We are at a tipping point of the climate crisis and can no longer overlook the impact of military activities on the planet

Sweta Choudhury

With COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, currently taking place in Glasgow we must ask why reducing military greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is not on the top of the global agenda to tackle climate change.

World leaders have met in 25 climate conferences so far, yet they have failed to address the major issues that contribute to the climate emergency. There is now more CO2 in the atmosphere than at any other point in history. Of all the massive transformations needed, one area that governments deliberately neglect is the military’s contribution to climate change (even though they are the biggest governmental energy consumers). The Ministry of Defence (MoD), by its own admission, is by far the largest single contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions within the UK central government, being responsible for half of the total.[1]

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change obliges signatories to publish annual GHG emissions. But military emissions’ reporting is voluntary, and when reported, it usually excludes emissions from equipment and supply chains, therefore providing an incomplete account. The largest arms companies like Lockheed Martin and the BAE system often manipulate their CSR reports. A lack of transparency makes it very difficult to assess the true scale of military emissions and the collateral damage of their operations.

Moreover, the 2015 Paris Agreement left cutting military GHG emissions to the discretion of individual nations. Governments around the world take advantage of this because the business of war is hugely profitable. Therefore relatively little attention has been given to the carbon footprint of wars and military activity.

According to the ‘Costs of War’, an ongoing project from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, since the global war on terror began in 2001, the US military has produced 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions.[2] The carbon footprint of EU military expenditure in 2019 was estimated to be approximately 24.8 million metric tons of CO2e, with France contributing approximately one-third of the total carbon footprint.[3]

The climate cost of building and maintaining militaries is colossal. In 2020, the global military expenditure rose to almost $2 trillion. Such military outlays increase emissions and suck valuable funds that could be used to tackle the climate emergency.

Last year, NATO’s Secretary-General acknowledged that in the face of the climate crisis, there is an urgent need for NATO to commit to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, the pressure to increase military spending to hit NATO targets is likely to undermine this aim.

Pledging to cut emissions alone is not enough if the drive for foreign wars continues. The last century has largely been a century of imperialist wars and inextricably a century of climate change due to human actions. From the extraction of fossil fuels to the advancement of military technology, modern warfare has contributed to unsustainable levels of GHG emissions. If we are to achieve the targeted net-zero emissions, then an ethical foreign policy has to be one of the pillars of a green economy. Countries mired in conflict are far less able to cope with and tackle climate change. At such a fragile time, one country falling behind means the entire planet could suffer the consequences.

We are at an absolute tipping point of the climate crisis, and can no longer overlook the wider impact of military activities on the environment. Governments need to show leadership and commit to producing accurate and transparent reports on military emissions and include the military as part of GHG reduction targets. They must make concrete, meaningful commitments and take clear steps towards achieving those targets.

[1] https://www.iiss.org/blogs/military-balance/2021/04/uk-defence-climate-change

[2] https://www.gq.com/story/military-climate-change-cycle

[3] https://ceobs.org/under-the-radar-the-carbon-footprint-of-the-eus-military-sectors/

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04 Nov 2021

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