UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Environmental & System Stewardship for Greenland’s Rare Earth Elements

Lead: Beverley Gibbs, Provost Postdoctoral Fellow, UCL-STEaPP Collaborators: Dr Mary Hilson, UCL Scandinavian Studies and Dr Adrian Jones, Department of Earth Sciences, MAPS, UCL

This project explores two concepts of ‘stewardship’ in the context of the extraction of raw materials (in particular rare earth elements - REE) in Greenland. The first – environmental stewardship – will make explicit the tensions generated by Greenland’s need to look after an important natural environment at a time when the exploitation of natural resources also raises expectations of economic and political independence. The second – system stewardship – draws on concepts of global governance to explore how public, private and civil sectors might build a sustainable, stable and equitable REE industry.

Greenland is at a critical moment in its development. Its receding ice sheet opens new ground for mining and exploration, and it is rich in elements that are subject to rapidly accelerating global demand. Political and civil society leaders look to develop the country beyond traditional marine activities, and mining could transform its economy such that independence from Denmark becomes a possibility. As international developers move in to extract resources, the Naalakkersuisut, the Danish government and the EU are faced with the challenge of negotiating what effective stewardship means in this context.   In particular, we explore the potential and relevance of co-operative organizations in this case.

The project contributes directly to the core debates of this call by exploring what various actors mean by ‘stewardship’ in the context of Greenland’s development at the moment that decisions are being debated and locked-in. From this, we can begin to identify and contrast differing ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’ that are circulating, learn how governance networks coalesce and explore what role policymakers play as ‘governance system stewards’. 

Project update

This project aims to identify the socio-technical imaginaries being invoked in the development of a rare earth metals industry in Greenland. Through this, we hope to develop a better understanding of stewardship as a concept for both environment and policy. The project was disrupted as the Greenlandic Government was subject to emergency elections in November 2014, the month fieldwork was due to take place.  

A new government is now in place - broadly constructed along the political lines of the old one - thus avoiding the repeal of uranium extraction permissions, a policy the opposition had campaigned on.  This would have had significant impact on rare earth development. In the new Government, responsibility for minerals has been repositioned as a financial priority where it had previously been one of energy.   The new Government has clearly restated a commitment to maintaining a stable and attractive investment environment, a commitment that has to be carefully balanced with Greenland’s ability to ensure domestic value from any mining activity. In 2014-15, the complex global value chain of rare earth elements shows no signs of becoming simpler, and falling mineral prices along with the suspension of many Arctic oil and gas projects and London Mining’s collapse has pressured economic plans for Greenlandic independence, at least in the short-term.

The project team is meeting regularly and productively, and shaping scoping papers in order to facilitate discussion and identify cross-cutting themes.  This has begun to weave together the traditions of indigenous peoples and their representation in the Arctic, the culture and ‘sense-making’ of the Greenlandic people and the colonial legacy, the nature of Denmark’s stakes in Greenland’s future, the physical and demographic consequences of larger scale mining and the many other actors beginning to assert a stake in the Arctic region. Fieldwork will be taking place before Easter (Denmark) and in May (Greenland).

In addition to the peer-reviewed paper and teaching case that will be outputs from the project, opportunities have been sought to engage academic audiences on the theme, for example at the University of Nottingham’s interdisciplinary science and society seminar group (March 2014) and to technology management postgraduates at Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University (skype, March 2014).

One of the core areas of challenge that has emerged in the research to date is the complex layering of local, national, regional and international actors involved in Arctic development. This concept of ‘multi-level governance’ has been taken on board as a core theme of interest in the main applicant’s Departmental Fellowship.  As such, this catalyst grant will be directly complemented by research to more comprehensively embed it in an Arctic context, and has been the foundational work by which the following additional activities have taken place:

The European Union and the Arctic (May 2015, Dundee)

Abstract accepted (<50% acceptance rate) positioning the Arctic as a multi-level governance challenge, drawing on Greenland’s mineral development as an example.

At the end of the conference a roadmap for increasing the effectiveness of the EU’s action in the Arctic will be drawn up for input to the Council of the European Union’s consultation on an integrated and coherent Arctic Policy.  An edited book of papers form the conference will be published in 2016.

International conference on Public Policy (July 2015, Milan)

Abstract accepted for Panel T14P02 Security and Resource Development Policies: Multi-Level Governance in the Arctic Region.

STEPS Centre Conference ‘Resource Politics’ (Sept 2015, Brighton) [Decision Pending]

With some contacts made through the course of this project the main applicant has convened a panel proposal titled Constructing the Arctic as a Resource: Cases, Contestations and Consequences. The panel looks at the implications of the Arctic being framed as a resource for different visions and ideas: the local resource needs of indigenous peoples liable to disruption from wider development, minerals as a resource to support Greenlandic independence, the idea of the Arctic as a global commons (as argued by, e.g. China and India), the Arctic as a global oil & gas region, or the Arctic as a model of 21st century sustainable development wherein renewables are considered the most valuable resource.

In summary, the project is progressing well, is proving a relevant and fertile research topic, is facilitating new networks and opportunities and will be completed in the revised timescales proposed in October 2014.

environment governance