The environmental impact of war and military operations can no longer be disregarded.
In early 2022, reporters started inquiring about the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the climate emergency. Although we could cite instances such as wildfires, burning oil facilities, and the high fuel consumption of military vehicles, we did not have access to the emissions data they were seeking. When it came to the lingering effects of Russia’s exploitation of Europe’s fossil fuel vulnerability or the weakening of international collaboration needed for coordinated efforts towards addressing the climate crisis, our estimations were no more accurate than theirs.
For twenty years, global discussions and arguments have centered around the correlation between climate change and security. The main focus has been on how the fast-changing climate could jeopardize the stability of nations. However, little attention has been given to how decisions made regarding national security, such as military expenditures or engaging in war, can also have consequences on the climate and ultimately harm our collective security.
As the effects of climate change continue to worsen and intensify, it is crucial that we comprehend and reduce the carbon output from all aspects of society, both during times of peace and warfare. However, addressing military or conflict-related emissions still remains a distant objective.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has seen the first attempt to comprehensively document the emissions from any conflict, and researchers have had to develop their methodologies from scratch. Their latest estimate puts the total as equivalent to the annual emissions of a country like Belgium. Ukraine is not a one-off, with a similar clamour for emissions data around Israel’s war against Hamas. While the devastating ongoing conflicts in Sudan or Myanmar are yet to see attention on their emissions, the trend is clear: the carbon cost of conflict needs to be understood, just as the humanitarian, economic or wider environmental costs do.
Some of the carbon expenses can be attributed to military actions. However, comprehending this is difficult due to the long-standing belief among militaries that they are exempt from environmental regulations. This belief was reinforced by the United States and carried over into UN climate agreements. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol included a provision for voluntary reporting, which was then adopted in the 2015 Paris Agreement. However, when we collected and shared the emissions data that militaries submit to the UNFCCC, we discovered that only a few countries meet the minimum requirements set by the UN reporting guidelines. In fact, many countries with significant military presence do not report anything at all.
According to our calculations, approximately 5.5% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to militaries. If the global military were considered a country, it would rank fourth in terms of emissions, falling between India and Russia. As militaries heavily rely on fossil fuels, the concept of achieving net zero emissions has sparked discussions about the decarbonization of the military sector. However, without a thorough understanding of the amount of emissions produced and without proper policies in place, effective decarbonization is not possible. Currently, we lack both of these elements, and global military spending on carbon-intensive activities has reached an all-time high.
In the end, the UNFCCC is the governing body for international policies. Although certain militaries have established general targets for reducing emissions, they lack specific plans and methods for achieving them, as well as mechanisms for monitoring progress. For instance, while Nato has created a system for tracking emissions, it does not hold its members accountable and specifically excludes emissions from Nato-led activities, training, and exercises.
The 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) received significant attention for its focus on the connection between the climate crisis, peace, and security, especially in light of the ongoing destruction in Gaza. However, despite being brought up in side events and protests, the issue of military and conflict emissions was once again left out of the formal agenda. To address this gap, governments must first recognize the disproportionate contribution of militaries to global emissions and prioritize transparency. The climate movement must also continue to prioritize intersectionality in its efforts and not shy away from these important topics. Additionally, it is crucial to expand the community of researchers studying military and conflict emissions and ensure that their data is utilized by organizations tracking and reporting on global emission trends.
For many years, the military has been given special treatment in terms of environmental issues and has had a limited understanding of climate security, which has weakened our overall climate security. This needs to be addressed and improved.
Doug Weir leads the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a non-profit organization in the United Kingdom that investigates the environmental impact of armed conflicts and military operations. The project, called Military Emissions Gap, is a joint effort between academic and non-governmental organizations with the goal of enhancing compliance with the Paris agreement by increasing transparency and reporting of military emissions.