Jul 2018

Greenland Trip Report

This report by James Gray MP, Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions (prepared by Dr Duncan Depledge) describes a visit by the APPG for the Polar Regions to Greenland, 23-31 August 2018. This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the authors own and do not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.


From 23-31 August 2018, a cross-party group of parliamentarians, led by James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions), from both houses took a week-long trip to Greenland.

Greenland is the world’s largest island and has been populated by Inuit for at least the last four and half thousand years. Vikings reached the island in the 10th century, when Erik the Red gave it the name ‘Greenland’ to try to entice settlers. However, it was not until the 18th Century that Danish/Norwegian colonisation established a permanent presence there.  

Greenland was officially “de-colonised” and became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953. However, in the 1960s and 70s, the local population mobilised against Danish rule. In 1979, Copenhagen granted Greenland Home Rule, which was immediately exercised to pull Greenland out of the European Economic Community. In 2008, Greenland voted in favour of increased self-rule and a year later, the Greenland Self-Government Act was signed into law. The Act recognised the Greenlanders as a people, gave the Government the opportunity to take jurisdiction over areas previously held by Copenhagen, and set Greenland on a path towards presumed eventual independence from Denmark.  

Greenland is also being transformed by climate change. 79% of Greenland is covered by an ice sheet. With the Arctic warming, the ice sheet has been melting faster, contributing around 12mm to global sea level rise over the last 25 years (nearly double the contribution from melting Antarctic ice sheets). In 2012, it was reported that 97% of the ice sheet had experienced surface melt at some point during the year. Rising temperatures are also thawing and drying out Greenland’s permafrost, releasing additional carbon and methane into the atmosphere and exacerbating the risk of wildfires.  

The APPG for the Polar Regions had several reasons for their visit to Greenland. First, it was to provide an opportunity for British parliamentarians to learn more about the challenges and opportunities facing Greenland at a time of profound uncertainty, ushered in by concurrent geopolitical, economic and environmental changes. Second, the visit hoped to start a dialogue between British Parliamentarians and the Greenlandic Parliament (“Inatsisartut”) and Government, about the future of UK-Greenland relations. Third, the visit was to provide British parliamentarians with a valuable counterpoint to the APPG’s 2017 visit to Svalbard by demonstrating that the Arctic is not a homogenous region. That said, what was common to both Greenland and Svalbard was the presence of British scientists undertaking research to better understand how different parts of the Arctic are being impacted by climate change, and what such changes could mean for the Arctic and the wider world.


All members of the APPG for the Polar Regions were invited to apply to take part in the trip. Due to the limited number of places, participants were selected on the basis of past participation in APPG for the Polar Regions events, and party balance.

The following MPs and Peers participated in the trip:

  • James Gray MP (Conservative), Chairman of the APPG for the Polar Regions Stephen Hepburn MP (Labour)
  • John Mann MP (Labour)
  • Mark Menzies MP (Conservative)
  • Brendan O’Hara MP (SNP)
  • The Baroness Neville-Jones (Conservative)
  • The Baroness Smith of Newnham (Liberal Democrats)
  • Theresa Villiers MP (Conservative)

The visit was organised and supported by Dr Duncan Depledge (Director, APPG for the Polar Regions Secretariat).  

The group acknowledges the generous support of the Mamont Foundation, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, WWF UK and the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union, which made this trip possible.

Thursday, 23rd August

Greenland was colonised by the Danish in the 18th Century. After “decolonisation” in 1953, the island became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark (which also encompassed the Faroe Islands). Although Greenland won the right to Home Rule in 1979, and Self-Government in 2008, many jurisdictional areas still remain under the Danish Government in Copenhagen, including foreign affairs, security and financial policy. In 2011, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) produced a document entitled “Kingdom of Denmark: Strategy for the Arctic 2011-2020”.  

Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Copenhagen

To learn more about Danish Arctic policy and the current state of relations between Greenland and Denmark, we met with Torsten Kjølby Nielsen (Deputy Head of Arctic Affairs, Danish MFA) and Lida Skifte Lennert (Greenland’s Representative in Copenhagen). The meeting was also attended by Flemming Stender, the new head of the Arctic Team at the Danish MFA.

APPG Polar outside the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The meeting was led by Mrs Lennert who gave a detailed introduction to the geopolitical and economic issues facing Greenland. She described the Greenland’s relationship with Denmark as “going through a process of modernisation” since 1979, with the end goal being presumed full independence for Greenland some time in the future. At present, Greenland has only “taken home” one of the thirty-two competencies that Denmark has held onto in return for an annual block grant worth approximately £400 million. The principle is that as Greenland’s grows its economy, it will be able to take on more areas of competency and the block grant will be reduced accordingly. In 2010, Greenland took control of its sub-surface resources in the hope that oil, gas and mineral mines would provide a significant boost to the economy, although to date, progress has been slow.

For Greenland, it seems that for the vast majority the desired end state is independence. Should Greenland take that path, Denmark is unlikely to intervene. However, there is much dispute over how quickly this process should occur. Tension also remains over the question of foreign and security policy while Greenland achieves independence. The problem is that some domestic policies inevitably have a foreign/security policy dimension to them. This was highlighted by recent reports in the media that Danish Government concerns over the possibility of Greenland accepting investment from China to build new airports. Some fear that Chinese investment in Greenland could result in unsustainable debts that would give China leverage over Greenland’s future. There are also concerns about how the US, Denmark’s major defence partner, would react, given that Greenland still hosts a US airbase, which is also part of the US’ missile defence system.  

To avoid a dispute with Greenland over the issue, the Danish Government is now looking to provide Greenland with the investment it needs to stop it turning to China. It seemed to us that such a compromise would allow Denmark to prevent Chinese investment without having to test the strength of its sovereignty over Greenland. Close cooperation between the governments of Denmark and Greenland on the issue may be enough to stop the sovereignty question being asked.  

Mrs Lennert drew the group’s attention to Greenland’s relationship with the EU and its concerns about trade with the UK post-Brexit. Although Greenland left the EU in 1985, it has retained access to the internal market and various funds through membership of the Overseas Countries and Territories Association, through which Greenland has developed strong links with the UK’s Overseas Territories. The Greenlandic Government is concerned about the possible loss of UK Overseas Territories’ strong voice within the OCT Association after Brexit.  

Lastly, we heard how Denmark is only an Arctic nation and a member of the Arctic Council because of Greenland and that competency for Greenland’s foreign policy gives Denmark a much bigger role in international affairs. Denmark is the only member of all the international clubs relating to the Arctic (such as the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council), which gives Denmark the chance to sit down with the US, Russia and China, and therefore they do not appear to be in a hurry to see Greenlandic independence.

British Embassy, Copenhagen

After meeting Danish and Greenlandic officials, the group visited the British Embassy in Copenhagen, where we heard the UK perspective on Greenland from policy officer Claire Kwan. Ms Kwan reaffirmed much of what we had already heard from Danish and Greenlandic officials but also called our attention to some of the specific challenges facing Greenlandic society.  

In particular, she noted the struggle that many Greenlanders face transitioning from being predominantly hunter-gatherers to conventional, regular jobs. Hunting culture and family life are still central to most Greenlanders. Difficulties reconciling that lifestyle with the demands of modern work have contributed to low standards of education, high levels of unemployment, and high levels of absenteeism among those who do have jobs. Many settlements are isolated and lack infrastructure, and levels of sexual abuse (often involving children), alcohol abuse and domestic violence are at high levels.

Ms Kwan highlighted the importance of Greenland’s fishing sector, which faces impending and very controversial reform. Quotas are currently dominated by two big companies, who argue that they can safeguard Greenland’s economic future. However, critics want the wealth from Greenland’s living marine resources to be redistributed, allowing more individuals and small/medium sized companies to benefit.

On China, Ms Kwan noted the concerns that Denmark had about possible attempts to buy influence in Greenland through investment in infrastructure with potential dual-use purposes, such as airports. Danish warnings to Greenland have gone down badly with Greenlanders who regard such claims as patronising. She reported that Greenlanders understood the risks but was no longer beholden to Denmark alone.  

The conversation about Greenland’s future continued over a dinner hosted by HE Mr Dominic Schroeder, and his wife, Susan, at the Ambassador’s residence. The dinner was also attended by Mrs Lennert and Mr Kjølby.

HE Dominic Schroeder welcomes APPG Polar to his residence for dinner.

We had a wide-ranging discussion about the UK’s relationship with Greenland. Brexit was once again raised as Mrs Lennert stressed the importance that Greenland attaches to its access to the UK market for fish and fish products. A significant counterpoint was whether Greenland has the social, economic and political capacity to expand its relationship with UK. It was also noted that the British fishing fleet currently has very little interest in Greenlandic waters and it is unclear whether that will change after Brexit. The UK currently does more trade with the Faroe Islands than with Greenland.  

Overall, though, it seemed that the demands of Brexit and other foreign policy/trade priorities has meant that the UK itself has lacked capacity to explore fully the potential for expanding relations with Greenland, and that the UK Government did not expect this to change in the near future. It was noted, for example, that the Ambassador has been so preoccupied with Brexit that he has not yet been able to visit Greenland, which is in contrast to the US Ambassador, who we happened to meet while in Greenland. While we quite understand that the Ambassador has many pressures on his time, it seemed to us that it would be useful for the UK to undertake a Ministerial or Ambassadorial visit to Greenland in the near future if the opportunity arises.

Friday, 24th August

Kangerlussuaq International Science Support, Kangerlussuaq

After a five-hour flight from Copenhagen, the group arrived in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Kangerlussuaq is an old US air base with a surrounding village of around 500 people. However, because of its long runway it has become Greenland’s international hub (the runways in Nuuk and Ilulissat are too short to handle trans-continental flights).  

In Kangerlussuaq, we were met by Professor Jo Bullard and her team from Loughborough University. Loughborough researchers have been working in the Kangerlussuaq area for over twenty years. Earlier this year, Professor Bullard and her team began work on a three-year project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to study the importance of dust – derived from the ice sheet and nearby glaciers – as a source of nutrients to remote Arctic lakes, and to see how recent changes in the intensity of dust storms (partly driven by Arctic warming) are affecting ecological activity and the carbon cycle.

As Professor Bullard explained, dust from high latitude sources (such as the Greenland Ice Sheet) has received insufficient attention from scientists, compared, for example, to that found in the Sahara Desert or China. Yet there is evidence to suggest that dust is an important component in earth-atmosphere-ocean systems. The results of the study of dust in Greenland are therefore likely to affect the climate models that policymakers and others concerned about climate change rely on.

The group also met Chris Sorensen, the station manager at the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support (KISS), where we were to spend the night in rooms usually reserved for scientists. The station provides logistics to support on-ice science bases and laboratories. The main users are scientists and science-support technicians from the US, UK and western Europe. Around 55 nations are doing science in the Kangerlussuaq area. In addition to having an international airport, Kangerlussuaq is just 25km from the Greenland Ice Sheet. It has also only recently begun to feel the effects of climate change, meaning that scientists have a complete record of temperature change in the area.

The group was taken by bus to the Greenland Ice Sheet, along a road built by a car testing company in the late 1990s. The idea was that European car manufacturers such as Volkswagen and Audi would be able to test their cars up on the ice. The project was abandoned in 2006 and the road is now used by scientists and tour companies.

En route, the group saw Musk Ox and Reindeer grazing along the side of the road. A group of Greenlandic hunters (some of whom suffered from mental illness but found respite in the wilderness) was spotted at their camp close to one of the many lakes in the Kangerlussuaq area.  

About half-way along the road, the group stopped for lunch overlooking the ice-sheet margin and a glacially-created fishless ice sheet lake. There the group was joined by another group of British scientists from the University of Sheffield. Dr Andrew Sole and Professor Chris Clark were helping 11 Masters students to develop field skills appropriate to studying the planet’s coldest regions, and gain an in-depth knowledge of the location they were visiting.  

After lunch, the group drove to the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet. The road ends abruptly at the moraine and so the group went onto the ice by foot. The scale of the ice sheet was breath-taking, despite the group of course encountering only the smallest fraction of it.

Musk Ox near Kangerlussuaq
APPG Polar with scientists from Loughborough University and the University of Sheffield, with Greenland Ice Sheet edge behind.
Stepping out onto the Greenland Ice Sheet.
Professor Bullard explains how dust traps are used to quantify the amount and type of sediments going into local lakes.

On the way back to Kangerlussuaq, the group stopped at a small dune field where the Loughborough team had set up traps to capture wind-blown particles that would provide evidence about local dust emissions.

Back at KISS, Professor Bullard and her team laid on a typically Greenlandic dinner for the group. This provided the opportunity to discuss further the importance of sites like Kangerlussuaq to British Arctic science. KISS’ future is presently in doubt because of a wider debate in Greenland about airport infrastructure. Longer runways are being planned in Nuuk and Ilulissat to bring inter-continental flights directly to those areas, while Kangerlussuaq faces closure. That would make it more difficult for scientists to get to the ice-sheet. It was also felt that more needed to be done to ensure that Britain’s world-class science contribution in the Arctic receives the visibility that it deserves. Too often, Britain’s Arctic science contribution seems overshadowed by British science in Antarctica.

Saturday, 25th August

Having spent the night at KISS, the group took a one-hour flight to Nuuk, Greenland’s largest city and economic centre, and the world’s northernmost capital. Nuuk was founded by the Dano-Norwegian Governor Claus Paars who relocated Hans Egede’s earlier Hope Colony to the mainland. Then it was named Good Hope (“Godthåb”). However, in 1979, after Greenland won the right to home rule, the city adopted the name Nuuk from the Greenlandic word for ‘cape’.  

Joint Arctic Command, Nuuk

The group’s first meeting in Nuuk was with Major General Kim Jesper Jorgensen, Commanding General of Denmark’s Joint Arctic Command (JAC). The JAC was established in Nuuk in 2011 following the release of the Kingdom of Denmark’s Strategy for the Arctic 2011-2020. The Command brought together Greenland Command and Faroe Command and was tasked with making Denmark’s Armed Forces in the North Atlantic more efficient. An Arctic Response Force to provide reinforcement was formed in Denmark at the same time.

During the meeting, General Jorgensen explained the challenges that the JAC faces safeguarding Greenland’s security. The JAC covers an area of interest that covers Russia, Alaska, the United Kingdom and Norway. Due to the lack of infrastructure in Greenland itself, in an emergency, it might be necessary for the JAC to divert assets to friendly bases around the Arctic and North Atlantic. General Jorgensen also explained the agreement that grants the United States the right in perpetuity to establish ‘defence areas’ in Greenland. The US used to have 20 bases in Greenland, although now there is only one (Thule, in the very north of the country, is used for early warning and missile defence, but it is widely rumoured that it was also used as a nuclear missile launch station).  

In the light of the recent House of Commons Defence Committee report on UK Defence in the Arctic, the group was also interested to learn of General Jorgensen’s concerns about Russian and Chinese interest in the Arctic. While Denmark is seeking closer cooperation with Russia on Search and Rescue, it has noted an increased presence of what are suspected to be Russian spy ships close to Greenland. China meanwhile has been testing Denmark’s situational awareness. One example was given to us of a Chinese scientific ship not submitting a request to enter Greenlandic waters until after it was challenged by the JAC, only then to cancel its planned visit to Greenland entirely. In response to these concerns, the JAC wants to see better naval cooperation with countries such as the UK to protect the North Atlantic and adjacent Arctic waters.

APPG Polar outside Denmark’s Joint Arctic Command Headquarters
APPG Polar meets Inatsisartut over lunch.
Inatsisartut, Nuuk

The group was hosted for lunch by Hans Enoksen, Speaker of the Greenlandic Parliament (“Inatsisartut”) and members of the Presidium. The Presidium serves as the public representative of Inatsisartut and is comprised of elected members of the parliament. Four of Greenland’s seven parties were represented at the meeting.  

During discussions with the Speaker and the Presidium, we were told about Greenland’s concerns that Brexit would harm the country’s future trading relationship with Britain. The group heard that while Greenland is largely united in its pursuit of independence, it is divided over how quickly it should happen. This has spilled over into disputes over what sort of infrastructure Greenland needs to build, the extent to which it should develop an economy based on minerals, and how much tourism to allow. The group also learned that the Greenlandic way of life (especially hunting) is under threat from climate change and less predictable weather. Last, the group heard that many people in Greenland, having rejected Denmark, are looking to Iceland as a model for Greenland in the future.  

After lunch, the group was given a tour of the Inatsisartut building and chamber. Greenland has a unicameral parliament comprising 31 representatives elected from a national list. We then went on to Hans Egede’s House, one of the oldest buildings in Greenland, for further discussions. There the group was joined by senior officials from the Greenlandic Government representing the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Independence and Mineral Resources.

APPG Polar and the Presidium in the chamber of Inatsisartut.

The Government officials explained that there had been a great deal more international interest in Greenland in recent years, including very high-level visits from the US, China, the European Union and the United Nations (the UK was notably absent from this list). They repeated the concerns we heard in Copenhagen about the potential loss of the UK Overseas Territories from the EU’s Overseas Countries and Territories Association after Brexit, having developed a close working relationship with them.  

The Government officials also provided the group with information about the major mining developments that are currently being explored or developed in Greenland (covering a wide range of minerals including rubies, sapphires, anorthosite, iron, zinc, nickel, rare earth metals and uranium). Greenland took back control of its mineral resources from Denmark in 2009. However, the Government cannot afford to invest in mineral projects and is therefore reliant on companies that are prepared to finance projects themselves. So far more than 50 licences have been issued for exploration and exploitation (mostly the former) but few have actually been used. Mining is therefore not seen as a major game-changer for Greenland’s economy. Many more world-class projects are needed, perhaps relating to the discovery of commercially exploitable oil and gas reserves but this is still yet to happen. The British company Cairn Energy spent $1.2 billion between 2010 and 2011 drilling eight wells that yielded no commercial finds. Statoil, GDF Suez and Dong Energy have also quit licences to drill off Greenland in recent years.

Sunday, 26th August

The Island of Hope and Kangeq

The following morning, the group went by boat to the Island of Hope, where the Dano-Norwegian Moravian Priest Hans Egede arrived in 1721 to search for descendants of Viking settlers. Instead he encountered Inuit who helped him build a small settlement from which he began to preach Christianity. Seven years later, the colony was moved to the mainland, where it grew into the city now known as Nuuk.

APPG Polar at the remains of Hans Egede’s settlement.

After visiting the ruins of the Hans Egede’s settlement, the group went on to the abandoned fishing village of Kangeq. The village sits on an ancient Inuit trading route. After the Danes arrived in the eighteenth century, Kangeq grew into a trading post and after the Second World War, Denmark encouraged Inuit to settle there and switch from hunting to fishing to improve their livelihoods and develop the local economy.  

The population of Kangeq numbered around 150 in the 1950s. In the 1960s, an exodus started with demand for labourers to work in the fish factories being built in Nuuk. By the early 1970s, the population had halved. At this point, the Danish government decided to close Kangeq (and many other settlements across Greenland) because it was too costly to maintain health and social services in such small and remote communities. The Danish preferred to see Inuit people moved to larger towns with better infrastructure. Those who did not move voluntarily were compulsorily relocated. The group’s guide explained how her grandparents had been among those forced to leave Kangeq and that many Greenlanders still harboured resentment towards Denmark because of its policies. Kangeq and other settlements that were abandoned became symbols of Greenlandic mistreatment and helped drive demand for independence.

APPG Polar learn about the forced abandonment of Kangeq
“Kaffemik”, Nuuk

On our return to Nuuk, we took ‘Kaffemik’ with a local Greenlander, Kirsten, who invited us into her home to learn more about local issues. ‘Kaffemik’ is a Greenlandic tradition, typically held on special occasions to celebrate birthdays, weddings and anniversaries.  

Over coffee, tea and cakes, we learned about Kirsten’s life in Nuuk and aspects of Greenlandic culture. As a retired teacher, Kirsten gave us a particularly interesting insight into how important language is to Greenlandic identity. She noted how thanks to the internet, young Greenlanders are learning English, and starting to reject Danish as their second language. Danish has long been important for Greenlanders because it is to Denmark that young people have to travel to complete their education, particularly if they want to go to university. Kirsten told us she would not be surprised if English soon displaced Danish as Greenland’s second language, not least because Greenlandic identity is being defined in opposition to Denmark. This could mean that in the future there will be more demand for British schools and universities to play a role in Greenlandic education.  

WWF Greenland, Nuuk

Our group met with Kaare Winther Hansen, who runs WWF Greenland’s office (a subsidiary of WWF Denmark). The office opened in 2015, making WWF the first global conservation organisation to have an office in Greenland. Mr Hansen is a biologist who has lived and worked in Greenland for several years. He told us about the challenges facing international environmental NGOs in Greenland following the European Union ban on trade in seal products, which it did in 2009. The ban inflicted significant damage on Inuit livelihoods across Greenland and Northern Canada, and has resulted in difficult relationships between the Greenlandic government and environmental NGOs.

Kaare Winther Hansen from WWF Nuuk talks to APPG Polar

Nevertheless, WWF have since 2015 tried to tackle these challenges through public engagement, behind the scenes dialogue with key stakeholders, and a set of programmes designed to strengthen the sustainability of key areas of Greenland’s economy and promote conservation. One flagship programme has been to help Greenland’s fisheries receive MSC certification to bolster the value of their products on international markets, including the UK. So far, good progress has been made certifying Greenland’s offshore fisheries, although inshore fisheries are proving more problematic because of the influence of local fishermen in politics.

Another key area of engagement for WWF is the Polar Bear Patrol it runs in Ittoqqortoormiit, the northernmost settlement in eastern Greenland, which sits on the migration route for polar bears. The number of polar bears encroaching on the settlement has increased in recent years and there have been several serious incidents. Although no one is thought to have been killed by a polar bear in Greenland since the Second World War, the number of conflicts between bears and humans is growing. The reason is thought to be the shrinking of summer sea ice due to climate change, which forces bears closer to the shore where they are attracted by the smell of food and waste from nearby settlements. The polar bear patrol was set up with support from WWF, including UK support, to protect Ittoqqortoormiit and its 450 residents. The patrol aims to ‘scare’ away polar bears to reduce encounters with locals in which they may be killed in self-defence.  

Shortly before the group left for Greenland, news had broken that a part of the Arctic’s strongest sea-ice had unexpectedly broken-up for the second time that year. This ‘Last Ice Area’, a term coined by WWF and used by Prime Minister Trudeau in his 2016 Arctic Commitments, is a vast area which stretches from the north of Greenland to the Canadian Arctic island archipelago, covering waters that are normally frozen throughout the summer. The break up occurred near Cap Morris Jessup, the easternmost section of the Last Ice Area, where WWF modelling previously showed that sea ice would be less stable. Where the Beaufort Gyre presses ice into the Last Ice Area, the transpolar drift pushes ice from the eastern parts of the Arctic Ocean down along the coast of East Greenland. This system is one of the reasons why the models predict the most stable ice conditions in the western part of the Last Ice Area, projected to be the last stronghold of summer sea ice as the Arctic warms due to climate change. WWF are engaging stakeholders in this remote region to better support local communities, understand the changes, and identify conservation priorities.  

The group also questioned Mr Hansen about the UK Government’s upcoming Ivory Bill and specifically the consultation that is underway on whether to extend the scope of the ban to prohibit the import to the UK of walruses and narwhal ivory. Like the EU’s ban on seal products, doing so would threaten to disproportionately impact the livelihoods of many Greenlandic Inuit who continue to subsistence hunt walrus and narwhal legally and sustainably. Mr Hansen told us that CITES already regulates such trade, the UK is not a major import country, there is no clear conservation need for such as a ban, and that it is critical to include indigenous peoples in the forthcoming UK government consultation.

Lastly, Mr Hansen spoke to the group about the emerging issues of retrieving lost fishing gear from within Greenlandic waters, noting the risk to wildlife from entanglement, and the need for a greater awareness of the risk and impacts of plastic pollution on marine life.  

Meeting with expats, Nuuk

Our last meeting was in the home of Kirsty Langley, a British remote sensing specialist at Asiaq Greenland Survey (AGS). AGS is a Greenlandic company that supports the Greenland Government in infrastructure planning. Mrs Langley generously invited us to her apartment overlooking Nuuk to discuss how she and her friends (other expats from Denmark, Australia and Iceland) think Greenland is changing.  

As a group, they were cautious about Greenland’s prospects. They thought that it would take commercial oil and gas finds to transform Greenland’s economic fortune, but pointed out that exploration had stalled in recent years. They felt that most Greenlanders supported development based on extractive industries because it would support jobs and education, although without international investors, mining and oil/gas development are likely to remain limited.

The other major discussion point concerned tourism in Greenland. There are around 75,000 tourists a year visiting Greenland but most stay only one day. That excludes cruise ship passengers who spend very little money at all in Greenland. For those working in the tourism sector, incomes are difficult to sustain because of the seasonal nature of the business. However, the main challenge for tourism is the lack of infrastructure. In Ilulissat, for example, the town is already at capacity in terms of accommodation. The proposed new airport in Ilulissat would require an expansion of hotels and other supporting infrastructure as well. It was also suggested that the tourist industry was dominated by Danish companies/employees with little money ending up in the hands of Greenlanders themselves.  

Monday, 27th August

Greenland Business Association and Sermersooq Business Council, Nuuk

The group’s final morning in Nuuk began at the offices of the Greenland Business Association (GBA). GBA’s director, Brian Buus Pedersen, told us that GBA was established in 1966 and represents over 500 businesses in Greenland. The meeting was also attended by Stine Selmer Andersen and Rune Fridorff-Hansen from the Sermersooq Business Council, a local business organisation that works towards business development and increased financial growth through projects that involve and strengthen local industries, businesses and entrepreneurs at the municipal level.  

During the meeting, the group learned more about the challenges facing Greenlandic businesses. Greenland’s biggest resource, Mr Pedersen explained, is its people, but human capital is underdeveloped. Two thirds of the workforce have no vocational training. 70 per cent of Greenlanders leave school without sufficient literacy and numeracy skills and Greenland’s education system is weakened by a lack of high-quality teachers and teaching resources. For example, advanced learning materials are often not available in the main Greenlandic language. The Greenland Business Association is trying to persuade the Government to focus more on education, child abuse and other social issues instead of spending so much time on the issue of independence.  

Mr Pedersen also expressed concern about the Greenlandic approach to governance, which he described as being copy/pasted from Danish governance models. He argued that Greenland needed to stop and rethink how Greenlandic society is organised in order to make significant cost savings. He pointed out that if the Greenlandic Government brought home the 31 competencies still held by Denmark then the public sector would have to grow. An independent Greenland would be much more expensive to run because it would no longer benefit from the economies of scale that come from being part of Denmark. He estimated that Greenland would need to double its population before it could produce enough economic growth to sustain independence.  

Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, Nuuk

The last stop for the group in Nuuk was at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (GINR). The institute conducts research into Arctic ecosystems, monitors the living resources and the environment in Greenland, and advises the Government of Greenland and other authorities on the sustainable exploitation of living resources. The institute also hosts a climate research centre that conducts research into the effects of climate change on the Arctic environment and Greenlandic society.

APPG Polar meets the Greenland Business Association and Sermersooq Business Council

Professor Klaus Nygaard shows APPG Polar the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources

The group was taken around the institute by the director, Professor Klaus Nygaard who reinforced the concerns the group had heard from WWF about the growing number of polar bear encounters with people in Greenland. However, he offered a more positive view of the implications of climate change for Greenland’s economy, noting that the migration of fish stocks northwards, and the possibility of growing different kinds of crops could create new economic opportunities for Greenlanders. For Professor Nygaard, climate change in the Arctic was a bigger problem for the world than it was for Greenland.

Ice Fjord, Ilulissat

The group then flew to Ilulissat, north of the Arctic Circle. Formerly known as Jakobshavn, Ilulissat is the largest town in western Greenland with a population of 5,000 people and almost as many sled-dogs. It is the third largest settlement in Greenland and has become something of a tourist centre. The group had learned earlier in the visit that Ilulissat is pretty much at capacity in terms of how many tourists it can accommodate. Even so, the Greenlandic Government is considering building a longer runway at the airport in order to accommodate direct trans-continental flights.  

The town sits next to the most productive ice-fjord in the northern hemisphere. Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004, the fjord produces enormous icebergs, one of which may have been the iceberg that sank the Titanic. An evening boat trip through the mouth of the ice-fjord gave the group the opportunity to see for themselves why Ilulissat is Greenland’s most popular tourist destination.

Flying over the Ilulissat ice-fjord

Tuesday, 28th August

Arctic Station, Qeqertarsuaq

The group were taken by a small boat on a two-hour journey across Disko Bay to the town of Qeqertarsuaq on neighbouring Disko Island, Greenland’s second largest island, to be met by Professor Morten Rasch, the newly appointed manager of the Arctic Station.  

The Arctic Station was established by a Danish philanthropist in 1906. It was taken over by the University of Copenhagen in 1953, originally for biologists to use. In 1978, the scientific focus of the station was widened to encompass other natural sciences, such as geology and geography. It is one of only a very few natural science facilities north of the Arctic Circle that is operational all year. International scientists, including from the UK, are regular visitors to the station.  

Professor Rasch took the group on a short tour of Qeqertarsuaq. The town was founded in 1773 (but traces of settlements between five and six thousand years old have been found in the area) and has a population of around 900 people. It used to be possible for locals to use dog sleds to travel between Qeqertasuaq and Ilulissat across Disko Bay in wintertime but due to climate change, the winter sea-ice is no longer thick enough to be considered safe.

Professor Morten Rasch talks to APPG Polar about the Arctic Station

Qeqertarsuaq is a popular destination for cruise ships but Professor Rasch was sceptical of the benefits for the local community. Cruise ships actually bring very little money into Qeqertarsuaq and towns like it across Greenland because they are effectively self-sustaining. Passengers may step off the ship for a few hours to have a look around but they rarely spend any money in the towns they visit.

In the afternoon, Professor Rasch led the group on a walk along the coast, explaining some of the different scientific projects carried out by researchers at the Arctic Station, as well as the geology of the area.  

Wednesday, 29th August

Sermersiut and Ilimanaq

The group took the boat back across Disko Bay to Ilulissat for a visit to an ancient settlement, Sermersiut, which sits next to the ice-fjord.  

In the afternoon, the group took another boat, this time across to Ilimanaq on the other side of the ice-fjord. Ilimanaq used to be a thriving settlement of around 200 people, centred on fishing activity and fish factory work. However, in recent years, the population has fallen to around 50. The fish factory was closed and workers moved to Ilulissat. The village is now struggling to survive. The local school has seven pupils of different ages but can only teach them until the 8th grade, after which they have to move to a larger town to complete their education (usually taking their parents with them).

The village of Ilimanaq

Ilimanaq faces the same fate as Kangeq, the abandoned fishing village that the group visited while in Nuuk. Tourism, however, may provide a life-line. Luxury lodges have been built along the waterfront in an attempt to bring more money into the settlement, while organised tours take visitors for walks through the town’s history. The risk, however, is that Ilimanaq ends up becoming an inhabited museum rather than a vibrant local community. Moreover, most of the money seems to be going to the tour companies, rather than being spent in the town itself. The tour guides we met were all Danish students looking to spend their summers in the wilderness rather than local Greenlanders who cannot survive on a seasonal income. It was difficult to see how attracting more tourism to Ilulissat would bring significant economic benefits to the local community.

The next day the trip travelled back to Copenhagen. After overnighting in an airport hotel, the group returned to London on 31 August.  

Final Thoughts

The group left Greenland with serious concerns about the opportunities and challenges facing a country seeking to break-free of geographical, economic and geopolitical constraints.  

At first glance, one might wonder what there is in Greenland for the UK. After all, Greenland is populated by just 57,000 people and remains reliant on a block grant from Denmark to fund much of its governance and financial structures. However, as Greenlanders try to build their nation into a fully-functioning state, they are looking to escape Denmark’s influence. The UK is an obvious ally for Greenland, as a market for fish, as well as a source of tourists, and of investment and expertise for infrastructure and mining projects. English is already beginning to displace Danish as Greenland’s second language, and there could be a future role for British schools and universities in Greenlandic education. Greenland also remains a key site for British-based scientists seeking to better understand the cryosphere and climate change in the Arctic, as well as many other important issues.  

There is then plenty more for us to discuss with our Greenlandic colleagues in the coming years, and we hope that our visit will be the beginning of a dialogue between the UK and Greenland about our future relationship.

What other participants said

“The visit to Greenland with the APPG for the Polar Regions was hugely informative. I feel I have a much greater understanding now about the issues faced by the country in terms of climate change, the economy and the debate on separation from Denmark. It was a fascinating trip which has reinforced my interest in the polar regions and convinced me of the importance of ensuring UK foreign policy includes a focus on Arctic areas.”

Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP

“The APPG for the Polar Regions’ visit to Greenland was fascinating and instructive on several counts.  Though the ice cap is receding, sea ice becoming less reliable and fish stocks changing composition (with cod and halibut becoming scarcer), climate change does not seem to loom large on the agenda of the people of Greenland.  This may be because the effects are not yet so drastic as to cause serious disruption of traditional life and because warming provides some benefits to daily life and the economy.  The country’s population is strikingly isolated, internally lacking road links between very small and highly dispersed communities and externally having air links only with Denmark and Iceland.  No contacts exist with the nearest neighbour Canada. The support for independence seems more popular than realistic and probably hampers the efforts of the small business community to attract investment.  The politics of the potential mining opportunities, in which China is interested, are complex and are capable of causing friction with Copenhagen over security aspects.  The Icelanders worry that their contracts to supply fish to UK retailers, which are significant in local terms, may be disrupted by Brexit.  The APPG sought to reassure them that their fears were likely to be unfounded.  In the context of Brexit there may well be greater opportunities for bilateral deals. In all our visits, which included research institutions, we were given the warmest of welcomes by people genuinely pleased to see us.  

Rt Hon Baroness Neville-Jones

“The visit to Greenland by the Polar Regions APPG was absolutely fascinating. Greenland is a stunningly beautiful, unspoilt country and thanks to the generosity of our sponsors – and our willingness as a group to forego many of our creature comforts – we were able to travel extensively and speak to a much wider cross-section of Greenlandic society that I ever imagined we would. Time and again the issues that came up were around climate change and the problems and opportunities that would afford Greenland; the legacy of Danish colonialism and should the move towards full Greenlandic independence be primarily about economic growth or about the preservation of Inuit culture. We also discussed the global security implications of any constitutional change, given Greenland’s strategic importance in the High North and Arctic. And although not part of the EU, we also had extensive discussions of the potential effects of Brexit on the Greenlandic fishing industry. All in all, a wonderfully worthwhile trip.”

Brendan O’Hara MP