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War’s climate costs hidden from IPCC

In This Week in Climate, we look at the military emissions gap in the IPCC report
Julian Moore
Mar 28, 2023 10 min read
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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its summary report this week and the bottom line has a familiar ring: the situation is dire, we have the technology to make a big difference, but institutions have to act now.

The synthesis of the Sixth Report analyzed five years of previous reports on climate impacts, global temperature rises and fossil fuel emissions. The final product provides a lucid picture of the state of the climate but has some familiar warts.

Among several shortcomings of the IPCC publication process are the persistent influence of petrostates, and other interested parties, in attenuating language around emissions goals– and this edition was no exception.

One graph in particular has become the social media star of the report:

The figure gives an intuitive sense of just how drastic our emission cuts have to be to get from here to a livable future, but it still doesn’t tell the whole story.

Buried in a footnote was a little clause that pointed out a stark reality: despite the progress made in recent years, even low-emission scenarios levels could result in more than 4°C if feedback loops kick in sooner than the worst-case scenario.

(Reminder: a >4 degree scenario would not make everything four degrees hotter– it would turn most regions of the planet into a hellscape and send humanity much further in the Mad Max direction.)

Still, the solutions-oriented mind will look at the same picture and wonder where the biggest opportunities lie for impact.

That’s why now might be an appropriate time to remember that the IPCC does not account for the emissions from the world’s military operations, estimated to make up a solid 5-6% of the world’s total carbon pollution.

That accounts for a massive emissions gap in the scenarios based on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which could drive a wedge even further between our most optimistic climate scenarios and the reality that lies ahead.

Given the stakes, the time has come to take a serious look at how much longer the planet can afford to keep the carbon impacts of war in the shadows.

The Military Carbon Complex

Carbon emissions stemming from military activity have largely been a mystery since 1997, when the United States successfully lobbied to have them excluded from the Kyoto Protocols. The argument then was that disclosures of military energy use could present a national security concern. Beyond that age-old excuse was a shared feeling that countries should not be pressured to limit their national defense capabilities for the sake of a distant problem.

That blanket exclusion ended with the 2015 Paris Accords, which made military emissions reports voluntary, although few countries have followed up with reports on the carbon intensity of armed forces.

In fact, under Paris, only 43 countries (known as Annex-1 countries) are obligated to submit their national yearly emissions, so even if military carbon accounting was mandatory, countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia would still be excluded.

Finally, even countries that do report their military emissions, such as Canada, often mix them in with civilian activities and keep covert operations out.

The Case of Ukraine

Unfortunately, a real-time case study on military emissions is unfolding in Ukraine.

One group of researchers has compiled an extensive study on the war’s carbon impact, and puts the current total at 155 million metric tons (on par with the Netherlands annual emissions). Their analysis studies everything from fuel used in combat operations, to the estimated 48,670 tons of CO2e emissions resulting from concrete production to rebuild devastated cities.

Zoom out from the battlefield, and the climate impact of the Ukraine war is more nuanced.

Energy politics are one of the key reasons behind the war in Ukraine, and Europe has responded to Russia’s aggression by pledging to replace Russian gas with renewables. Those decisions will help set Europe on a low-carbon path and indeed, heat pump sales have exploded in Europe while energy consumption has gone down on the strength of a curiously warm European winter.

Those are positive trends, but even a thoroughly data-driven estimate on Ukraine emissions doesn’t account for the war’s far-reaching geopolitical effects that impact the climate.

American and European participation in Ukraine has put China on guard over its claim to sovereignty in Taiwan. The United States has promised to commit armed forces to Taiwan if China were to launch an incursion on the island and in light of America’s commitment to Ukraine, there’s an increased awareness in Beijing that the potential for conflict is real.

Consequently, China has ramped up its military exercises around the island of Taiwan. Those exercises will entail unreported emissions, as will the American shows of force that have and will come in response.

Mutually Assured Decarbonization

Wars have many unintended consequences, and local climate solutions are one of them.

From the rubble in Ukraine, one company is trying to recycle some of the millions of tons of concrete waste produced by widespread shelling. They’re expecting a shipment of new solar-powered cement separators developed in the Netherlands that could put a dent in demand for new cement.

On-the-ground efforts like these are an admirable show of human hardiness, but obviously won’t come close to tapering the carbon intensity of an increasingly militarized planet. Bringing military emissions down will ultimately depend on getting countries to decarbonize without feeling that they are setting themselves up to be taken advantage of by geopolitical foes.

One solution might lie in recent history.

Throughout the Atomic Age, the prospect of nuclear war threatened to annihilate the human population if it was ever carried out. One of the principal reasons the threat never materialized was that the United States and USSR understood the endgame of a nuclear exchange would be mutually assured destruction for both sides.

If there’s one thing this week’s IPCC report makes clear, it's that carrying on on our current path will create an unstable climate for every corner of the globe. The ensuing destruction for all nations will lock in more global conflicts and wars, each rendering further devastation and contributing to the climate crisis.

Seen this way, carbon-intensive military maneuvers are in direct conflict with near-term security goals for everyone involved. Every militarized conflict resolved diplomatically avoids carbon emissions that would otherwise contribute to the resource wars of the future.

A more straightforward first step might also be simply pledging to disclose the true extent of military emissions. Doing either or both would help keep emissions scenarios in closer touch with reality and could also provide the world’s militaries with an incentive to innovate in climate tech.

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The Author

Julian Moore