COP26: Military Emissions Need to be on the Agenda

  • Posted on: 9 October 2021
  • By: shannonwatch


Shannonwatch fully supports calls to the participants in the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Scotland from November 1st to 12th to stop excluding military pollution from climate agreements.

Global military expenditure rose to almost US $2 trillion in 2020. The scale of the environmental destruction this causes means there is an urgent need for the military to be included in commitments by states to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But reducing emissions should not be the sole aim, as focusing only on transitioning the military to non-fossil fuel technology without addressing the whole life environmental cost of military technology and of military activities, overlooks the wider impact of military activities on the environment.

The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) outline how conflicts influence GHG emissions.

1. Fuel, equipment and the supply chain: Arms production and the military supply chain plays a significant role in the carbon cost of war. In 2019, sales by the largest 25 arms producing companies reached an estimated US $361 billion. Each sale has its individual carbon cost, from the extraction of raw materials, through to production by arms companies, the use by militaries, decommissioning and end-of-life disposal. Several military technology companies produce Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports and provide GHG emissions and environmental data. The quality and scope of these CSR reports varies considerably however, and just as with the gaps in military reporting by governments, there are huge disparities in reporting across the military technology sector.

2. Aviation and the naval fleet: Contemporary warfare is dominated by aviation, and this emits vast quantities of GHGs during production and operation. Military jets typically fly at higher altitudes than commercial airlines; as well as emitting greenhouse gases, these can also cause additional atmospheric heating effects due to the contrails left by aircraft. The global military aircraft fleet is over 53,000, which is more than double the projected civilian fleet of just over 23,500. Overall, aviation represents around 3.5% of climate warming, and the role of military aviation is currently estimated at between 8% and 15% of this total. 

3. Military use of land: Military training lands and bases are estimated to cover between 1% and 6% of the global land surface. The manner in which these are used and managed has a significant bearing on global GHG emissions. A major issue is contamination of land relating to land used by military. Another is wildfires on military land; these can be significant sources of emissions and reduce the ability of vegetation and soils to store carbon.

4. Waste management: The military must both significantly reduce the volume of waste it generates and manage any waste it does produce responsibly. This includes surplus materiel and equipment, like munitions which are commonly destroyed by open detonation or burning. This can cause ground contamination, generate noxious air pollutants and release greenhouse gases. Waste disposal practices across the military have been poorly managed in the past according to CEOBS, with the use of open burn pits, burial and weak compliance with standard waste management protocols. 

The US military in particular is one of the largest polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more climate-changing gases than most medium-sized countries. If the US military were a country, its fuel usage alone would make it the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, sitting between Peru and Portugal.

A 2019 report entitled 'Hidden carbon costs of the “everywhere war”: Logistics, geopolitical ecology, and the carbon boot-print of the US military' showed that the US military relies upon an extensive global network of container ships, trucks and cargo planes to supply its operations with everything from bombs to humanitarian aid and hydrocarbon fuels. According to the study, there are few activities on earth as environmentally catastrophic as waging war. Significant reductions to the Pentagon’s budget and shrinking its capacity to wage war would cause a huge drop in demand from what the authors say is the biggest consumer of liquid fuels in the world.

In 2017, the US military bought about 269,230 barrels of oil a day and emitted more than 25,000 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide by burning those fuels. 

In April of this year, The Economist reported that Western defence ministries were talking up their willingness to take on climate change. The Pentagon has set up a “Climate Working Group”. Britain’s Ministry of Defence published its “Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach”. And in June, NATO agreed to ‘assess the feasibility of reaching net zero emissions by 2050,’ while member states agreed ‘…to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from military activities and installations without impairing personnel safety, operational effectiveness and our deterrence and defence posture.’ CEOBS described this as a positive step forward but still far short of what the planet needs to see.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change obliges signatories to publish annual GHG emissions data, but military emissions reporting is voluntary and often not included. CEOBS have found that even when it is reported, military GHG emission data is often incomplete. Far greater transparency and more robust reporting are therefore needed so that military emissions can be managed and reduced.

As a first step, commitments and clear steps towards the reduction of military emissions need to be agreed at COP26. The military cannot be excluded from the discussions on climate change.

Ireland needs to raise its voice to ensure military GHG emissions are reduced. And as a first concrete commitment to this, it needs to end the daily landing of US military and military contracted planes at Shannon Airport.  

Please sign this petition to Stop Excluding Military Pollution from Climate Agreements.