A major, yet often overlooked, issue contributing to global climate change is the substantial carbon footprint of the world’s militaries. Governments wax poetic about climate change while funding planet-cooking war machines to the tune of billions, too insatiable to kick the addiction to precision-guided munition and too myopic to see the mushroom clouds on the horizon.
Specifically, America’s military emissions surpass those of many industrialised countries, making the US Department of Defence the world’s largest institutional oil consumer. A 2022 report by the Conflict and Environment Observatory and Scientists for Global Responsibility estimates the global military carbon footprint to be approximately 2,750 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 5.5 per cent of total global emissions, based on data on active military personnel, emissions per personnel from stationary bases and mobile vehicles, and supply chain emission multipliers related to military activities.
The UK and US militaries spew as much carbon per person as nations, with the Pentagon’s giant footprint exceeding emissions from Peru and Switzerland. If it were a country, the US war machine would rank first in per-capita pollution worldwide.
The Pentagon’s extensive global network of bases and operations contributes to significant greenhouse gas emissions. The US has over 750 military bases in 80 countries. Despite their huge impact, military emissions are consistently excluded from climate agreements and national carbon assessments. This omission seriously undermines global climate mitigation efforts. Cop28, therefore, provides another critical opportunity to address this gap by acknowledging military emissions and implementing concrete measures to reduce them.
Employing a “social cost of carbon” framework to estimate climate damage from emissions, a first-of-its-kind study by US and UK think tanks calculates both countries’ militaries “owe” at least $111 billion in reparations to communities most harmed by their planet-heating pollution, with the US responsible for $106bn and the UK $5bn based on 430 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted since the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The report states that “the environmental costs of maintaining the global military reach of the US and UK armed forces are astonishing”, citing emissions since Paris exceeding the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas output.
In 2021, the International Military Council on Climate and Security recognised that the defence sector is the most significant institutional consumer of hydrocarbons globally. Strategies such as setting specific targets for military emission reductions, optimising energy efficiency in operations and infrastructure, and integrating climate risks into defence policies can meaningfully decrease emissions while simultaneously bolstering security.
An even more transformative approach involves demilitarisation, which promises huge climate benefits. Reducing military forces, weapons production and overseas bases would drastically cut reliance on fossil fuels and shrink environmental footprints. Redirecting funds and resources from the military to climate adaptation and sustainable development could have profound positive effects. Instead the world is barrelling in the opposite direction, increasing military spending to the tune of trillions of dollars with geopolitical intelligence analysts calling for forever wars instead of diplomacy and peace from Ukraine to Gaza.
Earlier this month, the joint Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation summit took the lead in calling for an arms embargo on Israel, which would be one such step toward demilitarisation.
The US has granted over $124bn in military assistance to Israel since the Second World War, the most of any country, and is currently providing $3.8bn per year under a 10-year plan started in 2016. The US House recently passed a bill to give an additional $3bn in aid to Israel. With a current annual package and additional funding, Israel continues to benefit from a substantial amount of US military aid totalling in the billions. Meanwhile, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told lawmakers the White House does not aim to place conditions on this support.
By contrast, US Vice President Kamala Harris announced in Dubai on December 2 that the US will pledge $3bn to the Green Climate Fund, which already has more than $20bn in pledges and is the largest international fund dedicated to supporting climate action in developing countries. The latest pledge would be additional to another $2bn previously delivered by the US.
Meanwhile, demilitarisation can mitigate armed conflicts triggered by resource scarcity exacerbated by climate change. As climate impacts intensify, environmental stress and scarcity fuel civil unrest and forced migration. According to studies conducted by the Global Centre for Climate Mobility, it is projected that within the Horn of Africa, potentially up to 10 per cent of the population will undergo migration due to climate-related factors in the next decades, as one example of many instances, involving tens of millions of people.
Oversized military budgets divert funds from the communities most affected by these challenges. In contrast, diplomatic and non-violent approaches to adapting to climate change can more effectively alleviate these tensions than military intervention. Climate change, a complex threat, cannot be effectively addressed through militaristic means. Its multifaceted security implications call for holistic, preventive solutions focused on human development and ecological resilience. True climate response demands a shift towards demilitarisation.
Cop28 coincides with a resurgence in international calls for disarmament and arms control. Scaling back arms production and military forces worldwide would substantially reduce emissions. Moreover, encouraging democratic oversight and public participation in defence policymaking can ensure that climate priorities are integrated into these strategies.
Speaking from Japan in August 2023, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres underscored a global call for nuclear disarmament at the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
“Nuclear weapons are nonsense. Three-quarters of a century later, we must ask what we’ve learned from the mushroom cloud that swelled above this city in 1945,” Mr Guterres said, warning that a new arms race is growing, and that world leaders are adding hundreds of billions of dollars to store about 13,000 nuclear weapons.
He added: “Nuclear crises are rapidly spreading, from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Humanity is toying with a loaded gun.”
The UN and its member states need to wake up to the stark truth: their heavily militarised institutions are a ticking time bomb for climate progress and justice.
As the Cop process in years past has danced to the tune of the world’s most powerful militaries, their colossal carbon footprints are scandalously swept under the rug. But the climate crisis has no patience – an unfolding disaster demanding immediate, radical action is happening all over the planet. The militaries’ carbon emissions present a direct threat to our planet’s future.
Cop28 is a do-or-die moment for nations to rise to the occasion and fiercely commit to slashing these destructive emissions. This moment demands more than lip service to environmental preservation. We need uncompromising, bold action.