While Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has led to widespread misery, death and destruction, its far-reaching climate impacts are less well known.
The billions of dollars in weapons, jets, tanks and trucks powering the protracted conflict contribute to direct emissions that, amid the fog of battle, remain difficult to quantify — and are not included in the Paris target of limit heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit).
But by triggering a global energy crisis, the war in Ukraine also poses an indirect threat to global climate goals.
The conflict has exposed the world’s reliance on oil and gas that also finances Russia’s war machine. While Western countries are looking for alternatives, many are leaning towards even more polluting energy sources.
For example, instead of accelerating the transition to renewables, the European Union plans to replace some of its Russian gas with fracked, zero-emission “freedom” gas from the US. Some fear a fossil fuel lock-in as countries like Germany strive to intensify the use of coal to help cope with the energy crisis.
War risks climate goals
World leaders will finally face the climate impact of conflict as they attend the G7 summit in Germany on June 26, said Axel Michaelowa, senior founder of Germany-based climate consultancy Perspectives Climate Group.
“The G7 is now grappling with the indirect energy-related effects [of the war]”They make it more difficult for the G7 to meet the climate goals under the Paris agreement,” he said.
Could Germany’s coal phase-out be delayed if Europe turns its back on Russian fossil fuels?
Michaelowa is the lead author of a report, released at last week’s climate conference in Bonn, Germany, that highlights the need to better declare and account for military and conflict-related emissions.
It shows that emissions from military operations in peacetime and war are only partly known and that nobody takes responsibility for them in the context of the UN climate goals.
“Since military emissions can reach hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 per year,” countries need to be more “transparent” about the direct and indirect climate effects of war, Michaelowa said.
One suggestion is to include all military emissions in a “global inventory” of greenhouse gases to be completed at the COP28 climate conference in November. Another suggestion is that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which manages global climate goals, remotely monitors the “intensive destruction of carbon sinks” during war, such as fuel deposits, cities and wildfires.
Carbon ‘bootprint’ is not reported
While militaries around the world have worried for decades that a growing climate crisis will be the leading cause of future conflict, they have done little to address their role in exacerbating global warming from burning fossil fuels.
The European Union, which together has the second largest armed force, only reports a few emissions due to national security concerns — indirect emissions generated from the production of military equipment and weapons, for example, are not included.
According to a 2021 report from The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), a UK-based monitoring group, UK military emissions alone are at least three times higher than the 11 million tons of CO2 reported in 2018.
Meanwhile, the US military’s annual emissions, the world’s largest, are higher than Sweden or Denmark if counted correctly, researchers say. The US war machine emitted about 23.5 thousand kilotons of CO2 in 2017 and is itself estimated to be the largest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons in the world.
But the call for transparency has been low.
According to one estimate, the thousands of oil wells burned during the 1991 Gulf War accounted for 2-3% of global emissions. Yet countries have shown little interest in curbing such excessive military emissions.
More recently, that has changed: NATO is urging member states to become climate neutral by 2050.
CEOBS released a report this week showing that regular and transparent reporting on all direct and indirect emissions will be vital to achieving NATO’s goal of zero – this includes “Scope 3” emissions such as post-war reconstruction.
Projected emissions from rebuilding cities destroyed in the Syrian war are equivalent to Switzerland’s annual greenhouse gas production, notes Michealowa.
Cost of war: Rebuilding destroyed cities like Aleppo in Syria will lead to high emissions
War in Ukraine Refocuses Military Emissions
The war in Ukraine has led to a growing awareness of military emissions.
“It’s the first time the media has asked me about the climate impact of war,” said Doug Weir, director of research and policy at The Conflict and Environment Observatory, referring to how the conflict has exposed “energy insecurity” and dependence on fossil fuels. . †
Weir noted that military budgets also often focus on securing fossil fuel supplies, including in Libya, where the decade-long conflict has slowed oil production to a trickle.
According to Greenpeace, Italy, Spain and Germany spent more than €4 billion between 2018 and 2021 on missions aimed at preserving oil and gas supplies.
For Stuart Parkinson, a scientist at Scientists for Global Responsibility and a military emissions expert, all war spending is tied to fossil fuels — including in Ukraine.
“Military spending is carbon-intensive because of the military’s reliance on fossil fuels,” he said, pointing out that Russia and Ukraine together accounted for about 3.5% of the total $2.1 trillion military expenditure before the war, but Ukraine has since given US$19 billion in military aid alone.
At least eight NATO countries are planning to increase military budgets because of the war, with Germany announcing a $100 billion increase, Parkinson said.
“The increase in military spending will directly affect the overall military carbon footprint, on top of the massive emissions from the war,” he said.
Climate transparency can bring peace
While the idea of wars for oil is not new, climate change is adding a new dimension to the link between the military and fossil fuels.
If mandatory accounting for military emissions could threaten a country’s ability to meet its climate goals, “it could have a deterrent effect on aggression,” Axel Michaelowa said.
The logic is that action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require a full energy transition through renewables, meaning less money will be made from fossil fuel exports that can be reinvested in large war machines – and conflicts.
“If we have a world built on renewable, decentralized energy, there will be fewer resources for those who want to invade their neighbors,” Michaelowa added.
Edited by: Jennifer Collins