OVERVIEW | What’s happening in Greenland?

What issues and crises might different regions and countries of the world face in the short term? We start with a series of articles where different authors on our blog look at countries and regions far away from us from a political and governance perspective over a 30-day period. Let’s start with Greenland!

In the overview of current political events in Greenland, there are a number of keywords that are in one way or another related to issues that affect the development of the territory, but also the country’s foreign policy. In order to better understand them, it is worth studying the recent history of Greenland, which is an important link between the past and present events. Greenland, the largest island in the world, is a self-governing territory in the continent of North America, autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark.

The Self-Government Act adopted in 2009 gave Greenland the right to take over powers and responsibilities from the Danish authorities in areas where the constitution allowed it. Although the new law reduced Denmark’s economic support to Greenland, Greenland remains responsible for its own natural resources, and the revenue from these remains in Greenland (Anon., 2023). Its government is composed of Inatsisartut (parliament) and Naalakkersuisut (government), with Greenlandic as the official language under the Local Government Act. However, Danish is also widely used for administrative purposes.

Which topics will dominate the Greenland’s media at the end of 2023?

During the period from 20 October to 20 November 2023, three main topics were highlighted: the opening of Greenland’s representation in the People’s Republic of China, the joint exercises of the Danish and US Armed Forces, and Greenland’s accession to the Paris Climate Agreement. The first of these, the opening of the embassy in the People’s Republic of China, is of particular significance as Greenland, as a autonomous territory of Denmark, is promoting high-level relations with China, with Greenland’s Foreign Minister Vivian Motzfeld attending the official opening of the embassy in Beijing on 26 October.

Although the representative office was formally opened in Beijing in 2021 and will be located at the Danish Embassy to the People’s Republic of China, the easing of China’s COVID-19 restrictions has only now made it possible to open it publicly. Despite being located at the Danish Embassy, it is a separate institution representing political, cultural and economic cooperation between Greenland and mainland China (Wegner, 2023).

It is also a sign of the high level of relations that the opening of the mission is just part of Foreign Minister Motzfeld’s week-long visit to China, which aimed to strengthen Greenland’s relations with China on economic, trade, tourism, as well as Arctic issues. In particular, it is worth noting that for the past 20 years, Greenland and China have also enjoyed significant cooperation in the fisheries sector, with seafood exports accounting for a noteworthy share of Greenland’s economy (Shiwei, 2023).

In addition to seafood, tourism also plays an important role in Greenland-China cooperation, as demonstrated by the large investments in tourism policy and strategy and the construction of three airports (Nuuk, Ilulissat and Qagortoq) (Xiangjun, 2023).

Greenland is also a valuable partner for the United States. The war in Ukraine, Russia’s presence in the Arctic, China’s increasing attention and demand for the Arctic region’s resources, combined with climate change, have further increased Greenland’s strategic and resource value for the US (Federman, 2023). This is exemplified by the plan of the US and Danish armed forces to cooperate regionally and launch joint exercises in Greenland, the first of which is scheduled for 2025, focusing mainly on force response and operations during disasters (Durr & Lyons, 2023).

In addition, from May 2024, young people in Greenland will be able to apply for and
participate in an exercise developed by the Danish Armed Forces in cooperation with the Greenlandic Government, aimed at strengthening the preparedness and resilience of the local community (a total of 57,000 people live on the island) in extreme situations. For example, participants will be trained in the use of weapons and first aid in arctic conditions (Edvardsen, 2023).

Concerns about the effects of the climate crisis

Greenland is not only affected by foreign policy trends, but also by climate change. The Paris Climate Agreement has been on the agenda in Greenland for years, but action has only now been acted upon, with Greenland joining the agreement in autumn 2023. This is an important step for the region, as several studies suggest that glacial melting has accelerated since the beginning of the century and will continue to do so at a faster pace. For example, a recent study highlights that while in the 1980s and 1990s glaciers were melting at a rate of up to 5 metres per year, in the last 20 years this rate has almost quintupled to 25 metres per year (Knapp & Ohnsman, 2023).

While the melting of glaciers leads to a number of existential threats, such as rising ocean water levels and temperatures, and thus negatively affects the wider living environment, the threat of climate change in Greenland is primarily posed by the huge ice shelf covering its territory, which if it melts will raise sea levels by more than 7 metres worldwide. A study conducted by the University of Copenhagen also shows that climate warming, ice melt and habitat changes have already negatively affected Greenland’s polar bear population (Lorezen & Westbury, 2023).

Polar bear habitats are disappearing and the bears are therefore under serious threat. As Greenland and the Arctic region are the most affected by climate change, the Day of Accession to the Paris Climate Agreement was celebrated – the Greenlandic authorities have the will to act and take responsibility for the impending climate crisis. The Government of Greenland is prioritising the debate on what kind of country and environment it wants to leave for future generations (Edvardsen, 2023).

What does future hold for Greenland?

The loss of ice cover will not only affect ecosystems, but also the living conditions of local people. This, in turn, is linked to the scarcity of resources on the island and requires their sustainable use. The threat to Greenland’s natural resources (e.g. fish and minerals) lies in their profligate exploitation and possible overexploitation to meet the demands of foreign markets (e.g. China), whose importance to Greenland’s economy should not be underestimated. Fishing also has an impact on the well-being of the local population in terms of employment, and changes in traditional lifestyles in turn affect a cultural space that is different from Denmark.

In conclusion, in the 21st century Greenland could be threatened by a number of different issues with the potential to develop into full-scale crises at local level. The most important of these is climate – the island is particularly vulnerable to climate change, resulting in accelerated ice melt, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events. Geopolitical issues are also increasingly on the agenda due to Greenland’s strategic location, and could also create tensions in the region due to the large mineral resources in the Arctic.

The growing interest of Russia, Canada, the US, as well as the People’s Republic of China, not only in the region’s natural resources, but also in air and maritime transport corridors, and the militarisation of Russia’s more northerly regions, only increase Greenland’s potential external interests. All of the above issues and crises require attention, together with long-term planning and international cooperation to find sustainable solutions that take into account Greenland’s needs.

× The overview was created by Triinu Luidalepp, Ene Nuut, Karmen Piirsoo and Kaisa Selirand. Photo: icebergs and a vessel (Holger J. Bub, Pexels, 2022).


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