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In terms of carbon emissions, the US military is a larger polluter than most nations. Should a sustainable future include decarbonizing national defense?

Climate Change

US Military Bigger Carbon Polluter Than Most Countries

In terms of carbon emissions, the US military is a larger polluter than most nations. Should a sustainable future include decarbonizing national defense?

Researchers at Durham University and Lancaster University in the UK have determined that if the US military were a separate country, its emissions would place in 47th among all nations when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions based solely upon its consumption of fossil fuels. The research has been published recently in the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers and is entitled, “Hidden carbon costs of the ‘everywhere war’: Logistics, geopolitical ecology, and the carbon boot‐print of the US military.”

US military carbon emissions

Screen capture from US Office of Naval Research on YouTube.

Patrick Bigger of the Lancaster University Environment Center says, “The US military has long understood it is not immune from the potential consequences of climate change — recognizing it as a threat multiplier that can exacerbate other threats — nor has it ignored its own contribution to the problem.

“Yet its climate policy is fundamentally contradictory — confronting the effects of climate change while remaining the largest single institutional consumer of hydrocarbons in the world, a situation it is locked into for years to come because of its dependence on existing aircraft and warships for open-ended operations around the globe.”

Co-author Benjamin Neimark of the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business at Lancaster University says, “This research provides ample evidence to support recent calls by activist networks to include the US military in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and other international climate treaties. An important way to cool off the furnace of the climate emergency is to turn off vast sections of the military machine,” he added. “This will have not only the immediate effect of reducing emissions in the here-and-now, but create a disincentive in developing new hydrocarbon infrastructure integral to US military operations.”

Co-author Oliver Belcher of Durham University’s Department of Geography says: “Our research demonstrates that to account for the US military as a major climate actor, you must understand the logistical supply chain that makes its acquisition and consumption of hydrocarbon-based fuels possible. How do we account for the most far-reaching, sophisticated supply chains, and the largest climate polluter in history? While incremental changes can amount to radical effects in the long-run, there is no shortage of evidence that the climate is at a tipping point and more is needed.”

The researchers’ examination of the US military carbon emissions started with the US Defense Logistics Agency — Energy (DLA-E), a powerful yet largely unresearched sub-agency within the larger Defense Logistics Agency. It is the primary purchase point for hydrocarbon based fuels for the US military and a powerful actor in the global oil market with the fuels it delivers powering everything from routine base operations in the USA to forward operating bases in Afghanistan, according to Science Daily.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  • In 2017 alone, the US military purchased about 269,230 barrels of oil a day and emitted more than 25,000 kilotons of CO2 equivalent emissions by burning those fuels. In 2017 alone, the Air Force purchased $4.9 billion worth of fuel and the Navy $2.8 billion, followed by the Army at $947 million and Marines at $36 million.
  • If the US military were a country, it would nestle between Peru and Portugal in the global table of fuel purchasing when comparing 2014 World Bank country liquid fuel consumption with 2015 US military liquid fuel consumption.
  • For 2014, the scale of emissions is roughly equivalent to total — not just fuel — emissions from Romania. According to the DLA-E data obtained by the researchers, which includes GHG emissions from direct or stationary sources, indirect or mobile sources and electricity use, and other indirect, including upstream and downstream emissions.
  • The Air Force is by far the largest emitter of GHG at more than 13,000 kt CO2 equivalent, almost double that of the US Navy’s 7,800 kilotons of CO2 equivalent emissions. In addition to using the most polluting types of fuel, the Air Force and Navy are also the largest purchasers of fuel.

The Takeaway

If you think the researchers have an anti-military bias, you could be right. But if you think they have a pro-environment stance, one that asks “Why kill the planet in the name of self defense?” you would also be right. At one time, the British navy was the most powerful military force on Earth. After World War II, the United States appointed itself the global policeman. That may have made sense in the 50s (although a counter argument can also be made), but one has to ask, what is the point of a bulked up global military presence if it contributes to making the Earth an uninhabitable lump for a few million years until a new dominant — and hopefully smarter — species comes along?

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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