Denmark’s Strategy for the Arctic

Old town Nuuk, Greenland. Kingdom of Denmark. Photo by Eilís Quinn. Radio Canada International. Peter Taksoe-Jensen, the Danish Ambassador to the U.S., gave a talk at Dartmouth on Tuesday entitled, “Arctic Challenges and Opportunities: A Danish Perspective.” I wasn’t able to find a transcript of his speech online, but Dartmouth’s school newspaper has a few quotes from his talk, which he gave to approximately 50 people. He warned against viewing the Arctic as the new “Wild West.”

Instead, he cautioned,

“The best way to move forward is to actually have a framework where we can manage the challenges and opportunities by working together.”

Denmark released a strategy for the Arctic on August 24, 2011. Called, “Kingdom of Denmark Strategy for the Arctic 2011–2020,” (available here as a PDF, in English) the strategy applies to the country’s entire realm, which includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

One of Denmark’s main objectives in the Arctic concerns sustainability and social development. This is in sharp contrast to Canada and Russia, for instance, two countries which are arguably more concerned with defense and sovereignty than the environment and people. The government also strives to prevent conflicts and avoid the militarization of the Arctic.

The preface reads,

“It is our common objective that the Arctic and its current potential must be developed to promote sustainable growth and social sustainability. This development must take place firstly to the benefit of the inhabitants of the Arctic and go hand in hand in safeguarding the Arctic’s environment.”

The Arctic foreign policy set in Copenhagen affects Greenland. Though it exercises self-rule, it does not create its own foreign policy in the North, though it does manage its own mineral resource development. This is important to Denmark both in principal and fiscally. As a principal, Denmark supports allowing indigenous peoples to choose their own development strategy for their natural resources and then support themselves from the revenues. Fiscally, the subsidy that Denmark provides to Greenland every year will be reduced according to the amount of revenues the country pulls in from mineral resource development.

Shipping and Maritime Safety

Greenland experienced a more than 33% increase in the number of cruise ships that berthed at its ports in 2010 (43 compared to 32). Shipping in the Faroes has increased a reported five to six times from 2008 to 2010. Consequently, Denmark is pushing for the IMO to create more regulations for shipping in the Arctic, which are binding.

Currently, under Danish and Greenlandic law, all ships sailing to the island must continuously report their whereabouts to GREENPOS, a tracking and reporting system. Denmark and Greenland are also busy mapping the seas off of southern Greenland, where shipping is busiest, and then digitizing the nautical charts. However, due to the large amount of area to cover, many parts will still be uncharted in 2018. In the Faroe Islands, new, established shipping routes also need to be designated.


Perhaps one of the more controversial parts of the strategy is the fact that Denmark will claim that the North Pole constitutes part of Greenland’s continental shelf. The strategy document reads,

“The Kingdom has submitted documentation to the CLCS for claims relating to two areas near the Faroe Islands and by 2014 plans to submit documentation on three areas near Greenland, including an area north of Greenland which, among others, covers the North Pole.”

The country is spending 350 million DKK over twelve years (approximately $64 million) to research the continental shelves off of Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. This is a similar figure to what Canada is spending, as the Canadian UNCLOS Research Program will receive $69 million over ten years. However, the government has also contributed another $20 million for researchers to prepare claims for submission to the UN (Source: Canadian Parliament). Denmark is also interested in working with Russia to map the seabed stretching between Greenland and Russia.

MilitaryRanger scout Samson Ejanqiaq looks for an easier route through rough sea ice that bedevilled a patrol of Canadian Rangers on their way from CFS Alert to the Eureka Weather Station March 28. Ejanqiaq eventually guided the soldiers along the shoreline, where they found easier going. Photo: Bob Weber. The Canadian Press.

The Greenland Command and the Faroe Command will be merged to form a join Arctic Command, helping to make the Armed Forces North Atlantic more efficient. Additionally, an Arctic Response Force will be formed from existing forces and emergency preparedness units. It will not be a standing force, but it will be able to respond if necessary, and will also be able to assist in Greenland.

Canada has a similar force called the Arctic Response Company Group, composed partially of reservists. The ARCG even uses caribou sleds to transport soldiers around the difficult terrain. Perhaps the Danes will do something similar. However, they already have a fascinating Arctic defense unit of their own, one of my favorite in the world: the Sirius Patrol, which monitors the national park in northeast Greenland and enforces sovereignty in the most distant reaches of the Kingdom. Now, if only the U.S. had a bunch of huskies and soldiers doubling as park rangers on Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Denmark also has two Arctic offshore patrol vessels similar to the ones Norway has, and which Canada has commissioned. Denmark also has three aging icebreakers, the newest of which first set sail in 1980.


Make no mistake about it: while Denmark is concerned with safeguarding the environment in the Arctic, it is also a friend to oil and gas production. After all, Greenland has a vast amount of resources whose successful development will reduce the amount of money the Danes need to give to its government. Greenland has put in place very stringent rules governing the industry so that everything is done in accordance with best international practices. For instance, several independent shut-down valves must be built in the oil wells so that in the case of an accident, it can be shut down remotely even if the rig and the well become disconnected from each other.

A licensing round will be held for areas off the eastern coast of Northern Greenland, which is remote and inaccesible. Currently, development is occurring off of southwest and northwest Greenland. Scotland’s Cairn Energy has drilled a number of wells but has yet to make any major discovery. No commercially important discoveries of hydrocarbons have been made in the Faroe Islands, either, despite drilling attempts.

Mining is also a large industry in Greenland, with a large variety of minerals being extracted, although there is a ban on radioactive ones. To capitalize on its resources and knowledge base, Greenland opened a Mining and Construction School in Sisimut, on the central west coast of Greenland, in January of this year. The school will also help to train Greenlanders in the oil industry. Building a localized knowledge base will be important in making the community feel that the industry tangibly benefits them. It will also lessen the need to fly in workers from other countries, at least to a small extent.

Both Greenland and the Faroe Islands are also increasing their production of renewable energy, which will respectively reach 60% and 75% of total energy production by 2020 (although one other source reports that Greenland has already reached that figure). Greenland uses the outflow from its inland lakes to produce hydropower. Thanks to its ample and inexpensive energy resources, it could soon be taking a page out of Iceland’s book.

Energy-intensive aluminum smelting occurs in three plants in Iceland, taking advantage of the cheap local energy. According to Denmark’s Arctic strategy document, it sounds as if it has already been decided that Alcoa will build an aluminum smelter in Greenland, even though its parliament will not make a final decision until 2012. The document reads, “An example is the designing, in collaboration with the American company, Alcoa, of an aluminium smelting plant in Maniitsoq which will be operated solely by hydropower.” The plans for the Alcoa smelter have come under huge pressure from environmental groups.

EnvironmentGreenland, Kingdom of Denmark. Photo: Eilís Quinn. Radio Canada International.

In its Arctic policy, Denmark also expresses concern for protecting the environment. The two treaties that Denmark focuses on in its global policy on the Arctic environment are the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. There are eleven Ramsar sites in Greenland, along with additional ones in the Faroe Islands.

As such, we can see that particularly with regard to the environment, there are already several powerful treaties in place that extend to the Arctic. Denmark aims to also have a treaty in place on mercury, since it threatens to be a major pollutant in the Arctic ecosystem due to the large numbers of fish, birds, whales, and eggs. Since these all form part of the diet of indigenous peoples, mercury is a public health issue as well.

In June, the Ministers of the Environment from Denmark and Greenland co-hosted the Arctic Environment Ministers Meeting. Twelve vulnerable marine areas were identified off of the coast of Greenland, and three are being studied right away: Nordvandspolyniet off Northwestern Greenland, Disko Bay and Big Halibut Bank off West Greenland, and Ittoqqortoormii off East Greenland.

Separately, the Danish Environmental Research Institute has published an atlas illustrating the coastal areas and fjords that would be highly sensitive to oil spills. The atlas covers the west coast of Greenland from Cape Farewell, at the very south, to Upernavik, more than halfway up the coast. More data and mapping will need to be done to make sure that oil drilling in the northeast is as safe as it is in the southwest.

Denmark’s Arctic policy states, “The Kingdom will pursue a vigorous and ambitious climate policy to tackle the challenges that climate change poses in the Arctic and other vulnerable regions.” Yet the true vigor and ambitions of the policy differ from place to place. In fact, energy is one of the areas in which the three entities’ policies are most divergent. Denmark aims to wean itself completely off of fossil fuels by 2050. By 2020, the country plans to obtain 30% of its energy from renewable sources.

Meanwhile, Greenland is aiming for 60% by that same year, and it also plans to reduce its emissions by 5%. The developing minerals sector does not need to meet these requirements, ironically, especially considering that so many other strict regulations are placed on the oil companies operating there. However, you can’t fault Greenland for wanting to develop its oil and gas resources to the fullest extent when there is still huge global demand. To the east, the Faroes aim to procure 75% of their energy from renewable sources. They have a long ways to go, since 55% their energy currently comes from small power plants that run on oil. The rest comes from hydropower.

Indigenous Peoples 

Denmark has a long history of working with Greenland to address indigenous issues, so its experience is something that it can share with other nations, Arctic or not. Its Arctic strategy pays special attention to the health and social well-being of Northern peoples. Greenland’s health care system has not been significantly reformed since it was created in the 1920s. It is now being overhauled through regionalization, which will divide the island into five separate areas, each with its own hospital or health care system. More remote villages will have clinics.

Greater investments will be made in telemedicine, which has already been in practice in Greenland for a long time since it is often a more efficient method of treatment when the distances are so far and so hard to cover. Any town or village with more than 50 inhabitants will have a “Pipaluk,” a “telemedicine console” that can monitor and diagnose patients and then communicate with the other 70 Pipaluks in the system (Source: Keynote speech by the Minister of Health, Agathe Fontain).

Denmark also supports indigenous whale hunting and sealing. This might get the country into hot water with the EU, as happened with Canada last year, when the EU banned the importation of seal furs. The strategy reads,

“The Kingdom will work internationally for the Arctic indigenous peoples’ right to conduct hunting and to sell products from seal hunting, as long as it is based on sustainable principles.”

This past September, the European General Court ruled that Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (Canada’s largest Inuit organization)’s challenge to the ban was inadmissible. The Canadian government is now taking the issue to the WTO. Their industry is significantly larger than Denmark’s, so they have more at stake economically.

Regional Cooperation

One of the most interesting sections of the document regards Denmark’s view of regional cooperation in the Arctic. First and foremost, it seeks to strengthen the role of the Arctic Council, especially over social issues. The Kingdom would like to develop the AC’s impact on Arctic peoples and aims to have the body move from “decision-shaping” to “decision-making.” This is at odds with how some scholars view the Arctic Council.

For instance, Oran Young, one of the most important scholars of Arctic politics, suggested “keeping its decision-making authority and organizational capacity to a minimum.” Young also chairs the Arctic Governance Project, which came out with a series of recommendations for how the Arctic Council should operate in the summer of 2010. Their report is available here. Briefly, it emphasizes expanding the Arctic Council and admitting new permanent observers like China and the EU while developing regulations in other pre-existing bodies, such as the IMO. Though Denmark supports admitting new permanent observers to the Arctic Council, it also looks favorably upon strengthening its regulatory powers, too.

While Denmark is open to working with other countries that are interested in the Arctic, it wants to make sure that the people in the Arctic come first. For instance, in reference to the controversial seal product trade, the policy states,

“It will be important that the EU’s involvement in the Arctic takes place on the Arctic populations’ own terms. We must seek to avoid further cases where the laws, traditions, cultures and needs of Arctic societies are neglected, as for example in the EU’s ban on the import of seal products.”

Here, due to their sizable indigenous populations, we could see an alignment of Canada and Denmark against the other members of the Arctic Council and Arctic 5. Both countries protested the EU ban, for instance.

Denmark also plans to continue its involvement in the Arctic 5. It believes that this group should only concern itself with issues pertaining to coastal Arctic states, particularly the continental shelf issue. Larger issues that concern all of the circumpolar states should continue to be discussed in the Arctic Council so that everyone’s opinions, especially those of indigenous peoples, may be expressed.

Finally, the Kingdom will continue to build upon its close ties in the Arctic with the U.S., Canada, Norway, and Iceland. It also seeks to improve and expand dialogue with Russia and foster relations with new countries interested in the Arctic, such as those in Northeast Asia. The overall goal is that new actors “will be integrated into the norms and values that the Kingdom and other coastal states in the Arctic Ocean believe should apply to the Arctic.”

Overall, Denmark’s policy pays the most attention to the areas of the environment, energy policy, indigenous peoples, and regional cooperation. Compared to the policies of Canada, the U.S., Russia, and Norway, Denmark’s is the one that most respects indigenous peoples’ needs and traditions. Still, it is hard to say that it completely lives up to its aim to be a guardian of the Arctic environment when an aluminum smelter and oil and gas drilling are in the works. Norway is a similar country that has a strong environmental tradition but also an oil and gas industry. Perhaps it will serve as a model for Greenland if and when hydrocarbon development gets off the ground. In the meantime, Denmark’s detailed and comprehensive Arctic policy shows how a small country can still exert a large amount of influence in an area, even without a large military build-up.



Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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