A Gassy Greenland?

Development plans may boost carbon dioxide emissions of the glaciated island

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As I noted in a previous post, the alarming pace of glacial retreats across the globe is an eye-opening indication that climate change is rapidly altering our planet. Look no further than the ironically named Greenland for evidence.

Because Greenland is an epicenter of climate change, some are decrying plans made by the country’s new prime minister, Kuupik Kleist, to attract industry. It seems inconceivable that a country ravaged by climate change would fuel the scourge.

To be sure, a significant increase in any nation’s output of CO2 is a cause for concern and debate. And the aspirations of Greenland’s P.M. exemplify a critical issue in the international debate on climate change, that being the tension between developed and undeveloped—or in some cases, rapidly developing—nations. We won’t crawl down that rabbit hole now, but suffice it to say, there are some large issues at play here.

This story reads differently with the addition of some much-needed perspective. Kleist’s peacock strut for industry could increase Greenland’s CO2 emissions from 650,000 to 10 million tons per year, no doubt a very large change. But consider that the 50 worst-polluting coal-fired plants in the U.S. each emitted more than that in 2006, and some more than twice that amount. It would take a more-polluting Greenland 78 years to match the cumulative CO2 emissions of these power plants in just one year (about 782 million tons in 2006).

If Kleist’s plans do come to fruition, it’s true that the per capita CO2 emissions of Greenlanders will dramatically exceed those of U.S. citizens. But Greenland is a country of fewer than 60,000 people, the size of a very small city in the United States. So the per capita emissions comparison is as much a red herring as the welcoming landscape that the name "Greenland" suggests.

You can go to Greenland to see climate change in action, but Greenland’s development plans—debateable though they are—just won’t be a significant part of what’s driving it. A continued, large-scale reliance on coal-fired power in the United States and abroad is the real threat.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.