As the world grapples with escalating global emissions, one significant contributor has remained largely unaddressed: the armed forces of nations worldwide.
Amidst record-breaking temperatures, scientists and environmental organizations are intensifying their efforts to pressure the United Nations (UN) into compelling militaries to disclose their emissions fully. They seek to eliminate a long-standing exemption that has allowed certain military-related climate pollution to go unaccounted for.
According to estimates by international experts in 2022, militaries, which rank among the largest consumers of fuel, contribute to 5.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
However, these defense forces are not bound by international climate agreements to report or reduce their carbon emissions. Moreover, the limited data that some militaries publish is often unreliable or incomplete, as noted by scientists and academics.
This lack of accountability stems from the fact that military emissions associated with activities abroad, such as jet flights, naval operations, and training exercises, were excluded from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and granted exemption once again under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The rationale behind this exclusion was the concern that disclosing energy usage by armed forces could compromise national security.
Leading the charge for comprehensive and transparent reporting of military emissions are environmental groups Tipping Point North South and The Conflict and Environment Observatory, alongside academics from prominent British universities like Lancaster, Oxford, and Queen Mary. Through research papers, letter campaigns, and conferences, they are urging for a change in the existing system.
Over the first five months of 2023, a campaigner who tracks research highlights that at least 17 peer-reviewed papers have been published, a threefold increase compared to all of 2022 and more than the cumulative number for the preceding nine years.
In February, these groups wrote to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), urging the organization to incorporate all military emissions within the framework of comprehensive global carbon accounting. They emphasized that in the face of the climate emergency, the omission of military and conflict-related emissions from the UNFCCC process is no longer acceptable.
The issue of emissions accounting will gain prominence during the first global stocktake, which assesses the progress of countries towards the goals set by the Paris Agreement. This evaluation will take place at the COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates, commencing on November 30.
Axel Michaelowa, founding partner of Perspectives Climate Group, highlights the glaring gap caused by the omission of conflict-related emissions in UNFCCC accounting. He suggests that hundreds of millions of tons of carbon emissions may be unaccounted for due to this gap.
While the lobbying efforts are underway, concrete responses to address the issue this year seem unlikely. The UNFCCC responded via email, stating that there are no immediate plans to revise the guidance on military emissions accounting. However, the issue may be discussed at future summits, including COP28 in Dubai.
Regarding the U.N. summit, the UAE presidency mentions that one of the thematic days during the two-week event will focus on “relief, recovery, and peace,” without providing further details on military emissions.
Nevertheless, some indications suggest that certain militaries are preparing for future changes in reporting requirements, while others are making strides to reduce their climate impact. For instance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a security alliance comprising 31 countries, has developed a methodology for its member states to report their military emissions.
Several countries, such as New Zealand, are exploring the inclusion of previously omitted areas like emissions from overseas operations. Similarly, Britain and Germany are actively seeking to address ambiguities in their reporting, according to defense officials.
Furthermore, the United States demonstrated its commitment to engaging in climate discussions by sending Army and Navy representatives to the COP27 climate summit in Egypt last year. This marked the first time a delegation from the Pentagon attended a global climate summit. The presence of these representatives underscores the recognition that the U.S. military is a significant emitter of fossil fuels and energy.
Notably, the oil consumption and emissions of the U.S. military have been declining. The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, responsible for oil procurement, reported a purchase of 84 million barrels in 2022, a decrease of nearly 15 million barrels compared to 2018. Additionally, emissions fell from 51 million tonnes in the previous year to 48 million tonnes in 2022.
The U.S. Department of Defense clarifies that these figures encompass all emissions but exclude international transport and bunker fuels in the reported numbers provided to the UNFCCC.
Experts attribute these reductions in fuel consumption to factors such as troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, the adoption of renewable energy technologies, the use of more fuel-efficient vehicles, and a decrease in the scale and frequency of military exercises. The increased deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) has also contributed to emissions reduction, thanks to their improved energy performance.
Advocacy groups urging the UN to eliminate military exemptions highlight the surge in emissions resulting from the conflict in Ukraine as a compelling reason for change. The Netherlands-based carbon accounting expert Lennard de Klerk estimated that the first 12 months of the war in Ukraine would cause a net increase of 120 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, equivalent to the annual emissions of Singapore, Switzerland, and Syria combined.
To promote further research that could inform changes in reporting requirements, academics from Oxford and Queen Mary University of London will convene a conference on military emissions in Oxford on September 26.
The spokesperson for Ukraine’s environment ministry expresses support for these efforts and intends to seek backing from governments at COP28 for more transparent reporting of military emissions.
While the Ukraine conflict has brought military emissions into the spotlight, some experts caution that it could divert attention from governments’ focus on regional security, potentially impeding discussions in the near term.
James Appathurai, NATO’s deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges, emphasizes that the complexity of the Ukraine crisis adds to the challenge. He suggests that revealing details about fuel usage during missions, flight distances, driving distances, and exercise patterns might compromise the security interests of armed forces.
Unspecified fuel combustion records some military emissions in the UN’s reporting tables, as confirmed by the UNFCCC.
Consequently, the global understanding of military emissions will remain limited, warns Stuart Parkinson, executive director of the group Scientists for Global Responsibility. He argues that while individuals are often urged to reduce their carbon footprint by flying less or switching to electric cars, it becomes difficult when the military evades scrutiny, enjoying a “free ride” in terms of emissions.
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