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How the world’s militaries cover their huge carbon emissions
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How the world’s militaries cover their huge carbon emissions

Man stands by jet fuel tank


Leadership in climate change requires more than stirring speeches. It requires facing the hard truths. One truth governments all over the world are wrestling with is the immense contribution that their militaries make in the climate crisis.

For example, the US Department of Defense is the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world – and the largest institutional emitter. Two of us worked on a project. 2019 studyThis showed that the US military is the 47th largest global emitter of greenhouse gasses, ranking it between Peru, Portugal, and Brazil, if it were a nation. The US military is a more important climate actor than many industrialized countries gathered at the COP26 summit.

Despite the enormous role played by militaries, very little is known about their emissions. This is amazing considering their reach and dependence on fossil fuels. Some scientists estimateTogether, the military and their supporting industries could account for as much as 5% of global emissions, more than civil aviation and shipping combined.

Man stands by jet fuel tank

The US Air Force spends close to US$5 Billion annually on fuel.
Michelle Larche, US Air Force / flickr

We don’t know much because militaries are one of the last polluting industries that doesn’t need to be reported to UN. The US can claim credit for this. In 1997, the US won a blanket agreement with its negotiating team. military exemptionUnder the Kyoto climate agreement. Speaking in the Senate the following year, the now special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, hailed it as “a terrific job”.

Presently, 46 countries and the European Union must submit annual reports on their national carbon emissions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The 2015 Paris Agreement removed Kyoto’s military exemption but left military emissions reporting voluntary.

Our researchThe first-ever global military emissions gap report has shed light on the deplorable state of global military emissions reporting. As is under-reporting, data that is not accessible or aggregated with other sources is the norm. For example, Canada reports its emissions under multiple IPCC categories, reporting military flights under general transport, and energy for bases under commerical/institutional emissions.

Even worse are the countries that don’t have to report on their military emissions every year to the UNFCCC. This includes countries that have large military budgets such as India, China, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and others.

Soldiers parade in front of missiles

China ranks second in military spending – and military emissions.
Roman Pilipey / EPA

That “terrific job” in 1997 has unfortunately cast a long shadow. Global military expenditures reached $1 trillion in 2020 nearly US$2 trillion (£1.5 trillion), and the international community remains largely oblivious to the carbon cost of these dollars, irrespective of where they are spent.

This vast military imprint on the Earth’s atmosphere is not on the formal agenda of COP26. However, there are hopes that it will be for COP27 next years, as countries start to realize their enormous military carbon footprint.

The military alliance NATO was established in June. announced that it would set concrete targets for it “to contribute to the goal of Net Zero emissions by 2050”. While countries such as the UK and Switzerland have passed legislation setting net-zero targets, it is now facing the uncomfortable reality that their defense ministries are the largest institutional emitters in government.

Graphic of US military carbon emissions

US military carbon emissions per branch: planes consume lots of fuel
Belcher et al (2019), Royal Geographical Society

While military emissions are becoming more prominent, the culture of military environment exceptionalism that gave birth to it will continue driving the long war militaries have been quietly waging against the climate. Despite their political influence and spending power, militaries still lag behind in sustainability. This was clear from NATO’s additional 2021 pledge to develop a carbon counting methodology for its members to use – an area where militaries are lagging behind other major sectors.

What emissions should military personnel count? Should such accounting be limited to fuel use and energy consumption? Or should the operation of the massive, global supply chains – like those run by the US government’s Defense Logistics Agency – also be included? Emissions from supply chains may be 5.5 times higher than an organisation’s own operational emissions.

What about overseas operations? Overt or covert? Or the wider climatic cost of war and peace, such as landscape destruction, deforestation, or rebuilding

Western governments, including institutions such as NATO, are busy preparing themselves to be seen as “the West’s” leadersThe security implications of the climate crisis. Their credibility in addressing climate security and climate action will depend on their willingness to face the hard truths about their contribution to climate change. It will also require more transparency and openness. Both are vital to delivering real changes, not more weapons-grade greenwash.

Governments must not be under any illusions about the magnitude of the challenges they face. War is a dirty business. Militaries are institutionally complex, and procurement cycles last decades, which can “lock in” emissions. Things will not change overnight, but what they do not count, we can’t see. They won’t cut what we can’t see.

You can view your government’s military emissions data at the authors’ website The Military Emissions Gap.

COP26: the world's biggest climate talks

This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage on COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.

The Conversation is here to help you understand the climate news and stories. More.

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