While the idea of wars for oil are not new, climate change is adding another dimension to the link between militaries and fossil fuels. Massive global military carbon emissions often go unreported. The billions of dollars' worth of weapons, jets, tanks and trucks that drive the grinding conflict contribute direct emissions that, amid the fog of battle, remain difficult to quantify — and which are not accounted for in the Paris target of limiting heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit).
Axel Michaelowa, senior founding partner of German-based climate consultancy, Perspectives Climate Group, is the lead author of a report, released during last week's climate conference in Bonn, Germany, that highlights the need to better declare and account for military and conflict-related emissions. It shows that military operation emissions in peacetime and war are only partially known, and that no one is taking responsibility for them in the context of the UN climate goals.
"Given that military emissions can reach hundreds of million tonnes of CO2 per year," nations need to "address more transparently" the direct and indirect climate impacts of war, said Michaelowa.
The expected emissions from rebuilding cities destroyed in the Syrian war are equal to the annual greenhouse gas output of Switzerland, notes Michealowa.
Militaries around the world have for decades been concerned that a growing climate crisis will be the key trigger of future conflict, yet they have done little to address their role in exacerbating global heating through fossil fuel burning. Countries have shown little interest in reining in such outsized military emissions.
The European Union, which collectively has the second-largest armed force, only reports some emissions due to national security concerns — indirect emissions generated by the production of military equipment and weapons, for example, are not included. According to a 2021 report by The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), a UK-based monitoring group, UK military emissions alone are at least three times higher than the 11 million tons of CO2 reported in 2018.
While the annual emissions from the US military, the world's largest, are higher than Sweden or Denmark when properly counted, researchers have said. Emitting around 23.5 thousand kilotons of CO2 in 2017, the US war machine is itself estimated to be the single biggest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons on the planet.
Doug Weir, research and policy director at The Conflict and Environment Observatory, refers to the way the conflict has exposed "energy insecurity" and dependence on fossil fuels. Weir noted that military budgets are also often focused on securing fossil fuel supplies, including in Libya where the decadelong conflict has slowed oil production to a trickle. Between 2018 and 2021, Italy, Spain and Germany have spent more than €4 billion on missions that aim to preserve oil and gas supply.
For Stuart Parkinson, a researcher at Scientists for Global Responsibility and a military emissions expert, any war spending is tied up with fossil fuels — including in Ukraine.
"Military spending is carbon intensive because of the fossil-fuel dependence of the military," he said, noting that Russia and Ukraine together accounted for around 3.5% of the $2.1 trillion global total military spend before the war, but that Ukraine has since been given $19 billion in military aid from the US alone. A least eight NATO countries are planning to increase military budgets due to the war, with Germany announcing a €100 billion increase, said Parkinson.
"The increase in military spending will impact on the total military carbon footprint on top of the massive emissions from the war directly," he said.
If compulsory accounting of military emissions could threaten a country's ability to meet its climate targets, "this could have a deterrent effect on aggression," said Axel Michaelowa. "If we have a world that is built on renewable, decentralized energy, there will be less funds for those who want to invade their neighbors,"