The Bartlett


War is bad for the planet too

24 August 2021

Abandoned tank in desert

Amid the hubbub of goals, pledges, commitments, demands, hopes, fears and the ‘race to zero’ in the run-up to COP26, one source of greenhouse gas emissions receives barely a mention: that from military-related activity. We already know that war is a humanitarian catastrophe causing unfathomable suffering, but we must recognise that it is an environmental catastrophe too.

The relationship between climate change and war is a vicious circle. It is now well recognised by major charities, policy makers and senior military personnel that climate change can lead to soil degradation, competition for scarce resources, mass migration and instability, thus greatly multiplying the threat of war. The UK Government’s Integrated Review, published March 2021, recognises that climate change and global health risks are major security issues requiring urgent action. [1]

Still barely acknowledged, though, is the other half of that vicious circle: that war itself contributes significantly to climate change. Scientists for Global Responsibility estimates that around 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions result from military-related activity.[2] This figure covers the whole cycle: extraction of raw materials and manufacture of equipment and weaponry; trials and training with massive fuel use; maintenance of vast numbers of bases and buildings worldwide; use of fuels and explosives in warfare and resulting fires; and, often overlooked, the extensive rebuilding of devastated infrastructure with its reliance on carbon-heavy cement and steel. [3]

Accurate figures are difficult to obtain – often shrouded in secrecy on grounds of ‘security’. Some relevant data is available from manufacturers of military hardware. The Ministry of Defence (MOD), too, in recent years has disclosed a small proportion of its emissions.  Attempts at reduction have mostly concerned 'estates' emissions - installing solar panels on military buildings, changing to electric cars at bases, etc. Minimal mention has been made of ‘operational’ emissions. However, in its March 2021 report, the MOD acknowledges the ‘vicious circle’: The threats of our modern world, made worse by rising seas, extreme weather conditions and creeping desertification, will almost certainly lead to more conflict. More conflict in itself will damage the planet … therefore making it far less likely that we will reach any of the climate change Paris goals’.[4]

It may seem astonishing that there was no mention of these military-related emissions in the COP25 conference programme in Madrid. In fact, the precedent was set at Kyoto in 1997, when it was decided, under pressure from US negotiators, that there would be no obligation on countries to disclose such emissions or include them in reduction targets. Other nations took advantage of this exemption. At the Paris conference in 2015 the rather vague agreement was that countries no longer have automatic exemption from consideration of military emissions but are not obliged to cut them.

So why is it acceptable to ignore these emissions when submitting our Nationally Determined Contribution? The greatest threat facing our planet is the climate crisis: surely we need to know the facts and figures of ALL pollution. “The atmosphere certainly counts the cost of carbon from the military, therefore we must as well” Stephen Kretzmann, then-Director of Oil Change International, told the Guardian.[5]

Counting these emissions, then, is the first hurdle but of course the real goal is reduction. There is no doubt that the MOD is taking the climate crisis very seriously but its solutions lie in increasing the efficiency of the present system: in finding low carbon alternative fuels for war planes, low carbon manufacturing methods in its supply chains etc.

But with a little lateral thinking, alternatives present themselves. Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 2010-2016) and others urge us to regard COP26 as an ‘opportunity’ - to take stock, and welcome ways of doing things differently, more sustainably, to improve all areas of life. The current existential threats we face show clearly that real security has much more to do with human and planetary well-being and international co-operation than with military might. This is the ideal time to question deeply- embedded assumptions about the acceptability, effectiveness and inevitability of armed conflict as a way of resolving disputes. Time to resist the ruthless power and manipulation of the arms industry. Time to divert some of the trillions of dollars of global military spending into (often good value [6]) climate transition needs, including addressing honestly the underlying causes of conflict, and utilising and improving already existing alternative resources and institutions.

Time to demand that COP26 sets limits with no exceptions for military-related emissions, no reliance on offsetting schemes, and a requirement for independent verification. 

Photo by Justin Campbell on Unsplash


[1] HM Government (March 2021) ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’, The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.  Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[2] Parkinson, S. (2020) ‘The Environmental Impacts of the UK Military Sector’, Scientists for Global Responsibility.  SGR-DUK_UK_Military_Env_Impacts.pdf

[3] See also Darbyshire, E. & Weir, D. (2021) ‘How does war contribute to climate change?’, Conflict and Environment Observatory.  How does war contribute to climate change? | CEOBS  and, for a US perspective, Crawford, N.C. (2019) ‘Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change and the Costs of War’. Papers - 2019 - Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War | Costs of War (brown.edu)

[4] Ministry of Defence (March 2021) ‘Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach’.   Ministry of Defence Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[5] The Guardian, 14 Dec 2015. Pentagon to lose emissions exemption under Paris climate deal | COP 21: Paris climate change conference 2015 | The Guardian

[6] International Climate Finance - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)