War brings death and destruction – not least for the environment and climate. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a depressing reminder of this fact and further increases the military sector’s already enormous global carbon footprint. In addition, the eastern Ukrainian cities where fighting is taking place are home to fossil fuel infrastructure such as chemical plants, oil refineries and coal mines, the bombing of which produces a cocktail of toxic substances with devastating effects on the environment. Efforts to arm both sides are also consuming materials and resources that could otherwise be used to address the climate crisis.
Based on global C02Humanity has less than eight years to ensure it still achieves its 1.5 degree warming target. To do this, we urgently need to implement reforms in all areas to bring about “systemic change”, as the IPCC report from early April put it. However, the military sector is barely mentioned in this nearly 3,000-page document, as the word “military” appears only six times. From this one could conclude that the sector is of little importance for the climate emergency.
The reality is different. The use of military hardware causes enormous amounts of emissions. The war in Ukraine saw 36 Russian attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure in the first five weeks alone, resulting in sustained fires releasing soot particles, methane and CO2 into the atmosphere, while oil infrastructure was also ablaze on the Russian side . The oil fields burned in 1991 during the second Gulf War contributed 2 percent of global emissions that year.
While greenhouse gas emissions are one of the most significant impacts of war, the amount emitted depends on the duration of the conflict and what tanks, trucks, and planes are used. Another reason is the pollution of ecosystems that bind CO2. Employees of the Ukrainian Environmental Inspectorate are currently collecting water and soil samples in the vicinity of industrial plants that were shelled.
The effects on the climate can be catastrophic. This is the result of a study by the organization oil change International, The Iraq war was responsible for 141 million tons of CO2equivalent emissions between its outbreak in 2003 and the publication of the report in 2008. For comparison, around 21 EU Member States emit less CO2Equivalent in 2019, with only six states surpassing that number.
It is estimated that the military sector causes around six percent of all CO2 worldwideemissions.
Post-war reconstruction also causes significant emissions. It is estimated that reconstruction in Syria will result in 22 million tons of CO2 emissions. Reconstruction in Ukraine will also consume vast amounts of resources. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, President Volodymyr Zelenskyj declared that at least 5 billion US dollars in reconstruction funds would be needed every month. Therefore, every effort should be made to reach an immediate ceasefire – both for the sake of the climate and to avoid further human suffering.
Emissions from armed forces and military equipment cause significant environmental damage worldwide. Nonetheless, under pressure from the US, military CO2 emissions have been exempted from climate treaties such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. They are therefore not part of their binding agreements and are not systematically collected or published transparently. The resulting lack of data means we can only provide vague estimates of the military sector’s impact on global warming.
According to a study by Neta Crawford, co-director of the cost of war project at University of Brown, the US Department of Defense alone contributes more to the climate crisis than individual countries such as Sweden or Portugal. This makes it the largest institutional source of greenhouse gases worldwide. It is estimated that the military sector causes around six percent of all CO2 worldwideemissions.
With its new 100 billion euro fund for the military, Germany seems ready to accept further far-reaching climate impacts. This military investment ties up financial and intellectual resources and makes reaching the 1.5 degree target highly unlikely. It is understandable that countries want to protect themselves better against possible Russian aggression. But the public debate on this issue must balance an uncertain increase in security against a reduction in our ability to combat climate change.
In 2019, the Bundeswehr was already responsible for around 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents, significantly more than the 2.5 million tonnes contributed by civil aviation within Germany. This should now increase. Just one of the F-35 jets ordered from Lockheed Martin emits around 28 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per tank of fuel. For comparison: The average annual emissions footprint in Germany is 11.2 tons per capita.
Proceeds from the sale of fossil fuels are used to fund Russia’s ongoing war of aggression. From February 24 to April 24, 2022, the country’s fossil fuel exports via sea routes and pipelines were worth an estimated 58 billion euros. Of this, the EU accounts for 70 percent or €39 billion, while Germany is the largest single importer of Russian fossil fuels at €8.3 billion. Our dependence on fossil fuels is thus a factor in both the climate crisis and the invasion of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, representatives of politics and business use the war as an excuse to delay the necessary socio-ecological transformation. As corporations stuck in the fossil-fuel age — like BP, Shell, and Saudi-Aramco — post record profits, the climate crisis continues to unfold.
More weapons mean more climate damage, not more security.
The likes of Rheinmetall and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg may advocate climate-neutral warfare using green tanks and hydrogen for fuel, but that’s certainly not the answer. Western armed forces, security experts and weapons manufacturers are aware of the importance of climate change, as evidenced by numerous security strategies, policy statements and sustainability reports on the subject in recent years. These outline ways of adapting to a changing climate and ensure that the doctrines of growth and hegemony are nonetheless defended against all odds.
Together with the EU and NATO, Germany is preparing for scenarios such as war, environmental catastrophe and refugee flows in order to continue pursuing its foreign policy and safeguarding its security interests. A cynical approach, considering that those who have contributed the least to global warming will be hit the hardest – those who some say Germany needs to be protected from. And one that seems even more absurd considering that environmental degradation from military investment and resource conflicts will help further heat the climate.
At the same time, steps are being taken to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Nevertheless, a Greenpeace report published last year shows that the majority of all EU military operations are related to protecting oil and gas imports. This dangerous relationship between fossil fuels, military action and war must end.
More weapons mean more climate damage, not more security. Rising NATO defense budgets will only persuade Russia and China to increase military investment themselves. At $2.1 trillion, global arms spending has already reached record highs.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, the biggest challenge of the 21st century – the climate crisis – has slipped down the agenda. However, we must not forget that efforts to deal with this crisis can only be successful if all countries, including Russia, work together. The immediate demand is a ceasefire, followed by confidence-building measures such as international disarmament treaties. In addition, Russia will be dependent on outside help in the transition to a climate-friendly energy economy. What is needed is a fundamental socio-ecological transformation in which politics is geared towards the needs of all. This may seem unthinkable at the moment, but what is the alternative? Unchecked global warming would be catastrophic for the entire population of the planet.