Greenland joins the Paris Agreement after worrying for years that it would stifle growth | Polarjournal
It is not a building that jumps in your eyes when you walk around central Nuuk but it was here at Inatsisartut, Greenland’s parliament, that the decision for Greenland to join the Paris Agreement was made last week. Image : Ole Ellekrog

Greenland is simultaneously among the countries most impacted by climate change and among the countries with the highest carbon footprints per capita. This has put politicians in a dilemma that was finally resolved last week.

Read this researcher’s six reasons why it took Greenland seven years to finally join the climate change treaty.

“On behalf of Naalakkersuisut [the Government of Greenland, ed.], I would like to express that this is a day of joy,” Kalistat Lund, Greenland’s Minister of Agriculture, Self-Sufficiency, Energy and Environment, said in a statement released on November 14th.

What he celebrated was the fact that Inatsisartut, Greenland’s parliament, had voted in favor of Greenland joining the Paris Agreement, the international treaty to lower carbon emissions. This comes more than seven years after most of the world’s countries, 175 in total, signed the treaty on April 22nd, 2016.

So why then, when you consider that Greenland and the Arctic is more affected by climate change than anywhere else, did it take so long for Greenland to become a signatory? And why did it finally happen now?

According to Rasmus Leander Nielsen, Assistant Professor at the department for Social Science, Journalism, and Economics at Ilisimatusarfik (the University of Greenland), there are several reasons for this. He shared six of the most important ones with PolarJournal.

  1. Afraid of stifling economic growth

As Rasmus Leander Nielsen sees it, the most important reason that the Greenlandic government has hesitated to join the Paris Agreement is worries that it would hurt the country’s growth rates.

These are highly important as Greenland seeks to lower its reliance on subsidies from the Danish government, the so-called Block Grant which accounts for more than half of its public budget.

“The Siumut Party, which has been in power for most of Greenland’s history, has always had the reservation that joining the Paris Agreement shouldn’t affect growth. If they were to allow just one mining project, it could add lots of CO2 emissions, and they didn’t want to risk that,” Rasmus Leander Nielsen told PolarJournal.

Siumut is a center-left party of the social democratic tradition. Since the first home rule government was formed in 1979, the prime minister has been from Siumut for all but six of those years.

  1. New party in power

However, in April of 2021 Muté B Egede of the Inuit Ataqatigiit Party (IA), a left-wing party, became Greenland’s prime minister, and in November of the same year at the COP26 in Glasgow, he announced that Greenland would join the Paris Agreement, an announcement that was ratified by parliament last week.

“The change of government has had an impact on the decision,” Rasmus Leander Nielsen said:

“Economic growth weighed against its environmental impact has been a dividing line between these two parties that can be traced all the way back to the 1970s at the very beginning of Greenlandic politics.”

  1. Siumut changed their mind

This, however, is not the only explanation for the change in policy. Because Mute B Egede’s government is formed by a coalition with Siumut. The change of policy would therefore not have been possible without members of Siumut also changing their minds.

“Both parties agree that the climate is important but for Siumut especially it has been important that the economic part of the equation also made sense,” Rasmus Leander Nielsen said.

“But after thorough investigation from lawyers and the administrative body of the government, Siumut has been convinced that the dangers of joining that they foresaw, will not be realized. They have been satisfied by what they’ve heard,” he said.

  1. A mindset of insignificance

Aside from the above causes, ascribable to internal politics, another reason that the treaty was not signed sooner, is a general attitude in Greenland that their actions do not matter in the grand scheme of things.

“There has been an argument that ‘it isn’t us who has polluted the whole world, and we are just trying to create a sustainable economy so this doesn’t concern us’. Because of this, parts of the scientific literature do point out that Greenland has been dragging its feet too much on climate matters.”

“But this isn’t a clearcut case at all. I believe that the legislation on mining, and the work that the government does more generally do take the climate into account to a large degree,” Rasmus Leander Nielsen said.

  1. A high carbon footprint

While climate change is affecting Greenland greatly, Greenland is also, in most rankings, in the high end of countries when it comes to its carbon footprint per capita.

The scientific database Our World in Data puts Greenlands annual CO2 emissions in 2021 at 9.1 tonnes per person, placing Greenland as 29th in the world, while the EU Commission’s EDGAR database puts the 2021 emissions at 8.15 tonnes, making Greenland 40th most polluting country in the world.

The relatively high placement on these lists is caused, in part, by the country’s important fishing industry and the fact that airplanes are the only viable means of transport between far-flung towns. To Greenland’s advantage, however, most of its energy is produced through non-emitting hydroelectric power plants.

Fears that these high emissions would make it difficult to reach the goals it committed to, has also played a role in Greenland’s hesitancy. How this will be managed is the next step in the process.

“Greenland will now have to decide how to reach its targets. This is still uncertain, and will be decided in the years to come through work with a climate strategy. The Faroe Islands also got a special status when they joined, and it has been investigated whether Greenland could do something similar,” Rasmus Leander Nielsen said.

According to the government’s press release, this process is expected to take place over the next few years, so that Greenland is a committed signatory beginning in 2030.

The town of Uummannaq in northwest Greenland is among the places where sea ice is present for fewer months of the year. Stories of these changes are starting to spread around the country. Photo: Michael Wenger
  1. The climate agenda only gaining ground now

Another reason that Greenland has been late to the Paris Agreement party is that the climate agenda has not been as high on the agenda in Greenland as elsewhere. But slowly, according to Rasmus Leander Nielsen, the climate agenda is starting to gain ground.

As examples of this, he mentions that municipalities are starting to work actively with the UN Development goals and that high school students are arranging climate workshops.

“People are also starting to notice that snow is starting to melt at strange times of the year which is getting some news coverage. And from the north of the country, people are hearing stories of hunters who are no longer able to cross the ice in the places where they used to

To the benefit of descendants

Whatever the reasons that Greenland has finally joined the treaty, and however insignificant its contributions to lowering emissions might be in the grand scheme of things, one thing is for certain: Greenlanders will now be able to face the coming changes to their Arctic surroundings with their heads held high.

Or as Kalistat Lund, Minister of Agriculture, Self-Sufficiency, Energy and Environment said in his statement: “I am proud that we are taking joint responsibility and are acting on the climate crisis. Greenland’s accession into the Paris Agreement will secure a development for the benefit of our country and our descendants.”

Ole Ellekrog, PolarJournal

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