This Story Original publication: The War Horse.
Neta Crawford, a Boston University professor of political science, prepared to teach a class in climate change. The class was designed to encourage students to think big-picture about the topic. Crawford’s research expertise is in war, so she wanted to include a statistic on the military’s contribution to greenhouse gases.
“I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should just tell them what the emissions are for the U.S. military,’” Crawford says. “It was meant to be a line on a slide in a lecture.”
But when she went to look up the figure, she couldn’t find anything reliable. Instead, she found scattered data that was incomplete and inconsistent about the amount of fuel used by the military and the carbon emissions it produced. The information that did exist largely didn’t include overseas operations, even though the United States had been at war for nearly two decades. Major fuel consumption categories, including much of the fuel used to fly, were missing.
In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol—the world’s first legally binding, international climate treaty—created a reporting loophole for militaries, exempting many of the greenhouse gases emitted during military operations from counting against a country’s emissions totals. While the 2015 Paris Accords did away with this exemption, they didn’t replace it with an obligation. Rather, the decision of whether to report military emissions—and how to calculate them—was left up to individual countries.
The result is a gap in our understanding of the United States’ climate footprint. Crawford, an academic who is now studying the issue, found that the Department of Defense is a major contributor of greenhouse gases. It emits more greenhouse gases than many industrialized countries. The United States—and other countries—have said they are committed to reducing military emissions, and earlier this summer, NATO released its Action Plan on Climate Change and Security, acknowledging that better emissions data would help guide member states’ military planning. However, there is no uniform reporting or methodology for these emissions. As the United States and other countries work toward net-zero emissions by 2050, Crawford and others say, the lack of clear data from the U.S. Defense Department—the world’s largest employer—and other militaries is a major stumbling block.
“We’ve got these kind of just little fragmentary bits of information and data about how big this problem is,” says Doug Weir, the research and policy director for the U.K.-based Conflict and Environment Observatory, which studies and works to reduce the environmental consequences of military activity. “Until states actually start reporting it, then you can’t really do anything about it.”
At the end of an all-night session that ended in December 1997, the U.S. negotiators put forward one final demand at the conclusion of negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol. The final draft of the climate agreement included two sentences that exempted emissions from multilateral operations—activities that involve more than two countries—and from ships and aircraft involved in international transport. That meant that much of the carbon emitted during U.S. military operations overseas would not need to be tracked and reported to the United Nations—which was effectively the negotiators’ goal. In testimony to Congress on the Kyoto negotiations, the U.S. lead negotiator, Stuart Eizenstat, stated, “We achieved everything [the Department of Defense] outlined as necessary to protect military operations and our national security.” (In the same hearing, Sen. John Kerry, now the U.S special presidential envoy for climate, praised Eizenstat, saying, “I thought it was a terrific job, and I thank you for it.”)
Ultimately, the United States never even ratified the Kyoto Protocol—largely because of concerns that countries such as India and China weren’t required to reduce emissions—but the damage was done. The U.S. military did not have to develop a method for tracking its carbon emissions. Military personnel from other countries who ratified the treaty remained largely exempted.
Nearly twenty years later, the 2015 Paris climate agreement ended the automatic exemption for military emissions. Now, the choice of whether or not to report those emissions—and what, exactly, to report if a country chooses to do so—is left up to individual governments. It is not yet clear what the full picture of military emissions from the United States or other countries looks like.
“The level of reporting between countries varies a lot,” says Linsey Cottrell, the environmental policy officer at the Conflict and Environment Observatory. “Sometimes reporting is not occurring, [or] it’s reported elsewhere. So it’s hard to determine what contribution the military makes to the overall totals.”
The United States does report military emissions to the United Nations—sort of. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that military emissions, if reported, should be included in a category marked “nonspecified.” That same category also includes things like civilian waste incineration, so it’s essentially impossible to parse out which specific emissions come from military sources. And certain major military sources of emissions—like fuel during multilateral operations—are listed in the United States’ reporting as “included elsewhere,” though it’s unclear where. Other categories of military fuel consumption aren’t reported at all.
“It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Crawford says. “And some of the puzzle pieces are in different units and forms.”
Crawford’s hunt for a clear statistic on military emissions to show her class led her to a new research focus: trying to puzzle out just how much fuel the U.S. military consumes and thus how much carbon it emits. Crawford discovered that the U.S. army is a major polluter using Department of Energy data. The military has emitted more than 1.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses since 2001, which was the start of the Global War on Terror. Crawford acknowledges her data is likely incomplete—but even with the available data, she found that the U.S. military emits more than entire countries like Portugal and Denmark, and that the Department of Defense accounts for nearly 80% of the federal government’s fuel consumption.
Some of this is because the U.S military owns a lot of property—and has a lot of buildings to heat and power. The Defense Department had approximately 585,000 facilities in 2018, spread across 27 million acres in 160 countries. Each of these buildings emit greenhouse gases; in 2013, Crawford’s report found, the Pentagon building itself emitted more than 24,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Crawford found that installations account roughly for a third of the Defense Department’s energy consumption. The overall number has decreased slowly over the last decade due to energy initiatives within the service branches.
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The vast majority of military emissions come from operations—moving people and things around. The workhorse equipment needed to accomplish this task, particularly when it’s built to withstand combat, can be notoriously inefficient, Crawford’s report notes. Even unarmored vehicles can guzzle gas. A Humvee averages between four and eight miles per gallon. Aircraft are the most fuel-hungry equipment within the military. About 70 million gallons of jet fuel were actually purchased by the Defense Logistics Agency out of 100 million gallons.
But the United States’ reporting of military fuel consumption omits much of the fuel used to power aircraft and ships, particularly those operating overseas. The government’s own description of how it calculates international military transportation fuel for greenhouse gas emissions specifies that all Army and most Marine Corps fuel, and any fuel delivered outside of the United States, not be counted. Crawford states that this results in huge gaps in reporting.
“You have to count it,” Crawford says. “Jet fuel is the biggest greenhouse gas from the military.”
Take the F-35, DOD’s controversial replacement for the F-16. According to Dagsavisen, a Norwegian newspaper, the new plane uses more fuel than its predecessor. The F-35 burns approximately 5,600 liters per hour, while the F-16 consumes 3,500 liters. Environmentalists in Norway have protested the purchase. Crawford calculated that the Air Force’s version of the plane, the F-35A, gets about 2.37 gallons per nautical mile. Note that’s not miles per gallon—that’s 2.37 gallons of fuel burned for every mile traveled. One plane can produce nearly 28 metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent per tank of gas. The United States plans to buy close to 2,500 of the planes, with the expectation that they’ll fly until at least 2070.
It is a common practice to purchase military equipment with the understanding it will be around for a long period of time. This, critics claim, contributes significantly to the difficulty of reducing military carbon emissions.
“They can’t just switch off [the F-35 program],” says Oliver Belcher, a professor at Durham University who has studied military emissions by tracking Defense Logistics Agency fuel purchases. “Despite these sort of pronouncements to green the military and all the rest of it, every major weapon system developed, from fighter jets to aircraft carriers to you name it, is extremely carbon-intensive. … Weapons systems lock in certain carbon-intensive technologies.”
There are many moving parts that make it difficult to track military emissions. Military operations are a complex bureaucratic system that has people and things constantly moving in different directions.
“When you’re in a theater of operations, there isn’t somebody there who’s accounting for every single bit of, this Humvee goes here, and that Humvee goes there,” Belcher says. “[It’s] extremely difficult to keep track of.”
Belcher’s research works to develop better methodologies for tracking and estimating military emissions. He’s not the only one. NATO announced last summer in its climate change action plan that it would develop a method to help member countries calculate their military emission. It also floated the possibility of helping member nations develop targets for military emissions reductions—though it noted that any reduction targets would be voluntary.
Weir was skeptical that the plan would include comprehensive emission accounting. He says that any mention of reducing military emission is welcome. “The fact is it’s on the agenda. It’s being talked about.”
Militaries are paying attention. Last month, the head of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, Sir Mike Wigston, announced plans for the service to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, a decade earlier than the United Kingdom has legally committed to reach net zero across the country. He stressed the importance of sourcing fuel from more sustainable sources such as ethanol or recycled oil and the creation of zero-emission aircraft before the end if the decade is over.
“I’ve been working on these issues for quite a long time,” Weir says. “The change in dynamic around this topic over the last 18 months has been pretty astonishing.”
In early November, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said President Joe Biden’s goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would affect the Defense Department. “The department is committed to meeting the challenge, by making significant changes in our use of energy and increasing our investments in clean energy technology,” she said. Hicks highlighted a more sustainable supply chain, as well as a zero-emissions nontactical vehicle fleet and hybrid-electric tactical vehicles, as among the department’s goals. “As a nation and a department, we must do our part to mitigate climate change itself.”
Crawford, Weir, Belcher, and Cottrell met in Glasgow at COP26 to discuss the state and future of military emissions. The panel discussion was held in an Arctic tent in the city. The site pulls government reporting on countries’ military emissions, as well as data like gross domestic product and military expenditure, into one database to make comparisons between countries easier and to show more clearly the state of reporting.
Although military emissions were not on the formal agenda at the United Nations meeting, more than 200 civil society organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, signed on to the Conflict and Environment Observatory’s call for governments to commit to meaningful emissions reductions ahead of the summit. Climate activists called out the U.S. army for its role on climate change during protests at COP26.
“Not only have Western-induced wars led to the spikes in the carbon emissions, they have led to use of depleted uranium and they have caused poisoning of air and water,” Ayisha Siddiqa, a Pakistani climate activist, told a crowd during a youth protest.
“What we’re trying to do at COP26 is really get this on the agenda for COP27,” Belcher says.
Crawford and Belcher say that the military is serious about climate change and acknowledge some of its green initiatives. But they argue that in the absence of reporting requirements, there’s a lack of real accountability. That makes it easy to avoid confronting some of the tougher questions about military operations and climate change—things like continued investment in carbon-intensive technologies, or “national security” as an automatic trump card.
Crawford says that in the face a global crisis, it is a mistake to not think through these trade-offs fully. “You have to start questioning everything,” she says. “We don’t have time to have unquestioned assumptions.”
Sonner Kehrt reported this War Horse feature. Kelly Kennedy edited the story, Ben Kalin fact-checked it, and Mitchell Hansen-Dewar copied it. Kehrt is based out of California. Kehrt’s work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Wired Magazine and The Verge. She studied government at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and served for five years as a Coast Guard officer before earning a master’s in democracy studies from Georgetown University and a master’s of journalism degree from UC Berkeley.
Source: Inside Climate News