The global annual military budget is now around $2 trillion (€1.6 trillion) a year — around 12 times the annual climate budget
Military emissions have been largely exempted from international climate treaties, starting with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Although Biden invoked a "whole-of-government" approach to his new climate action plan, he did not include a Department of Defense, The EU militaries, the world's second-largest armed forces, are often unwilling to report many of their emissions due to "national security" concerns, explains Linsey Cottrell, CEOBS' environmental policy officer and co-author of a report on the EU military carbon footprint. "If you don't measure it you can't manage it," Cottrell said.
Cottrell estimates that UK military emissions are "at least three times higher" than reported, since indirect emissions generated by the production of military equipment and weapons, for example, are not included.
"The US military did not want to limit its supremacy by being constrained," explained Neta C. Crawford, professor of political science at Boston University and co-director of the Costs of War project. Crawford’s paper on "Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War" is one of a growing body of work that has recently revealed the out-sized carbon emissions of the global military system.
If the US military was a nation, it would be one of the top 50 largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, putting it above Sweden or Denmark. A 2019 study by Lancaster and Durham University researchers shows that the US military, the world's largest war machine, is itself the single biggest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons on the planet, a war machine that uses some 270,000 barrels of oil a day. The upcoming 2022 US military budget will include commissions for new petrol-fueled jets and warships that will "invariably" run on carbon-heavy bunker fuel.
How can top militaries decarbonize when fossil-fuel guzzlers will be in service for the next decades with long-term contracts for weapons such as a new fleet of F35 fighter jets said to consume near 6,000 liters of fuel (1,585 gallons) per flight hour.
Crawford said of the US navy is already insulating itself from sea level rise by raising up its bases in ports and harbours from Virginia to Florida.
Not only have war emissions been excused from national carbon calculations: Militaries also enjoy exemptions from some chemical and waste management standards.
The military around the world have been expressing concern that a growing climate crisis will be the key trigger of future conflict, they have done little to address their role in exacerbating this climate change. Crawford explains their willingness to prepare for conflict caused by displacement and resources scarcity linked to increased drought and flooding, for example, has ironically failed to incorporate strategies to mitigate the root cause of this crisis.
Armed forces have been pioneers in utilizing solar energy, hybrid-powered vehicles and bio-fuels, especially in combat zones like Afghanistan, to reduce reliance on diesel fuel power that can be attacked during transportation. Too often, however, climate adaptation initiatives have a purely military end, says Patrick Bigger, a lecturer at the Lancaster University Environment Centre and an expert on US military emissions.
"Any green impacts are an added bonus to the main goal of increasing force readiness," he said of US military climate adaption strategies that do not address the carbon "footprint".
Doug Weir, research and policy director at The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), says the military needs to move beyond "energy security" motivations and instead look to the "broader benefits" for the climate.
But even if armies shifted to renewables to reduce their massive carbon emissions, war exacerbates the climate crisis.
After the decades-long Colombia conflict, deforestation occurred on a much wider scale due to the governance vacuum left in territory held by the FARC rebels, notes Weir. "You've seen huge increases in deforestation," he said of these "ungoverned spaces" where former carbon sinks are now "contributing to emissions as well as impacting biodiversity."
"Awareness and coverage of this topic is more or less absent from the climate debate," said Deborah Burton, co-founder of Tipping Point North South (TPNS), a UK climate justice cooperative that is advocating for a "transform defense" concept that will align military strategies to climate mitigation. One answer will be "to shut down the military machine in a way, to slow it down and shrink it," said Benjamin Neimark, senior lecturer at the Lancaster University Environment Centre — including shutting some of the 800 US military bases maintained in over 70 countries.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) urged member states of its massive army to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Cottrell says that NATO's net-zero rhetoric will be meaningless unless "state members follow through and provide meaningful pledges."