form a stable mineral that could remain in the rock for millions of years. If they’re right, Iceland could not only render itself carbon neutral but also give the world a means of protection from the effects of CO2 emissions until they can be reduced.

“Many people ask me, ‘Will this project succeed?'” Grimsson says. “I don’t know, but I doubt all these prominent scientists would be spending their time on it if they didn’t believe there was a reasonable chance of it succeeding.”

This ambitious experiment in carbon sequestration landed in Iceland after scientists from Columbia University approached Grimsson. (The University of Iceland, the University of Toulouse and Reykjavík Energy are the other partners.) Grimsson traces his interest in climate change to the 1980s, when he met a fellow legislator who saw trouble on the horizon: Al Gore. Back home, Grimsson, 63, has witnessed Iceland’s conversion from a coal-dependent economy to a nation that gets most of its heat from clean, renewable geothermal resources. “My job as a young boy was to get the coal for the house for my grandmother,” he says, recalling Reykjavík’s soot-black skies. “If Iceland could achieve such a radical change in one generation, enormous changes can succeed all over the world.”

Grimsson “wants to make Iceland an example of what can be done,” says Sigurdur Gislason, a research professor at the University of Iceland. “We have enormous amounts of clean energy and a small society. You can do experiments here that you can’t do anywhere else.”

Basalt sequestration is one of several efforts to boost Iceland’s role in climate-change science, including research into soil carbon sequestration and hydrogen-powered transportation. And Grimsson isn’t above doing some firsthand testing. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I was the first person to exceed the speed limit in a hydrogen-powered car,” he says. “I wanted to test its capability. Why not?”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com