Military footprints

Mike Phipps examines the findings of Under the Radar; the Carbon Footprint of Europe’s Military Sectors, a new scoping study commissioned by the Left group in the European Parliament and undertaken by the Conflict and Environment Observatory and Scientists for Global Responsibility.

This report is a wake-up call. As the authors state:

“This study shows that not only does military spending swallow up resources that could and should be used to tackle climate change, invest in global justice, and to promote peaceful conflict resolution and disarmament, but that the military technology industry in itself contributes considerably to the climate emergency. In the EU alone, the carbon footprint of military expenditure is equivalent to the emissions of at least 14 million cars per year.”

But there is a further problem: a complete lack of transparency around the military sector’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Consequently, the study had to use conservative estimates rather than publicly available figures.

“Militaries are frequently exempt from publicly reporting their GHG emissions,” says the report. “Indeed, there is currently no consolidated public reporting of GHG emissions for the national militaries of the European Union and no overarching reduction targets that incorporate emissions from the military.”

The biggest culprit is France, currently contributing approximately one-third of the total carbon footprint for the EU’s militaries.

The UK of course was outside the remit of the study. But a 2020 report by Scientists for Global Responsibility and Declassified UK estimated that the carbon footprint of British military spending is 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“This is more than 11 times the figure the Ministry of Defence usually highlights when discussing the British military contribution to global heating, “ it noted, “and is similar to the emissions produced by over six million average UK cars in a year.”

The UK-based company with the largest carbon emissions was found to be BAE Systems. Its UK emissions were found to be about 30% of the total for the nation’s arms industry as a whole.

But these emissions are dwarfed by the US military’s carbon footprint. According to a 2019 study, “the US military 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.”

To give an indication of what these figures mean concretely, it is estimated that “the B-2 stealth bomber burns over four gallons of jet fuel per mile. Over its 6,000-mile range, it emits more than 250 metric tons of greenhouse gases. By comparison, the average passenger vehicle would emit less than 2.5 metric tons over a 6,000-mile trip.”

These emissions are often overlooked in climate change analysis.  A key reason is the reticence by the US government – and other states – to reveal any data, making accurate assessments difficult.

The irony is that one of the main threats western militaries claim to confront is the global consequences of climate change and its impact on resources and populations.

Dr Patrick Bigger, of Lancaster University Environment Centre, who co-authored the 2019 report on US emissions, observed that the US military’s “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.”

There is a further paradox in Europe. Even though the EU and NATO – 21 out of 27 EU members are also NATO members – have net-zero targets set to 2050, military spending in those countries has been increasing due to targets set by NATO.

“With campaigns to #BuildBackBetter following the COVID-19 pandemic, there should be much greater pressure on the military to ensure that their activities are consistent with the UN climate goals and biodiversity targets,” the researchers said in a recent blog post.

The new EU report makes recommendations both on getting greater transparency on emissions and reducing the carbon footprint of militaries. They argue: “An urgent review of national and international security strategies is required to examine the potential to reduce the deployment of armed force and focus on diplomatic conflict resolution and disarmament – and hence reduce GHG emissions in ways not yet seriously considered by governments in the EU (or elsewhere).

“First steps should include:

 • assessing the potential of arms control and disarmament initiatives to reduce emissions;

• examining the potential for less confrontational military force structures; and

 • re-evaluating policies from the perspective of ‘human security’ rather than just ‘national security’, which would refocus resources on tackling the roots of insecurity, including poverty, inequality, ill-health, and environmental degradation.”

If the Labour leadership is serious about tackling the climate emergency, it would do well to incorporate these recommendations into its thinking.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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