Current research projects

Home and away: the impact of housing in Reykjavik on activity spaces and the resulting environmental impact

Timing: 2022-2024

Funding organization: University of Iceland Research Fund, The Icelandic Road Administration (Vegagerdin), HMS Askur

Research description: We have already crossed the threshold of several planetary boundaries, indicating the urgency of climate change mitigation efforts to maintain favorable living conditions on our planet. Cities can play an important part, as urban areas are soon to be home for to 66% of the global population. Cities cause about 75% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Previous studies have found that despite densification strategies to create more compact and car-free lifestyles, urban residents have higher GHG emissions than their rural counterparts. Furthermore, despite having pro-environmental attitudes, urban residents take several long-distance trips annually, adding to their environmental impact. One of the main reasons for travel is wellbeing. The project proposes using activity spaces as a method to understand how people interact with the urban environment in Reykjavik. The study will look at how housing and neighbourhood influence activity space shape and size, and how activity spaces in turn influence wellbeing and greenhouse gas emissions. The aim is to find solutions how to create an urban environment that minimizes day-to-day greenhouse gas emissions while meeting the wellbeing needs of its citizens. Activity spaces and their connection to wellbeing and GHG emissions have not been studied in Reykjavik before.

Carbon Sink Cities (CSC)

Timing: 2021-2024

Funding organization: University of Iceland Research Fund / University of Iceland Science Park

Research description: Currently the built environment is a huge source of emissions, but it should rapidly transform into a big carbon sink and storage. In present, almost all construction uses synthetic materials with high emission intensities: concrete, steel, asphalt, glass, aluminum and so on. In the main projections to remain under 1.5 degrees warming the only option is to reach below zero emissions overall, and this is unlikely to happen if there is no deep and rapid transformation in the built environment sector. Changing the built environment from a source to a sink is a realistic possibility, but requires a major paradigm shift. The built environment should in just 10-20 years become first carbon neutral and then a huge carbon storage by growing the construction materials, and then storing the carbon in built environment structures.

1.5 degree compatible living in the Nordic conditions: attitudes, lifestyles and carbon footprints

Timing: 2020-2023

Funding organization: RANNIS

Research description: Nordic countries are often seen as green due to their low-carbon energy systems. However, their global climate impacts are among the highest when the emissions are allocated based on consumption. In this project carbon footprints (CF) of people in the Nordic countries are calculated using the consumption-based method. This method allocates all the global production chain emissions of all the goods and services a user consumes. The assessment employs an input-output approach, and the CFs are connected to the remaining global carbon budget for halting global warming to 1.5 degrees. The study covers five of the Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. It is studied how pro-environmental attitudes are reflected in the CFs; ultimately if 1.5-degree compatible living is possible for affluent urban dwellers in the Nordic countries, and how to stay on the 1.5-degree compatible mitigation pathway towards zero-carbon living. The study participants are recruited to keep a diary that utilizes an innovative online softGIS survey. The softGIS method enables combining traditional survey questions, diary-keeping of purchases, a mapping of activities, visited locations, and transport modes. There are three key novelty features in this study: 1) No single consumption-based CF study so far has included attitudinal variables; 2) The data for CF studies have never been collected using the softGIS method; 3) No study exists having looked into carbon budgets on sub-national scales.

Read more about the project, and get a link to participate here.

Ended projects

Decarbonization Scenarios for Reykjavik’s Passenger Transport

Timing: 2019-2021

Funding organization: Vegagerdin / RANNIS

Research description: Until now, there is only limited knowledge of current GHG emissions of passenger transportation in the Greater Reykjavik area when the fleet production and different power technologies are taken into account, and particularly of the potential future development pathways. Besides, while the electric vehicle can be seen as a prominent solution to cut the direct (or tailpipe) GHG emissions, there is a lack of understanding of the indirect (or life-cycle) GHG emissions from electric vehicles (EV) and other alternative power options such as hydrogen over the lifetime of light-duty vehicles. In addition, the combined effects of behavioral changes and technological progress in decarbonizing Reykjavik’s passenger transportation have not been fully studied. This project provides insights into the combined effects of behavioral changes and technological developments to decarbonize Reykjavik’s passenger transportation and to deliver policy recommendations to urban transport planners to design effective policies to facilitate the transition to achieve the targets set by the City of Reykjavik. Such comprehensiveness in future scenario building is rare even in global terms, and the project outcomes will be academically interesting in addition to the practical utility for the stakeholders in the decarbonization process in Reykjavik.

Spatially sensitive understanding of urban sustainability (SUSSU)

Timing: 2015-2021

Funding organization: University of Iceland Research Fund / Vegagerdin / Icelandic Planning Agency

Research description: SUSSU is an international collaboration Project, in which new understanding on the relationships between urban form, lifestyles and the environmental burdens is created. The study opens new horizons by creating a novel framework to incorporate Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) to Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to study how the urban form affects the lifestyles and the caused environmental burdens.

Background: Currently many take for granted cities being more sustainable than their surrounding and rural areas. However, a growing number of studies suggest that cities may not actually meet the expectations. Higher density seems to lead to elevated consumption of virtually all goods and services besides transport, and as the result, to higher emissions as well. Even when just air travel is included in the assessments, the increased aviation in denser urban settings may neglect the gains from the decrease in private driving. Thus, urban sustainability science needs to take further steps to truly understand the key variables of urban sustainability.

Embodied Environmental Impacts from Built Environment Development (EmBED)

Timing: 2017-2020

Funding organization: Landsvirkjun

Research description: In this project we aim to achieve three goals: 1) improve the current assessment practices in the construction sector, 2) provide reliable estimates for the embodied environmental impacts caused by the development of the built environment in Iceland, and 3) provide information about the mitigation potential of using alternative materials and of producing certain materials in Iceland instead of importing them. The results can be used also to estimate the impacts caused by construction of different types of structures in the future. The work has been started by the applicant and his research group (Emami et al. 2016), but major further steps are needed to understand the impacts and the underlying mitigation potentials caused by the built environment in Iceland.

Background: We are facing an urgent need to reduce the environmental pressure we are currently causing. The operation and development of the built environment is in a key role in the mitigation efforts. However, the transition towards more sustainable settlements requires massive use of materials and energy, be it new energy efficient buildings, or supporting infrastructures. Traditionally the emissions embodied to construction materials have not been considered of high importance, but they are actually becoming crucial due to the short time-frame in which the emissions should be reduced. Evaluating the environmental burden of construction materials has also proved problematic and despite the significant research on the environmental impacts of construction materials around the world , the reliability of the published impact estimates is still highly questionable. More precisely, the estimates tend to significantly underestimate the actual impacts. The weak consistency of the assessment of sustainability attributes results in unreliable eco-labels, standards and certifications, and due to the general underestimation, the arising policy-guidelines might lead to wrong decisions. Moreover, due to the assessment inconsistencies and gaps in research, we don’t really have an understanding about the overall embodied impacts caused by the development of the built environment, while at the same time these impacts can hinder us from achieving the set mitigation targets. More reliable information from the construction sector is urgently needed for advised decision-making.

The Global Environmental Burden Caused by Icelandic Consumers (Envicon)

Timing: 2015-2020

Funding organization: University of Iceland Research Fund

Research description: In this research project we study the environmental loads strongly imports-dependent countries push outside of their territorial borders and outside of territory-based accounting methods using Iceland as a case country. In the project (1) consumption-based environmental footprints of the residents of Iceland are assessed with an input-output life cycle assessment (IO LCA) model; (2) the Icelandic import flows are mapped using national trade balances; and (3) with a multi-region IO LCA model, the outsourced environmental burdens are assessed.

Background: An increasing share of all the goods are produced elsewhere than where consumed. Since the majority of the environmental burdens caused by different goods are generated during the production phase, a certain nation causes significant environmental pressures outside of its own area. It can be claimed that many of the environmental burdens from developing countries are actually outsourced emissions from the more affluent countries. Notwithstanding, the global initiatives to improve the environmental sustainability rely currently solely on national emissions inventories such as the Kyoto Protocol. This contradictory issue has been noticed in e.g. the most recent IPCC summary report, but only a few attempts have been taken so far to gain deeper understanding on the phenomenon.

Lifestyles Integrated Spatial Planning for Sustainable Human Settlements (LISSU)

Timing: 2013-2016

Funding organizations: Academy of Finland, University of Iceland, Aalto University

Research description: This project investigated the relationships between the urban form, lifestyles of the residents and the environmental pressures they cause by assessing the causalities between the consumption choices and the urban form. The overall aim was to create new understanding on the premises of sustainable urban settlements.

Background: Significant reductions to the current levels of environmental burdens from urban activity are sought in a relatively short time frame. The problem is also highly international and rapidly escalating, due to the developing countries reaching our wealth levels and following our lifestyles. Spatial planning and land use have been claimed to play a significant role in the attempts to create ecological human settlements. The potential relates especially to urban settlements, which are assessed to generate 60 to 80% of global GHG’s. Literature demonstrating how the urban settlements, through density (population and employment), transport and building types, lead to lower energy requirements and GHG emissions is vast. Further, per capita greenhouse gas emissions from denser urban agglomerations are often argued to be lower than the national averages in developed countries. In addition, cities are often claimed more sustainable in terms of health and of a variety of other environmental impacts perspectives also due to less private driving and polluting industries. However, most studies and arguments almost entirely neglect that, at the same time, cities are argued to create higher wealth and higher economic revenues than less dense areas. This inevitably leads to higher consumption and environmental burdens. Recent research actually indicates that the environmental burdens caused by higher consumption volumes in denser agglomerations may easily overrule the gains in residential energy use and transportation. It is thus evident that research needs to progress significantly in order to truly understand the relationships between the urban form and the environmental burdens.

Results: The project produced several academic journal papers which were published in highly rated academic journals. The findings were also presented in many academic conferences and meetings as well as to professional audiences in Finland and in Iceland. Furthermore, the project has enabled the research to continue and develop towards new perspectives through supervision of dissertations, two of which have their origins in the field and premises of LISSU, and will develop the knowledge about urban sustainability further along with their publication in 2016-2017.