Addressing the military carbon footprint at COP28

DVIDSHUB / 2nd Lt. Gianpiero Sanna ITA Navy via Flickr


As global military spending is at an all-time high, we cannot continue to ignore the impacts of war and militarisation on the environment and greenhouse gas emissions. Maëlle Salzinger argues that a mentality shift is needed – away from traditional visions of security, military secrecy and the exclusion of civil society.

% Complete

    War is on everyone’s mind as thousands of Palestinians die under Israel’s indiscriminate bombing, following Hamas' attack on southern Israel on 7 October. Conflicts have been rising globally, with dire consequences for civilians and the natural environment that sustains them. In 2022, 56 countries experienced conflict and the number of battle-related deaths was the highest in 40 years. Also global military spending is at an all-time high. It has consistently increased since the late 1990s to reach $2240 billion in 2022.

    While the cost of violent conflict is often calculated with civilian deaths, injuries and destruction of infrastructure, the environmental cost of war and its long-term effect on the climate are often overlooked.

    The COP28 climate conference cannot continue to ignore the impacts of war and militarisation on the environment and greenhouse gas emissions. The COP28 declaration on climate, relief, recovery and peace drafted under the United Arab Emirates’ Presidency and planned for adoption at the COP, calls for more climate action and finance going to communities affected by conflict. But the declaration is silent on the responsibility of the military sector to curb its emissions. States avoid this conversation because it exposes their contradictions of committing to climate action while at the same time increasing their military spending and arms trade. But that’s precisely why it’s necessary.

    A total break-down of the environment and health

    The environmental degradation that occurs during war can deprive people of vital natural resources for generations after a conflict ends. Afghans, for instance, still feel the impact of the US military intervention in the form of air pollution, contaminated land, poisoned water and diseases. In 2017, the US dropped its ‘mother of all bombs’ near Achin, at the border with Pakistan. Since then, people have developed skin diseases and crop yields have dropped.

    In Ukraine, too, Russia has bombed industrial sites and chemical plants, leading to toxic gas leaks and damaging water treatment facilities. This is causing health problems, air pollution and biodiversity loss, but also degrading Ukraine’s agricultural soils on which millions of people depend for their food security globally.

    The environmental cost of war is deprioritised by politicians and the wider military system, but also by researchers working on the ‘climate security’ agenda.

    International organisations like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have sought to address conflict-related environmental damage for decades via biodiversity COPs, multilateral environmental agreements and guidelines for states. More recently the International Law Commission (ILC) produced the PERAC principles for the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflict. But these efforts have led to very little action. During a conflict, the environmental cost of war is deprioritised by politicians and the wider military system, but also by researchers working on the ‘climate security’ agenda who focus primarily on how climate change impacts security rather than the other way around.

    Military and war-related emissions compound the climate crisis

    Militaries are big carbon emitters and not only during conflict. Aircrafts, naval vessels and land vehicles are fossil-fuel intensive, and even more emissions occur in the process of manufacturing and delivering military equipment. Militaries have complex supply chains with many suppliers and sub suppliers (of fuel, equipment, food, etc.) and long procurement cycles, which account for the majority of military emissions but often go unreported. United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions, which account for over half of the total UN emissions, are not exempt from this challenge.

    In times of war, emissions rise even more as countries use weapons and set up more military bases to sustain war efforts. On top of this, the tactics used to wage war emit direct and indirect CO2 emissions in addition to destroying the environment. For instance, militaries have used scorched-earth tactics (burning or destroying the resources of the enemy) like removing forests and draining wetlands which are major carbon sinks. In addition, due to energy infrastructure being destroyed by recent wars, like in Syria and Yemen, people turn to polluting alternatives like artisanal oil refining and gas flaring which increase carbon emissions. All this being said, far more research is needed to assess the climate footprint of conflicts.

    The information gap on military emissions and the absence of a baseline means that the military sector lags behind in the effort to cut global emissions.

    This points to a major challenge: the full scale of military and war-related emissions is unknown. Researchers estimate the global military carbon footprint reaches 5.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions (results are extrapolated using available country data from 2017-2020). But this may be an underestimation because militaries are not transparent. Massive militaries like China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Israel do not report on their emissions, while others (for instance EU countries) report only partially. This lack of transparency contradicts the need to decarbonise all sectors. The information gap on military emissions and the absence of a baseline means that the military sector lags behind in the effort to cut global emissions, evades public scrutiny and avoids having comprehensive emission reduction targets.

    Putting military emissions on the COP28 agenda is only the first step

    We will not reach the objective of keeping global warming below 1.5°C without addressing military and war-related emissions. And yet, these have never been put on a climate COP agenda because countries see military data as a matter of national security to be kept secret. COP28 offers an opportunity to start turning this around in three ways:

    First, countries should commit to transparent reporting and comprehensive data collection so that ambitious emission reductions targets can be set. The US and UK armies have net zero targets, while NATO has committed to making its facilities and assets carbon-neutral by 2050, although this does not include the facilities and assets of NATO allies. Forerunners can share technology and decarbonisation best practices with other countries and create collective diplomatic pressure with a focus on the highest-emitting militaries. NATO, considering its commitments, global reach and convening power, can push its allies to set binding emissions targets and report on them transparently, but only if it leads by example. This means it should report on all its emissions, including those from NATO-led operations and missions which are currently excluded from its emissions tracking methodology.

    Second, the COP must reform the format of negotiations to allow more diverse perspectives to have an influence. Especially views from the global majority and marginalised groups who have been most impacted by militarisation and climate change, and who have used feminist and antiracist approaches. At COP27 last year, members of the Women and Gender Constituency (an observer to the COP) like the African feminist task force put forth 27 demands which included safety for environmental defenders in conflict. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, also a member, called for a special UNFCCC study on the carbon emissions of the military to make this problem more visible, and for a 2% decrease of military expenditures for five years. This would liberate $1 trillion to be reinvested in climate finance and support for grassroots organisations. However, the Women and Gender Constituency has no representation at the negotiating table and their demands were not considered at COP27.

    Third, researchers, practitioners and policymakers working on climate change and security should look at the bigger picture of how militaries, and militarisation, impact people’s lives. This means resisting simplistic narratives which overwhelmingly focus on the impact of climate change on security, and holding states and their militaries accountable not only for their violence and human rights violations but also their wider impact on the environment. The Peace@COP Policy asks, which are supported by many international NGOs and research institutes who want to see a greater consideration of conflict at COP28, is a great start.

    Going forward, a mentality shift is needed, away from traditional visions centred on national security, military secrecy, and the exclusion of civil society from security discussions. Putting military emissions under the spotlight of international climate conferences is only the first step of this process. International institutions and civil society should play a key watchdog role to bring the military sector up to speed with the green transition and the democratic values we claim to uphold.

    The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

    Loading Conversation