Mining in Greenland environmental frontline of global warming02.Mar 2021.
In Greenland, there are currently around 70 large-scale exploration and exploitation licences. As a result, environmental organisations fear that opening up the floodgates to mining and oil and gas production in this way will damage the delicate ecosystems and exacerbate climate pressures in the autonomous territory.
As rapidly increasing temperatures in the Arctic cause the ice to recede in Greenland, there is an international scramble to exploit the resources under the thawing ground. Environmentalists are concerned about the severe repercussions of this emerging plunder, reports Diego Francesco Marin. In a declaration, 141 environmental organisations, including the EEB, urge the Greenlandic and Danish governments, as well as the European Union, to protect Greenland’s unique and fragile Arctic environment, which is threatened by mining, oil and natural gas extraction projects.
“There is a global pattern of opening up new mines in ecologically fragile areas populated by indigenous peoples, as documented in the Environmental Justice Atlas,” says Nick Meynen, a senior policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “We need to wake up to the inconvenient reality that we need to phase out both greenhouse gas emissions and mining. The Arctic is one of those fragile areas where an immediate mining moratorium is crucial.”
Emboldened by never-ending global consumption and the push for renewable technologies around the world, mining companies are bulldozing into areas of the planet that were previously inaccessible due to the enormous costs and technical difficulties of drilling through thick ice. The receding ice, however, is exposing the island’s minerals for large-scale plunder. As Greenland continues to face the difficult challenges that climate change is imposing on its majority Inuit population, the authorities there are tempted to view the royalties they can extract from mining projects as a solution to the island’s economic woes. One of these massive projects is the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit in Greenlandic) mining project which, if allowed to go ahead, would be one of the world’s largest open-pit uranium mines and source of REEs, a key component of electric vehicles, smartphones and renewable technologies, and the first mining project of its kind in the Arctic region. The proposed mine lies only a few kilometres from the Kujataa UNESCO world heritage site, where some of the world’s biggest mining projects are looking to stake their claim, threatening this delicate ecosystem. But Kvanefjeld is not the only concern, another large mining project, Kringlerne, contains some of the world’s largest deposits of REEs. Both projects are in the later stages of receiving exploitation licenses, with the Kvanefjled project currently undergoing a public hearing process.
Threats to sustainability
Two years ago, record temperatures melted 600 billion tonnes of ice, which were enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2 millimetres in just two months. With its climate heating up at twice the global average, Greenland is widely recognised as ground zero for climate change. Climbing temperatures, warming waters and melting sea ice are disrupting fjords and coastal ecosystems and posing serious challenges for a nation reliant on fisheries. The icy island’s marine areas contain some of the planet’s cleanest waters. They boost the reproductive capacity of marine biodiversity and the ecosystems in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, the fishing industry constitutes up to 90% of Greenland’s exports. This second-biggest employing sector would be harmed by the ecological damage caused by oil and gas extraction in open waters, a move that is currently being pushed by officials in Greenland.
The threat to sustainability is not exclusive to the seas. The Australian company Greenland Minerals Ltd’s (GML) flagship project, the Kvanefjeld mine mentioned above, is supposed to create jobs, but these would come at the cost of destroying possibly more existing traditional livelihoods. The southern portion of the island is considered Greenland’s breadbasket which, coincidentally, is also where most of the mineral resources are located and where Kvanefjeld would exploit the REEs. Yet for GML to get to the lucrative metals, the company would generate radioactive byproduct as a result of the presence of uranium. This waste would be stored as tailings. This would inevitably pollute Lake Taseq in the Kuannersuit mountain which overlooks Narsaq. Other risks include leakages from the tailings and toxic radioactive dust with the potential to be carried long distances by heavy arctic winds. The mine’s proximity to an occupied town and a world heritage site put at risk lives, livelihoods and irreplaceable heritage. Despite claims by the company’s assessment that dust from the Kvanefjeld operation would not cause radiation in the area, experts warn that Greenlanders should be sceptical about these claims.
Culture and tradition
In Greenland, rising temperatures have extended the growing season and expanded the production of existing crops. Though agriculture makes up a relatively small portion of Greenland’s economy, this sector of the economy has the potential to grow significantly as the climate warms up. The same can be said for animal husbandry. The southern portion of the island is home to all of Greenland’s sheep stock, where unique farming traditions of Norse Greenlandic and modern Inuit farming cultures are practised and where sheep roam as free-grazing flocks. This is because private land ownership is not practised here. All the land is controlled by local kommunes, or “municipalities”, allowing farmers to jointly agree to the terms of land usage, since Greenlanders neither own nor pay rent for the land they live on. The farms provide wool mainly for exports and meat for local consumption. The practice is especially important for Narsaq, the nearest town to the Kvanefjeld project. Rising temperatures are putting a severe strain on the island’s population of 57,000, where the Greenlandic Inuit populations (the Kalaallit, Inughuit and Tunumiit) make up around 90%. For the island, the rapid changes in temperature are causing economic insecurity and retreating ice exacerbates the threats for the Greenlandic Inuit’s traditional livelihoods, which are heavily rooted in fishing, seal and whale hunting. In addition, a history of colonisation and an expanding economic system is creating a deep cultural rift and increasing social pressures. The loss of culture and generational purpose caused by rising temperatures and a rapidly changing landscape are already causing severe mental health impacts.
The employment illusion
Even with the appeal of increased employment from the oil, gas and mining activities, the reality is that these highly technical jobs will require expertise that Greenland does not have. The vast majority of the people employed would come from other areas of the world and who may not understand the particular challenges Greenland’s residents face. Moreover, despite arguments from industry and politicians, mining projects tend to perform poorly in job creation, amounting to less than 1% of the labour force in most cases.
“We need a time-out for oil and gas extraction in Greenland and this also applies in particular to the mining industry,” says Erik Jensen from URANI NAAMIK / NO TO URANIUM Association in Nuuk.
Studies also show that the development of remote areas and the influx of workers to mining projects can often cause major socio-economic and cultural changes. The proliferation of oil, gas and mining projects in Greenland would bring increased development that could damage the already fragile social fabric. The effects of climate change combined with rapid modernisation can compromise traditional lifestyles, creating additional challenges for the island’s indigenous inhabitants.
“For years, environmental NGOs in Greenland and Denmark have criticised the Kvanefjeld project for not living up to Greenland’s environmental standards,” adds Francesca Carlsson, legal officer at the EEB. “The Aarhus Convention sets out clear processes and standards for environmental governance and public participation. It should be implemented and its principles should be guaranteed in every step of the process. These projects pose too high of a risk for the communities to not be fully involved.”
An independent Greenland
As part of the Danish Kingdom, Greenland is still under Danish influence, though with a degree of autonomy. The territory relies on an annual block grant of 3.9 billion Danish krone (around €500 million euros) from Copenhagen, which amounts to 20% of its GDP and more than half of the public budget. Greenlandic politicians are well aware of their socioeconomic hurdles. Some argue that climate change is an opportunity for a new future and view providing raw materials, oil and gas for the growing Western and Chinese economies as a means to reach economic independence. They argue that the income obtained from the resources would allow the Greenlandic government to detach itself from Denmark.
However, the cost of reaching independence through resource exploitation is high, both for Greenland and the world. Greenland would require 24 concurrent large-scale mining projects to zero out the financial support from Denmark. Paradoxically, opening up Greenland for ‘business’ would perpetuate the very same mining and industrial activities that are largely to blame for the environmental and and socioeconomic problems the island is currently facing. Greenland’s ice sheets are not melting because of the forces of nature, they are melting as a result of irresponsible human activity.
Niels Henrik Hooge from Friends of the Earth Denmark argues that: “More oil and minerals extraction is not a real prerequisite for financial autonomy. A mineral-based economy is not economically sustainable: when the mining industry starts to recede, Greenland will find itself in the same situation as before, only with fewer resources.”
As the EU updates its Arctic Policy as part of its work programme for 2021, environmental NGOs urge the Commission to truly carry out its environmental commitments and to declare the Arctic a natural sanctuary. The NGO statement also calls on the EU, Denmark and Greenland to implement a moratorium on large-scale mining and oil and gas extraction in the autonomous region and for the island to be compensated so that the immediate decrease in income would not negatively affect its population.
“The European Parliament just called on the European Commission to set binding targets to reduce resource consumption and bring it within planetary boundaries,” says Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, policy officer for the circular economy at the EEB. “We urgently need a framework for reducing our exploitation of increasingly scarce natural resources.”
It remains to be seen if policymakers in Brussels, Copenhagen and Nuuk will put words into action and push for increased protection of a vulnerable and yet pristine region of the world. After all, the challenges Greenland is facing are not just those of its people. As a climate window into the future, Greenland’s protection is a global challenge.