The impact of militaries on climate change

by Jack Johnson - Winner of the University of Birmingham
Student Climate Change Writing Competition 2021

One enormous area of oversight when addressing the climate challenge problem is the vast contribution of national militaries to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, especially in western democracies. It has been estimated that 20% of all environmental degradation globally is due to military-related activities (Angus, 2016). A 2020 report by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) and Declassified UK found that the UK military-industrial sector produced the equivalent of 6.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which was greater than the CO2 emissions of 60 other countries (Parkinson, 2020). Meanwhile, the United States’ Department of Defense (DOD) is the world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum and the world’s largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases (GHG), producing over 3,685 million metric tonnes of CO2 between 1975 and 2018 (Crawford, 2019). In a similar fashion to the UK, US military emissions alone are consistently larger than the entire output of other industrialised nations, with the Pentagon’s greenhouse gas emissions outweighing that of Sweden, Denmark and Portugal and GHG emissions from the DOD are also greater than all CO2 emissions from US production of iron and steel (Crawford, 2019). Largescale military emissions are also not limited to the Anglosphere, with another SGR report suggesting that the combined militaries of the world contribute to 6% of the global carbon footprint total, with China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and India being likely large contributors, but are much less transparent on their statistics (Parkinson, 2020).

Causes of emissions

Thus, one must ask, how did such a costly situation arise? Perhaps the most obvious reason is what Joshua Reno in his book ‘Military Waste’ called “permanent war-readiness” (Reno, 2020), with a heightened international climate in the wake of 9/11, the US military produces a sizeable amount of GHG emissions just from the maintenance of its forces. Indeed, operational energy, or what the DOD defines as “energy required for training, moving, and sustaining military forces and weapons platforms for military operations” (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Sustainment, 2018) accounts for 70% of total US military energy consumption (Crawford, 2019). The constant demand for sustaining a worldwide military presence not only impacts the climate in terms of greenhouse emissions, but the human health cost of these military operations are also considerable. Studies conducted near the Basra military base in Iraq found that rates of babies being born with birth defects were as high as 30% in 2010, and more than 85,000 US Iraq War veterans were diagnosed with respiratory problems (Vidal, 2016). These pollution issues are linked to the constant state of war-readiness; with the US military constantly operating ‘burn pits’ as an inexpensive means of destroying waste whilst on deployment. Iraq War veteran Joseph Hickman recounted that soldiers would sleep less than a mile away from 270 ‘burn pits’, which incinerated items such as explosives, faeces and electronics twenty-four hours a day, with some still burning to this day (Hickman & Ventura, 2016). Hence, a major contributor to damage to the climate caused by militaries is the fact that armed forces require perpetual upkeep, resulting in militaries choosing cost-effective and heavily polluting solutions to problems such as waste removal whilst on deployment, leading to both air pollution and human health hazards.

Hickman claimed that no regulations existed about what could be burned, which gives an insight into the second major facilitator of military emissions, lack of effective national and international policy. Military actions were made exempt from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol emission targets and the US won an exemption from emission limits for “bunker” fuels (dense, heavy fuel oil for naval vessels) and all greenhouse gas emissions from military operations worldwide (Angus, 2016), hence demonstrating a clear lack of concern for the impact of militaries on the climate. Worse still, the Kyoto Protocol was not even ratified by the US, and in 1999 the House of Representatives further protected the US armed forces from acting on its carbon GHG emissions with a National Defense Authorization Act (United States Congress, 1999). Moreover, the Russian military has published no plans to reduce its own GHG emissions (Brzoska, 2012) and although NATO adopted the Green Defence Framework in 2014, which was set out to improve energy efficiency, the Framework does not include any GHG emission, specific carbon reduction or environmental performance targets (NATO, 2014). However, a plethora of high-ranking officials have continuously made statements about the threat posed by climate change and the need to reduce GHG emissions despite the bizarre lack of action on their behalf. For example, despite the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 (Ministry of Defence, 2020) and the MOD laying out GHG reduction plans in the Climate Change Delivery Plan 2010 (Brzoska, 2012), the new HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will carry 36 of the new F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft, which consumes 60% more fuel per flight hour, thus producing much greater emissions, than its predecessor, the F-16 Fighting Falcon (Peck, 2019). In China, a similar disparity between statements and concrete action has emerged; the People’s Liberation Army general staff have set up expert commissions to study the potential national security consequences of climate change, yet there have been no authoritative statements made by the army on the issue, and when climate change was debated at the UN Security Council in April 2008 and July 2011, the Chinese representative rejected the notion that the Security Council should consider climate change (Brzoska, 2012). Hence one of the main reasons for unchecked military emissions becomes apparent – policy and corresponding measures to reduce carbon and GHG emissions are not aligned, allowing militaries to effectively bypass the desires of the public and international community.

The final reason for the unchecked growth of military emissions is the role of military-industrial complexes in arms production. In the US, defence contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing fight to secure contracts to manufacture vehicles for the military, by either lobbying politicians directly, or by promising jobs in said politicians’ home states. As a result, politicians are inclined to support projects such as the F-35 Lightning II, despite it being 70% over budget and aforementioned fuel consumption issues (Shalal-Esa, 2013). Hence the US military-industrial complex alone produces over 153 million metric tonnes of carbon pollution annually, on par with the total emissions from the Netherlands (Kahn, 2019). This problem is not exclusive to the US, with the UK’s MOD contractors having a poor record on the management of radioactive waste, with companies such as Sellafield Ltd receiving multiple fines for breaching of environmental regulations, but no long-lasting public consequences (Parkinson, 2020). Hence the complex relationship between politicians and defence companies means that elected representatives are often encouraged to turn a blind eye to environmentally costly projects in favour of political gain.

Combatting Military Emissions

The question then arises, how does the international community begin to combat these emission problems? The most trivial and obvious solution comes in the form of massively scaling back military budgets; proponents of the Green New Deal in the US have demanded for the military budget to be slashed in favour of increased spending on environmental projects. Closing overseas bases, such as the approximately 800 facilities currently operated by the US (Vine, 2015), would go a long way in cutting emissions; this would also benefit France in particular, which has nearly double the military carbon footprint of Germany because of its numerous overseas deployments (Cottrell & Parkinson, 2021), as well as the UK, which has 20% of the Royal Navy’s operating fleet deployed to the Middle East at any one time (Parkinson, 2020). However, the implementation of drastic cuts to military budgets would require significant political capital, and hence the remainder of this article will discuss other solutions to this problem.

The SGR group recommends an improvement in the collection and presentation of Sustainable MOD environmental data, which has been error-strewn and lacking in clarity in recent years (Parkinson, 2020). For instance, for the financial year 2017-18 the MOD quoted that their direct carbon footprint was 0.94 tCO2e (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent), yet proper investigation uncovers that these numbers are only related to ‘Estates’ and ‘Business travel’. The SGR report calculated that the true emissions figure was 3.03 tCO2e, over three times the reported amount (Parkinson, 2020). A different report published by Brown University recommends a similar course of action for the DOD, advising that the department should report its fuel consumption to the US Congress in both its budgetary submission and in a separate annual fuel consumption report, as well as ensuring that this data is complete and well organised by disaggregating its data into fuel type, service, year etc. as well as including emissions from training missions and public displays (Crawford, 2019). Hopefully, this will persuade other major global powers to do the same, such as Germany, who currently does not make their carbon emissions data publicly available (Fort & Straub, 2019). Overall, encouraging armed forces to publish more comprehensive data on their impact on the climate would not only make militaries and governments more accountable to the public for their role in climate change, but it would also allow environmental groups to make better suggestions for areas of improvement. Publishing more data on emissions would also help voters recognise the dangers of military-industrial complexes and apply scrutiny to politicians who defend the manufacture of new, environmentally damaging military hardware.

It is also crucial for government policy and military initiatives to be aligned. As discussed before, whilst governments have appeared to make steps in combatting climate change, armed forces are far too frequently exempted or overlooked. SGR recommends ensuring that GHG emissions from UK military operations are limited by the Climate Change Act, and indeed UK military strategy as a whole ought to be shifted from long-range, environmentally detrimental ‘force projection’, to a strategy that primarily focuses on territorial defence (Parkinson, 2020). The US can follow suit by ensuring that the military is included in President Biden’s plan to cut national carbon emissions in half by 2030 (Newburger, 2021). As for global targets, whilst the Paris Climate agreement did not exempt national militaries from emission targets, it did not make countries legally obligated to reduce military emissions either (Nelsen, 2015). A revised global agreement which completely closes this loophole is crucial in making a coordinated effort against military pollution and ensure that military emissions remain relevant in future climate summits.

Finally, a renewed focus on research and implementation of fuel-efficient and low carbon technologies would be beneficial to both militaries and the environment. Although existing jet fighters could potentially be adapted to use ‘drop-in’ sustainable fuel sources such as biomass and household waste, which would cut Royal Air Force CO2 emissions by 18% (Wallace & Shapps, 2020), these climate considerations appear to have been treated as an afterthought, with vehicles being adapted after several years of service instead of eco-friendliness being a core principle in vehicle design. Whilst the MOD has done taken action to reduce the carbon emissions of some of its building (Parkinson, 2020), more research is required into the environmental costs of manufacture and usage when designing new weapons and equipment, which hence limits the damage to the environment, and keeps consumption costs lower for militaries. However, SGR also notes that military climate initiatives ought to be treated with scrutiny, such as the US Defense Science Board’s More Fight, Less Fuel program, which is simply a misguided scheme with the aim of fighting wars more efficiently (Parkinson, 2020). Therefore, militaries must put climate change at the top of their agendas when considering which new technologies to invest in.

In conclusion, the impact of armed forces on climate change and carbon emissions is both broad and frequently overlooked, with ramifications for both human health and the environment. Their greenhouse gas and carbon emissions have been allowed to rise due to the global presence and constant state of war-readiness, unthorough government and international policy, and the power of military-industrial complexes, which result in politicians defending environmentally hazardous military projects. However, this situation is not irreparable, and by taking the advice of independent groups such as Scientists for Global Responsibility, ensuring that government policies and military actions match, demanding greater transparency and more data on military emissions, researching new, climate friendly technologies and potentially scaling back overseas military presences, emissions from armed forces can reach more sustainable levels without the need to make drastic cuts to military budgets. 


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