A November, 2022 article in Nature argues that the world’s militaries are largely spared from emissions reporting, and this must change. To fail to do so is to create systems where each country’s mitigation measures becoming mere guesswork.
The multi-authored paper reminds us that armed forces have a massive carbon footprint that is absent from global accounting. Military emissions need to be put on the global agenda, the authors insist, so that they are officially recognized, accurately reported in national inventories, and decarbonized.
Those changes will require more than adding in some low emissions military infrastructure or equipment. Instead, a concerted effort is needed to reduce military spending on carbon intensive programs and equipment.
Analyses of fossil fuel consumption suggest that the world’s militaries could emit around 0.45 billion to 2.2 billion metric tonnes of CO2eq annually. This calculation could be low, in fact, as other emissions from energy supplies, raw materials, supply chains, equipment manufacturing, and warfare could more than triple estimates.
Here are some of the major points in “Decarbonize the Military — Mandate Emissions Reporting.”
Absence of malice: With no international agreement on accountability, reporting requirements, leadership, or will to act, monitoring and cutting military emissions are low priorities. Only a handful of forces — including those of the UK and US — have published strategy documents on climate action. Across the 27 member states of the European Union, only 10 militaries note the need for greenhouse gas mitigation, of which just 7 have set targets.
Why start now? Russia’s war in Ukraine has drawn fresh attention to the role of fossil fuels in financing conflicts as a target and as a tool for political coercion. The Ukrainian government is calculating the financial and environmental costs of the impact of the conflict on the climate — the first time that any conflict affected state has done so — which will be raised at COP27.
Uncounted emissions: Reporting of military emissions under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is incomplete, unclear, and inconsistent. Some data have been shared on direct emissions from fuel consumption, operation of facilities, and consumed power. However, indirect emissions along supply chains are absent, and emissions calculations are often flawed. Some figures might not be flagged as military in origin and are classified, instead, under broader categories, such as public buildings and services or general aviation or shipping.
Guidance in advance of disasters: Military bases also need to cope with climate extremes such as storm surge flooding, wind, wildfire, and drought. The US Department of Defense oversees more than 1,700 international military facilities on coastlines that could be vulnerable to sea-level rise, according to the Congressional Research Service. A departmental survey in 2019 on 79 installations concluded that nearly two thirds of them are at risk from recurring flooding, and one-half face threats from drought or wildfires.
Two reporting gaps: 1) Day-to-day footprints of militaries themselves must include the emissions associated with the management of bases and estates — from providing infrastructure to cement and food to feed and house the troops. 2) A reckoning is needed on the impacts of infrastructure damage, land-use changes, socio-economic shifts, and post-war reconstruction and recovery. Despite two decades of progress on documenting the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts, efforts to calculate these emissions are in their infancy.
Standardize reporting: A standardized methodology and comprehensive assessment framework for greenhouse gas emissions, including those embedded in products across their life cycles, are needed. Although much can be drawn from other industries, military specific environments and circumstances must be considered.
Decarbonizing operations: Once reporting mechanisms are in place, plans for decarbonizing the military must be assessed and improved. One major challenge is “lock in” — emissions from military equipment are fixed for decades, owing to long procurement processes and lifespans. For example, F-16 fighter planes entered service with the US Air Force in 1979 and are not due to be retired until about 2040. Despite proposals to electrify land vehicles and to promote synthetic fuels for aviation, fossil fuel use in global militaries will continue to rise for many years to come.
Independent accounting: Research areas that need investment include methods for independently verifying military emissions accounting by third parties, including academics and civil society groups, without compromising national security. Breaking down emissions by technology sectors will help to prioritize actions and targets. Studies on the feasibility of adopting low carbon technologies are key. Software that creates a barcode that can be scanned to reveal a product’s emissions data might be helpful; this is already used in the private sector to track emissions throughout a supply chain, for example, in food and agriculture initiatives. Such data can inform declarations of emissions for processes, products, or services.
Final Thoughts About Militaries & Their Emissions Reporting
To bring the world’s militaries into the practice of emissions reporting, the authors call for action in 4 areas.
- Militaries across the globe must be held accountable. Although national net zero pledges have helped to focus attention in some countries, international standards and obligations must be agreed. The UNFCCC is the most appropriate forum and must strengthen and reform its reporting protocols to include militaries. COP27 and COP28 are key opportunities for those states that have already engaged on the military-emissions agenda, such as the US and UK, to show leadership. Researchers must advocate for common standards for accounting, reporting, and reducing military emissions, and these must be transparent, time-bound, and measurable.
- Militaries must improve their capacity to calculate, manage and reduce emissions, and train personnel to do so. Researchers should work with the armed forces to exchange knowledge and best practices from the civil sector; help to develop protocols for military-specific emissions; and, use or procure low carbon equipment.
- Researchers need to document and understand how armed conflicts impact the climate and society. This dynamic is complex but crucial for identifying low carbon recovery pathways for countries coming into conflict, such as Ukraine, and for understanding the long range costs of armed conflict.
- Independent research is paramount to keep militaries accountable and to uphold obligations made under the UNFCCC. There is an urgent need to give researchers the support to conduct independent analyses and provide evidence based solutions, and militaries should work hand in hand with academia and industry to establish a commonly understood and verifiable means of emissions accounting.
The authors conclude that all this needs to move beyond plans and high level discussions that are part of diplomatic efforts, arms control treaties, and other conflict prevention measures. Crucially, the authors remind us, global security improvements lead to reductions in international military expenditure and its associated emissions.
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