Durham research: carbon bootprint, the hidden emissions of the world’s militaries

By Cameron McAllister

Durham researchers are part of a team that has launched a new platform, The Military Emissions Gap, to shine a light on the murky underworld of military emissions.

While the world’s militaries and their supporting industries may account for up to 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined emissions of aviation and deforestation, reporting of these emissions — the first step to accountability — remains appallingly inconsistent.

The hope is that by highlighting the paucity of reporting of military emissions, governments will be pressured to end this secrecy and report openly and comprehensively, bringing militaries in line with other highly polluting industries.

Ideally, reporting of military greenhouse gas emissions would take place before the next COP summit, COP27 in 2022, to allow for these emissions to be factored in to plans for keeping global heating below 1.5°C.

The world’s militaries and their supporting industries may account for up to 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions

The UK government spends more on defence (over £50 billion per year) than housing, the environment, and railways combined. Yet, the platform reports that there is “very significant under-reporting” of the UK’s military emissions, with poor data accessibility.

As the UK is legally bound to meet net zero carbon emissions by 2050 the current status quo seems unsustainable. All sectors will have to massively reduce their emissions; the Ministry of Defence, likely the largest institutional emitter within government, surely won’t be able to keep their emissions shrouded in mystery for much longer.

As the UK and the world’s emissions decrease in the coming decades, stubborn emissions from sectors that have failed to decarbonise as quickly as others will gradually have an even greater share of total emissions.

Traces of this effect can be seen in the fact that residential emissions in the UK, which have fallen only slightly over the last thirty years, have risen from 13% to 19% of the country’s total emissions as emissions from other sectors such as energy supply and business have decreased.

As the current largest emitting sector, transport, is decarbonised — the sale of petrol and diesel cars will be banned after 2030 in the UK — military emissions will threaten the net zero target unless plans are put in place immediately.

The new platform is comanaged by the Conflict and Environment Observatory and the Concrete Impacts project, with Durham’s involvement in the latter led by Dr Oliver Belcher. The Military Emissions Gap highlights that, due to the voluntary nature of military emissions reporting, many governments refuse to report these emissions. It is hoped that making military emissions more transparent will allow them to be properly factored into climate accounting, leading to governments finally committing to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of their defence departments.

But aren’t militaries supposed to keep their citizens safe?

Where do military emissions come from? The main contributor tends to be air forces, with aircraft using massive amounts of fossil fuels. Though navies and armies also contribute significantly, and also use massive amounts of fuel. After all, “fuel is the blood of the military”.

A fighter jet emits around 28 tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per mission. For context, official figures show that the average greenhouse gas emissions per capita per year in the UK are about 7 tonnes CO2e. This means each fighter jet mission emits the equivalent greenhouse gas that four people in the UK do over the course of an entire year.

Between September 2014 and January 2019, the RAF performed more than 1,700 air strikes in Iraq and Syria alone. Despite the military defeat of Islamic State in these territories, the UK continues to patrol the skies on an “almost daily basis”. Clearly these numbers add up to a staggering level of emissions, but without proper reporting it’s impossible to get an accurate idea of the true scale.

But aren’t militaries supposed to keep their citizens safe? The possible effects of climate catastrophe are hard to overstate. There will be more severe storms, increased drought, rising sea levels, and much more. David Attenborough has called climate change “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced”.

Climate change is also thought to increase the risk of new conflicts by worsening existing social, economic, and environmental factors. Even the US military, whose fuel use along would make it the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world if it were a country, sees climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’, something that exacerbates other threats dangerously.

Still, the world’s militaries prefer to emit secretly, with the implicit agreement that the security they afford their citizens makes them too important to bother reporting or reducing emissions. As the effects of climate change become more apparent that consensus is looking increasingly flimsy.

However, the tide is slowly turning. In June 2021, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a military alliance that includes the UK) announced that it would set targets “to contribute to the goal of” net zero by 2050.

Hopefully additional pressure from projects like The Military Emissions Gap, along with the increased public awareness they bring, will lead to more ambitious targets that will help keep us safe from the greatest threat that we face: climate change.

Image: Simon Hurry, Unsplash

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