Greenland election: political earthquake puts the environment in focus

Mute Egede, pictured, ahead of parliamentary elections in Greenland. Photo credit: Emil Helms / Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters.

By Anders Lorenzen

With just 56,000 inhabitants, Greenland, the autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, has never played a big role in global environmental and climate policies, though other countries have not held back in voicing their opinion about the climate-sensitive region.

But the left-leaning Greenlandic party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) last week generated a bit of a political earthquake by beating the ruling party Siumut in the general election, which could change mining and energy policies in the world’s biggest island. 

Too dangerous

In recent years, Greenland, which is one of the most climate-sensitive places on Earth has become a playground for mining and energy companies. But IA is opposing a controversial rare earth mining project. Proponents of the Kvarnefjeld project say it will create growth, jobs and opportunities while opponents argue it will be an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe as radioactive uranium will be extracted.

The proposed mining project would have sent a strong signal to international mining companies wanting to exploit Greenland’s vast untapped mineral resources.

While IA is not outrightly opposed to mining it has campaigned to halt the project and their leader Mute Egede said following the election it now won’t happen.

IA has a strong environmental focus which it has to balance against the potential economic growth which could give Greenlanders independence from Denmark. The party has also said that Greenland should join the Paris Agreement, that heavy oil should be phased out and the Greenlandic economy should be developed sustainably and in ways that take into consideration the impacts of climate change.

Over a third of votes

More than a third of the Greenlanders voted for the IA at 37%, which meant they overtook the ruling party Siumut who received 29% of the votes. Since 1979 Siumut has, with an expectation of four years, continuously been in power. 

First on the agenda will be forming a new government. A potential ally in a new government could be Naleraq, which ticks IA’s boxes as they also support independence and opposes the Kvanefjeld mining project. Were they to form a coalition it would be enough to form a government as they would be in the possession of the 16 seats required. 

The Siumut party and Prime Minister Kim Nielsen helped Australian company Greenland Minerals secure approval for the Kvanefjeld project last year, which paved the way for a public hearing on it. The company has spent $100 million preparing the mine and a proven processing technology through its Chinese partner Shenghe Resources.

Experts say that the election deals a blow to establishing Greenland as an attractive investment environment for rare earth mining and it could hamper mining development in Greenland.

Too risky

The majority of Greenlanders see mining as an important step towards independence. But with the worry of radiation, the Kvanefjeld project seemed to be a too big risk to take for many Greenlanders, sowing deep divisions between the government and the population over environmental concerns. 

Ironically rare earth minerals are critical elements for the development of wind turbines, electric vehicles and many other green technologies, as well as many consumer products such as smartphones and smart TVs.

As the world continues to heat up, the Arctic and Greenland are one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth with scientists increasingly worried about the speed at which the Greenlandic ice sheet, the biggest ice mass on Earth, is melting.  

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