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Sensemaker: Plans on ice

Thursday 8 April 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

– China warned Washington not to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics as the Biden administration called for action in response to the country’s abuses against Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Hong Kong residents.

– The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda wrote to Oxford University’s All Souls College, demanding reparations over donations made by a 18th century slave owner in the Caribbean.

– Recruiters reported quickening improvements in the UK’s labour market, now that the government has laid out plans to reopen the economy from lockdown.

Plans on ice

A country of 1.4 billion people looks to have had its ambitions thwarted by a nation of just 56,000. Greenland’s left-wing pro-environment party, called Inuit Ataqatigiit, meaning “community of the people”, has won a snap election which threatens to put the kibosh on a major mining project coveted – and backed – by China.

The project is at Kvanefjeld, a mine in the south of the island which plays host to one of the world’s largest rare earth deposits. The 17 rare earth minerals include materials like neodymium used in wind turbines and electric vehicles. But even if the end products are green, the extraction process is not. The Kvanefjeld project is forecast to increase the country’s CO2 emissions by 45 per cent, and the Risø National Laboratory in Denmark estimates that up to a thousand tons of radioactive uranium dust could be released annually from the mine.

In recent years, China has made several attempts to sweeten cash-strapped but resource-rich Greenland – the golden egg in its vision for a “Polar Silk Road” across the Arctic. In 2017, Greenland’s government flew to Beijing to ask Chinese state-run banks to fund a new commercial airport in the country’s capital, Nuuk, which currently has a single, short runway served only by propeller planes. On that occasion, other countries with interests in Greenland closed rank. Denmark (of which Greenland is a semi-autonomous territory) complained to the US (which has a military presence in Greenland) and the Chinese banks withdrew.

But it is the Kvanefjeld mine which China really has designs on. China already mines more than 70 per cent of the world’s rare earths – and sees geopolitical benefit in increasing its share as nations rush to meet climate goals. A Chinese company, Shenghe Resources Holding Co., is a major investor in Greenland Minerals, the firm which has the project’s exploratory license. 

What’s global, though, is also national and the project has caused fierce disagreement within Greenland. The project’s critics foresee unforgivable environmental damage in a region already on the frontline of climate change. Its advocates foresee a chance for greater financial independence from Denmark. The dispute was enough to collapse Greenland’s coalition government in February, paving the way for Tuesday’s election. 

The election came out in favour of the critics: the centre-left party Siumut, which backed the project, won just 29 per cent of the vote, trailing Inuit Ataqatigiit, an indigenous party which opposes the mine, and which will now try to form a coalition government.

It would be heartening if Inuit Ataqatigiit’s success stops the project. International interests shouldn’t trump democracy – however tiny – and Greenlanders have a right to choose what happens to their land. We’ll all be living with the consequences, but they’ll be living with them first.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Pick your jab
Under-30s in the UK will be offered an alternative to the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, the most widely used in the country, after regulators reviewed cases of rare blood clots believed to be linked with the vaccine. AstraZeneca will be updating its vaccine labels with this “extremely rare potential side effect”. We’re talking about decimals here. At March infection rates, the vaccine would have prevented 0.8 ICU admissions per 100,000 people under 30. This compares to the 1.1 “specific blood clots due to the vaccine” it causes per 100,000 people in the same age bracket. The risk of blood clots is marginally higher not because it is high – it really isn’t – but because there weren’t many ICU admissions among young people in March to (hypothetically) prevent. At the peak of the second wave, the vaccine would have prevented 6.9 ICU admissions per 100,000 people under 30, more than six times the number of blood clots caused. If there was more virus about, then maybe the regulator’s decision would have been different. It certainly could have been if we had fewer vaccine options. But now the Moderna vaccine rollout has begun in the UK, we have three very good vaccines to choose from.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Violence in Belfast
The Northern Ireland executive will meet this morning, after a sixth night of violence in Belfast. Yesterday a bus was set on fire, a press photographer was attacked, and seven police officers were injured near the peace walls which separate unionist and nationalist areas in the capital. Since the end of the Brexit transition period, there have been unionist concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which, in trying to avoid a border on the island of Ireland, has created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But the touchpaper for the current unrest appears to have been lit last week when prosecutors announced that they would take no action against Sinn Féin politicians who attended a funeral for a senior Provisional IRA member, Bobby Storey – seemingly in breach of Covid restrictions. Boris Johnson tweeted that he was “deeply concerned by the scenes of violence”.


New things technology, science, engineering

Over the muon
A tiny subatomic particle with a typical lifespan of just two microseconds may change our understanding of the universe. “This is our Mars rover landing moment,” said Chris Polly, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the US. Polly and a team of 200 physicists from seven countries found that muons don’t behave in the same way as other particles when shot through a magnetic field, challenging the standard model of physics. We already know that there are four fundamental forces of nature. This implies a fifth.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Crypto carbon
Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency used mainly for financial speculation, could threaten China’s stated ambition to go carbon neutral. Bitcoin has seen its price rise by around 800 per cent during the pandemic, and as its price rises, the mining of bitcoin becomes more attractive. The process needs enormous computing power, which demands huge amounts of energy. In China, which accounts for three-quarters of world bitcoin mining, bitcoin operations will soon exceed the total energy consumption of Italy and Saudi Arabia. As it stands, bitcoin-related carbon emissions in China exceed the total emissions of the Czech Republic and Qatar.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Global tax deal
The Biden administration has proposed taxing multinational companies based on their sales in each country. It’s a simple, but potentially important idea. Many large multinationals avoid tax by booking revenue not where they earn it, but in low-tax jurisdictions. Google, for example, used a shell company to shift $23 billion to Bermuda, population 64,000, where companies pay no income tax. The Biden proposal is part of a deal on a global minimum tax being negotiated by 135 countries. The aim is to have the outlines of a deal by the summer.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Xavier Greenwood
@XAMGreenwood

Photographs Getty Images


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