Skip to content

Greenland – Living up to the Green in its name

Greenland isn’t a place you envision as being a trendsetter on the Climate stage. In fact, if I asked you to imagine Greenland you are probably hearing David Attenborough’s soothing voice discuss remote ice sheets melting or the plight of the countries Polar Bears and Arctic Foxes. Yet what is less discussed is a country with a huge history and culture. After years of Danish colonisation, excluding a short period of sovereignty in WWII when Denmark was taken by the Nazis, under the protection of the Americans due to their vital interests based in the country, many Greenlanders now wish to have the chains of their imperial rulers broken and to do so without the industrial capitalism which has led to climate change.

With a population of around 56 thousand, no daily newspaper – the closest you will get is a weekly publication and serious social issues within the country, leading to high rates of alcoholism and HIV/AIDS, Greenland doesn’t carry the political clout of its landmass. However, despite this, they are now at the forefront of Climate Action.

This has come about as in 2021 their 6th government was dissolved following the fragmentation of the Liberal Democrat portions of the Siumut party from its main governing portion. Why, well it was all caused by disagreement around rare metals mining.

This dissolution led to a snap election in April 2021 and the accession of the 7th Prime Minister of Greenland, Mute Egede of the Inuit Ataqatigiit Party. Mr Egede and his party rose to power on a platform of Health and the Environment.

Greenland’s Environmental stance hasn’t always been so clear cut, the Siumut party who were in power since 2013, and most of the home rule since the 1970s, were always grand supporters of the opportunities mining and drilling could bring to the country. The rhetoric that had them elected was that these opportunities would eventually lead to the long-awaited independence from Denmark, which they still heavily rely on for financial aid. Currently, the Danish dependant territory (Greenland) relies on Denmark for around two thirds of its budget revenue. Therefore, being able to tap into what is estimated to be 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of the worlds undiscovered Gas and potentials for uranium stores as well as mining for rare metals, is a tempting one to allow them financial and governmental independence.  

Yet there is an irony to this tale. These carbon stores are only now becoming available due to the Artic being the fastest warming area of our planet, firmly placing Greenland at the coal face if you will of Climate Change. The thinning ice sheets which allow this exploration and drilling are only made possible due to the emissions from those fuels that are being exhumed.

However, you cannot look at these decisions in isolation. There is also geopolitics, aka money and power, which needs to be considered in any exploration decisions. Donald Trump may have been brash when he said that Greenland was a “strategically” interesting prospect and offered to buy it from Denmark in 2019 but the interest hasn’t waned. Only last year Joe Biden, in an effort to re-emerge as a dominant party in rare earth mineral supply chains, signed an executive order to review gaps in the US’ domestic supply chain for rare earth resources, the key to microchips, green technology and medical devices. China is now the dominant supplier in this supply chain, however, prior to 1980, it was the US who held these puppet strings. But with China able to provide these minerals much cheaper than its American counterparts the market, expertise and investment moved also. This surely made some look at Donald Trump’s potential bid with a different lens.

This now leaves Greenland sat on a potential “Gold” Mine of natural resources which could be the key to tipping the scale in any trade war between these superpowers.

Yet, the domestic population are not on board with the environmental cost of this exploration and the Inuit Ataqatigiit Parties rhetoric has resonated with many Greenlanders. A Centerstone of their election campaign was that they would be banning all explorations of radioactive deposits and increasing regulation around any other type of mining. This was backed up when they rose to power and passed regulation halting all investigation, exploration and extraction of Uranium.

The first victim of the new governments’ policy is the Kvanefjeld mining project, a joint Australian and Chinese based company under the name Greenland Minerals. Their project was mining the area for Uranium and Neodymium, the latter being a crucial component of wind turbines and electric cars.

But the Egede’s government hasn’t stopped there, at COP26 in Glasgow Egede also dismissed the previous governments rhetoric that Greenland was dependant on its oil, gas and natural mineral reserves for the economy and signed up to the Paris Agreement. He went further and pledged to significantly increase their hydropower capability.

Then at the end of 2021, Egede took his boldest stance yet. Greenland has now announced it is permanently halting all new oil and gas exploration. Even with a huge oil field being discovered off the East coast of the country, the government said “The future does not lie in oil. The future belongs to renewable energy, and in that respect, we have much more to gain.”

So, can the country still gain financial independence and a self-sufficient economy? Yes, says Egede. As previously discussed, he is heavily focusing on the island’s hydropower potential (which is expected to increase as more glacier ice melts) and he hopes this development will reduce the dependence on costly petrol imports and lower living costs. With an estimated 8 per cent of the Earths fresh water based in Greenland, the potential is there. However, due to the sheer distance between these sources of power and other off takers Greenland must find a way to utilise the power and export it within its environmental policy. Iceland had the same issue and chose to utilise the energy in Aluminium smelters which although economically successful attracted significant opposition from the environmental lobby. Therefore, for the policy to be environmentally successful, this is an unanswered question for the Greenland government.

Egede is also hoping as the arctic ice melts for large parts of the year there are trade routes that can be opened through the North-West passage. This could allow those settlements (inc the capital Nuuk) which lie on the West coast to become part of a major shipping route. Further, they are looking to follow the success of their neighbour Iceland’s growth in Tourism and this is being supported by increasing air travel facilities including a new airport at Nuuk, which although delayed due to Covid-19 is expected to be open in 2024.

Overall, their vision and conviction have to be applauded, only time will tell how successful they are and if the policies will last future changes in governments and the ever-increasing geopolitical pressure. Either way, Greenland is one to watch and not just for the Polar Bears.