This is the first blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2022 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, often offering recommendations.
Many highly industrialised countries have been moving towards declaring goals to reach Net Zero emissions by 2050 for a while. For some of them, the fact that militaries are the largest emitters within government – often responsible for more than 50% of emissions - has made them increasingly difficult to ignore, particularly where whole of government targets have been enshrined in law. It should be noted that Net Zero is not a panacea and will likely come too late but the concept has been widely accepted by governments as a safely distant and impressive sounding target.
But this is also a story of individuals. We saw multiple voices within national militaries, and NATO, advocating for change. These are people who could see that the wind is changing, and who could also see that the future of military energy consumption was not going to be one wholly based on fossil fuels. Moreover, Western governments have been orienting towards the security risks of climate change, with actors like NATO keen to play a leading role. However, legitimacy in this space requires that those who seek to lead it aren’t contributing to the problem.
More broadly, militaries reflect the societies that provide them licence to operate. There is a rising tide of concern over climate change and therefore pressure on militaries to be seen to be acting on it, and not just in response to it. And if the policy changes that we saw in 2021 have appeared to be rapid, this should be seen as a reflection of just how far behind the curve militaries have been in this space. They and their political masters had opted to exclude themselves from international efforts to reduce emissions.
The past 12 months have seen a flurry of announcements. In May, NATO members gave the first vague commitments that they would cut military emissions. The UK and Switzerland had already acknowledged that military emissions cuts would be part of their 2050 Net Zero goals. NATO also announced that it would work on an emissions tracking methodology for its members – a good example of how far behind other sectors the military are on cuts. Almost unnoticed during the Glasgow climate summit in November, the U.S. Department of Defense quietly announced that it too would aim to be Net Zero by 2050. NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg had attended its first COP to confirm that global emissions targets would not be met without military emissions being included.
The acknowledgement by states that their militaries are major emitters, and that they cannot be exempt from society-wide decarbonisation feels like a watershed moment. But it is just the first step in what will be a very long and difficult road. Militaries, and the technology companies that support them, are highly polluting industries. Just like cement, steel or aviation, tackling emissions will be a huge challenge. It also carries with it risks. These include military-grade greenwashing when targets can’t be met, increasing military spending to rearm with less polluting vehicles, the temptation to offset difficult emissions instead of reducing them at source, or transitions to costly new synthetic fuels, diverting resources away from other more important reduction pathways.
In 2022, the trends initiated in 2021 will intensify and accelerate. We will see more industrialised countries accept the need for military decarbonisation. Luxembourg’s Green Party defence minister set out his its plans in December, South Korea did likewise, following a pledge made at COP26 in Glasgow. But beyond the headline pledges, the hard work needs to begin to establish expectations and standards on militaries. The historic environmental exceptionalism that kept them out of climate talks, and global environmental norm-setting bodies more generally, will continue. Scrutiny will be needed over how they record and what they report. Transparent data is at the core of any action to reduce emissions, which is why we launched the data portal militaryemissions.org with colleagues from Lancaster and Durham universities at COP26. What we can’t see, they won’t cut, so making emissions reporting open and standardised is a critical first step.
The UK will pass on its COP presidency to Egypt in November 2022. We do not expect them to be overly sympathetic to calls for military emissions to be placed on the formal agenda of COP27. But it is vital that they are. While the U.S.’s massive military expenditure and relative transparency has meant that much of the discourse has focused on the Department of Defense’s gargantuan annual emissions – equivalent to those of Portugal, or Sweden – this is a global problem, and it needs global standards. As we show on militaryemissions.org there are many large military spenders who report very little emissions data, this includes China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel. We hope and expect that 2022 will see increasing attention on their emissions.
Beyond military emissions themselves, we expect to see a steady uptick in attention on the linkages between conventional arms and climate change. We have already documented how the arms industry reports its environmental footprint – more transparently than most militaries, as it turns out – and colleagues at UNIDIR have posed several research questions in this space. But we need to get ahead of this issue. The pledges made in Glasgow are far short of what is needed to slow global heating. The climate crisis will have a massive impact on human security globally and it’s critical that we understand how arms transfers and militarism will be influenced by it, and how they will drive and exacerbate insecurity. We would encourage everyone working in this space to spend a little of 2022 exploring how the issues they work on will be impacted by a hotter, more insecure world, and how they may make that world a more dangerous place.
Doug Weir is the Research and Policy Director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), www.ceobs.org @detoxconflict Find our more about military emissions on CEOBS’ dedicated page www.ceobs.org/projects/military-emissions and explore the military emissions that your government reports to the UN at militaryemissions.org