The West’s Military Carbon Bootprint.

No war, no warming’: slogans on placards at COP26.   But what has the peace movement to do with climate change? Judging by states’ final commitments in the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ nothing at all.

Yet, worldwide the military carbon footprint amounts annually to around 5% of all global carbon emissions. This figure includes military bases, land, use of equipment, as well as the military production. Add the impact of contemporary wars and the total could be 6% – one of several estimates from Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), an organisation formed in 1992, led by distinguished scientists from different disciplines working to end “the misuse of science and technology in threatening human life and the wider environment”.

But among Heads of State closeted in the Glasgow ‘blue zone’ military spending was the dog that didn’t bark. Thanks to SGR and the peace movement amongst the People’s Summit for Climate Justice – a broad coalition of NGOs and climate activists assembled to strategize and plan action – it barked after all.

The USA spends $778 billion on defence annually, China around $250 billion, India $75 billion. According to SGR the USA’s annual military emissions are 205 million tonnes, the UK’s around 11 million – the highest in Europe – with France next at 8 million.
Just moving military personnel and equipment around by air, sea and land burns a prodigious amount of fossil fuels; a Humvee, and America has 60,000, consumes a gallon of diesel every 4-6 miles. There are no accurate figures for China though total carbon emissions are believed to be 10.2 billion metric tonnes.

The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into effect in 1994. It required signatory nations to provide a regular inventory of their greenhouse gas emissions and negotiate further treaties to control emissions. The 1997 Kyoto protocol set legally binding emissions reduction targets for wealthier nations.   But the US negotiated an opt-out for military emissions both from reporting and reduction targets. Kyoto was followed in 2015 by another international treaty, the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump withdrew the US from it, but Biden re-joined this year.

Faced with reporting demands, the most militarised nations have adopted a dual strategy: avoiding systematic reporting or, failing that, burying military emissions under wider anodyne headings.
For example, energy use in Canada’s military bases falls under ‘commercial and institutional emissions’ and military flights hide beneath ‘general transport’.

After the Paris Agreement, under Obama and Biden, the US Department of Defence did begin reporting, but their published figures need to be scaled up significantly to obtain a more accurate picture of total military carbon emissions. Some data points to the supply-side of the military-industrial complex being over five times more polluting than … direct energy consumption by armed forces.
Then there are emissions from bombed fuel depots and the reconstruction of buildings following ceasefires. Saddam Hussein setting fire to Kuwaiti oil fields offers a striking illustration.

With COP26 approaching, at the end of March 2021 the UK Ministry of Defence bestirred itself and produced a slim and optimistic volume and a fine piece of climate virtue signalling. The green transition could even add to the UK’s military capabilities. Energy-saving drones and new technology were anticipated. There would be lots of carbon offsetting. The behemoths of modern warfare would in future feed on bio-fuels and nuclear power. Though it was expected that actual combat in climate-changed, ravaged environments would become more difficult. The impact on food production, were British planes and missiles to be fuelled as proposed by ‘algae and alcohol’, was not discussed.

The poorer nations most immediately affected, or threatened by climate change, left Glasgow disillusioned.
Substantial funding needed to mitigate impending climate-induced catastrophe was still not forthcoming. The British Government’s priorities are clear from its plans and actions.

By 2025 the UK’s military budget will be increased by over 10% above inflation, but from 2021 the International Aid budget will be reduced by 30%.   Until at least 2030, the rich industrialised world, or some 1% of the global population, will be generating 16% of global carbon emissions. Emissions attributable to the Pentagon are larger than those from the 140 poorest countries combined.
Not for nothing did the NGOs entitle their meeting during COP26 “The People’s Summit for Climate Justice”.

Have the NGOs’ efforts to highlight the impact on climate of world expenditure on the military, some $2 trillion globally last year, been successful? On 1 January 2021, the US National Defence Authorisation Act became law after Congress overrode a Trump veto. It requires the Secretary of Defence to produce a detailed report on the Pentagon’s greenhouse gas emissions for each of the last 10 years.

In addition the Pentagon must have clear emissions reduction targets and commit to “monitor, track, and report greenhouse gas emissions from all its operations, including combat operations, deployments, drone attacks, weapons production and testing, and base construction
and functions”.

In June NATO set a target to “contribute to” achieving net zero by 2050. At COP26 itself, the Conflict and Environment Observatory, working with Durham and Lancaster Universities, launched a website,, monitoring and tracking reporting from the 60 countries with the highest military expenditures. Amongst western nations, to some degree, the NGO campaigns have been successful.

Perhaps the most significant breakthrough to date is a radical Resolution on climate and military emissions being put to the US Congress by Barbara Lee, a Democrat Congresswoman for California’s 13th District (Oakland), with the support of 100 NGOs, many well-known names. The only person in Congress to vote against the Iraq war, Barbara Lee is hardly mainstream Democrat. In her mid-70s, raised a Catholic, her track record of opposition to militarism and war has been, like that of Bruce Kent in UK, courageous and consistent.

In his first week in office President Biden issued an Executive Order requiring a climate risk assessment from the Pentagon. Described by Lee as the “single largest institutional source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet”, the Pentagon dragged its feet. Its analysis published in late October only just scraped into print before COP26. While recognising Climate Change as a major National Security issue, it lacked the concrete action Lee is seeking in her Resolution.

The combined peace and climate movements get another opportunity to tackle military emissions when COP reconvenes in Cairo next year. But they will be operating in a regime led by, President Sisi, a ruthless politician who swapped his military uniform for a suit.
The Egyptian army remains politically powerful. Then again the Nile provides 97% of the country’s water source. Egypt knows it will be one of the first countries to run dry.

The anti-war and environmental movements with their focus on military emissions have highlighted a fundamental truth. Our acceptance of globalised competition for military ascendancy is incompatible with our quest for a secure future and mitigation of runaway global warming. Negotiations for disarmament must urgently return to the agenda of international diplomacy. And for that we need Statesmen for Global Responsibility – not just scientists and religious leaders.

Ian Linden
Professor at St Mary’s University,
Strawberry Hill, London.


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