Kingdom of Denmark

Facts & Figures

AC member since 1996

Coordinates Copenhagen: 55.6761° N, 12.5683° E
Nuuk, GL: 64.1750° N, 51.7389° W
Tórshavn, FO: 62.0079° N, 6.7910° W

Population Denmark: 5.65 million
Greenland: 55,984
Faroe Islands: 48,704

Land Area Denmark: 42,916 km2
Greenland: 2.166 million km2
Faroe Islands: 1,399 km2

Arctic Coastline Denmark: 1,706 km
Greenland: 44,087 km
Faroe Islands: 1,289 km

Greenland, the world’s largest non-continental island, is the Arctic portion of the Kingdom of Denmark and is predominantly situated above the Arctic Circle. Greenland is geographically part of the North American continent but remains geopolitically linked to Europe. With a total land area of 2.16 million km2, Greenland is roughly half the size of Western Europe: 1.75 million km2 consists of inland ice and glaciers, while 410,449 km2 along the coast are ice-free. The climate ranges from arctic to subarctic; meaning cool winters and cold summers in which the mean temperature usually does not exceed 10 °C. As of January 2014, the mean temperature in Ilulissat – above the Arctic Circle – is -7.0 °C and in July of the same year, the mean temperature is 8.9 °C. Owing to the low humidity; however, summer temperatures may often feel warmer.

The effects of global warming are very visible in Greenland, where both new threats and opportunities emerge with the rise in temperatures. Greenland’s inland ice sheet is up to 3 km thick in places and contains approximately 10% of the global fresh water supply. The ever faster melting of the inland ice is a threat to low-lying coastal cities all over the world, as the global water level would rise by approximately 6 metres if the entire inland ice sheet melted. Melting of the sea ice has grave consequences for the living conditions of Arctic animals such as the polar bear. This, in turn, makes traditional hunting harder and dangerous. On the other hand, new opportunities emerge: farming is becoming more widespread and new fish species are entering Greenlandic waters, hydropower from the melting ice provides more green energy, while less ice means better accessibility for cruise tourism and the mining of Greenland’s vast mineral resources. This potential expansion of industrial activities—highly dependent as it is on foreign investments—is the reason why Greenland has a so-called territorial reservation for emission reduction commitments in the second period of the Kyoto Protocol. This means that Greenland is not subject to the same restrictions as Denmark but may instead increase its CO2 emissions in the years to come.

The largest city in the Kingdom of Denmark is the capital Copenhagen, where 1.2 million people call home. Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, has a total of 20 thousand citizens and in Greenland’s capital Nuuk—which is one of the smallest capitals in the world—there are only approximately 16 thousand people. Altogether, the Kingdom of Denmark has 5.7 million citizens of which just over 55 thousand are living in Greenland (and who, for the most part, are Inuit descendants). Danes constitute by far the largest non-Greenlandic part of the population, while Icelanders, Thai and Filipinos are the largest foreign ethnic groups in Greenland. Of the total population, 89.3% are born in Greenland and more than 86% are living in towns. The rest live in small villages along the coast, but due to growing urbanization a declining number of people remain there. The official language is Greenlandic, but Danish is widely used; especially in the largest towns where higher educational institutions and some (usually better paid) jobs require good Danish language skills.

With only 0.14 people per km2 in the ice-free area, Greenland has one of the lowest population densities in the world. The number of people living in Greenland is decreasing by 0.5% annually due to negative net migration of -585 (2014), while the fertility rate is 2.07 per woman aged 15-49 years (2013). There are approximately 3,000 more men than women and the majority of both genders are between the ages of 45-55. This means that Greenland will likely experience an increasing financial burden due to an aging population. Life expectancy for women is 73.66 years, while men usually die at a younger age: 68.47 years (2009/2013). Sadly, many Greenlanders commit suicide every year, which keeps the average life expectancy low. Since the 1970s, Greenland has experienced approximately 40 suicides annually, leaving Greenland with the highest suicide rate in the world.

The total Greenlandic labour force is constituted of 27,021 permanent residents, aged 18-64, with 10% of the population and 22% of the labour force unemployed for periods ranging from one day to the whole year. The number varies a great deal throughout the year and generally there are more jobs during the summer months, when the ocean is more easily accessible for fishing, tourism and other outside activities. Like a bear preparing for a harsh winter, money earned during the active summer months should thus last for longer. This is not least the case for the national economy, as the many unemployed put a great deal of pressure on the Greenland welfare system during winter.

The educational level has traditionally been low with very few people finishing any education after elementary school. During the past decade Greenland has, however, experienced a positive development with a 6% increase in the number of people finishing another educational level beyond elementary school. In 2014, 36.2% of the population older than 16 years had finished some kind of education or vocational training after leaving school.

Greenland’s GDP is approximately 11.2 billion Danish Kroner (DKK). Exports account for 3 billion DKK while imports exceed 4.3 billion DKK. To make this balance, the annual block grant of approximately 3.6 billion DKK from Denmark is essential to Greenland’s economy. Unsurprisingly, the major trading partner is Denmark. This is well illustrated by a trip to a local supermarket where many goods and commodities are the same as in Danish supermarkets. That being said, you might also find whale, seal and muskox meat peeping out from the shelves. The second largest export market is Iceland, whereas Sweden is the next major source of imports.

By far the most important industry is fisheries, which accounts for more than 90% of Greenland’s total exports. Popular exports include northern prawns, Greenland halibut, lumpfish and Atlantic cod which are exported in large numbers to seafood lovers around the world. In addition to fisheries, Greenland has a proud mining history with experience extracting cryolite, coal, lead, zinc, silver and many other minerals. Today, however, there is only a minor ruby mine in the works. There are, however, large deposits of i.a. iron, aluminium and rare earth elements, which are not currently being mined due to low commodity prices. If prices change, mining will be one of the most significant economic opportunities in Greenland.

Since the 1970’s, there have been several attempts to find oil in Greenland, but despite promising estimates by the US Geological Survey in 2007, there is still no oil exploitation in Greenland. Offshore explorations are, however, still taking place in both southwest and northeast Greenland.

Greenland is often rated as one of the must-visit tourist destinations and tourism plays an important role in their economy. There is, however, room for improvement and Iceland is often highlighted as a role model for how to attract more foreign visitors to Greenland. Besides tourism and mining, a third often discussed strategy for economic improvement envisions more  processing of fish products in Greenland instead of exporting the primary product – thus keeping more jobs and money in Greenland.

In 1953, Greenland was made an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark. In 1979 it got Home Rule and on June 21st 2009, Self Rule was introduced, whereby it was recognized “that the people of Greenland are a people pursuant to international law with the right of self-determination” (Self-Government Act, 2009: 1). Greenland has its own parliament (Inatsisartut) and government (Naalakkersuisut) and has taken over many areas of responsibilities from Denmark, e.g. the right to any possible mineral riches in the Greenland subsoil and subsea. Within the Self-Government Act, Greenland can, however, not adopt its own Constitution; establish its own Supreme Court; or legislate on monetary, citizenship, defence, security or foreign issues. There is, however, room for negotiations in foreign policy matters, best exemplified by the bilateral relations with the European Union: after joining the European Community—as it was called back then—in 1973, Greenland withdrew in 1985 following an amendment a few years earlier. Instead, Greenland was accepted as one of the Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT) with special association with the EU. Besides this important exception, Greenland is usually part of the Danish delegation in important, international forums such as NATO, WTO and UN. In matters concerning Greenland in particular, e.g. indigenous peoples’ rights, a representative from Greenland will often present the Kingdom of Denmark’s collective statement. Connections to other indigenous peoples in the Arctic are also enhanced through the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) founded in 1977.

‘The Kingdom of Denmark Strategy for the Arctic 2011-2020’ emphasises four areas of priority: 1) security, safety and sovereignty; 2) sustainable development of new economic opportunities; 3) climate changes; and 4) international cooperation. Two objectives can be identified in the strategy: first, to react to the environmental and geopolitical changes occurring in the Arctic, hence responding to the growing global interest in the region. Secondly, the Kingdom of Denmark should redefine its position in the region by enhancing its status as a central Arctic player. This should first and foremost benefit the Arctic inhabitants (pp. 9-11). To ensure implementation of the strategy, a mid-term evaluation in 2014-2015 is proposed and an intention to form a cross-disciplinary steering committee for the strategy is declared (p. 57). It is expected that the strategy will be updated in 2016, halfway to 2020.

International cooperation is a key word in the strategy, reflecting that it has always been at the core of the Kingdom of Denmark’s approach to the Arctic. As often emphasized in Danish discussions about Arctic politics, the Ilulissat Declaration of May 2008 is an example par excellence of how to act pro-actively to ensure continuously peaceful development in the Arctic. Denmark’s former Foreign Minister, Per Stig Møller, was the initiator of this declaration, which makes it clear that the Arctic Five—countries with coastlines on the Arctic Ocean—remain committed to an “orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims” (p.1).

The UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) provides recommendations on what an orderly settlement should be. These recommendations are based on a thorough review of the geological data submitted by the states. The Kingdom of Denmark claims a territory of 895,000 km2 in the Arctic Ocean of which significant parts overlap with  Russia’s claim—and probably also Canada’s. As Denmark is currently number 76 in line, we will have to wait about a decade before the CLCS will come to a conclusion. When it does it is likely that several claims to the same area will be deemed valid due to the rules applying. If this happens, international cooperation will be critical. In this regard, the 2010 Barents Sea Agreement between Norway and Russia stands as a great example of how to solve any such overlapping interests.

The five Arctic littoral states are often highlighted as a dynamic group that makes things happen. This has most recently been underlined by a common moratorium on fishing in the high seas portion of the central Arctic Ocean and a polar bear action plan. Enhanced cooperation in the Arctic Council is, however, also encouraged and given high priority by the Kingdom of Denmark. The last time the Kingdom of Denmark held the Arctic Council chairmanship was from 2009-2011 and will next hold it from 2023-2025. Greenland is represented by both the ICC and the Danish delegation, while the West Nordic Council—consisting of Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands—are also considering applying for observer status. The fact that Greenland is not represented directly in the Arctic Council, but has to be part of the Danish delegation, has from time to time resulted in discontent among Greenlandic politicians. The most dramatic example of this was when former Premier of Greenland, Aleqa Hammond, decided to boycott the Arctic Council ministerial gathering in Kiruna, Sweden in May 2013. Similar actions have not since been taken, but discontent is still often articulated from all sides of the Inatsisartut, thus indicating that it is a central priority of Greenland’s politicians and will likely remain present in Danish politics for some time to come.

The Kingdom of Denmark is an Arctic state because of Greenland. Thus, it is natural that their Arctic strategy focuses more thoroughly on the risks and opportunities in that part of the Danish Realm—although it does figure less prominently than in the 2008 strategy. Denmark’s status as an Arctic state is central to the fact that it punches above its weight in international politics. To keep this favourable position in the future, it is important to maintain the realm while developing it, so Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark are all satisfied with its structure. To achieve this, Denmark will probably have to relinquish some of its power so that the triangular relationship will become more equal than it is today. If not, the Greenlandic and Faroese autonomy movements are likely to grow which could, in turn, ultimately result in secession and the end of the Danish Realm.

The Kingdom of Denmark’s Arctic strategy is in no way controversial. It strongly emphasizes the importance of international cooperation while acknowledging the risk of conflict. Like all the other Arctic strategies it highlights the risks and opportunities emerging in step with increased temperatures caused by global climate change. It is repeatedly emphasized that any development has to be sustainable. What this means is not always clear. As a result, ‘sustainable’ risks becoming an empty buzzword. Details outlining concrete plans on how to achieve the goals of the strategy would be a welcome improvement. Words must be followed by action, so if the Kingdom of Denmark really intends  to “strengthen the Kingdom’s status as global player in the Arctic” (p.11) it will need to give economic priority to its presence in the Arctic.