Uncle Sam’s Carbon Footprint: The Military’s Role in Pollution

About those emissions

Militaries are some of the biggest polluters, ever. The defence industry is sometimes referred to as the “war machine”, and like a machine, armies worldwide rely on fuel to operate. Especially the U.S. military has a particularly bad track record when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. This is unsurprising given its enormous size; the U.S.’s military budget is currently around 700 billion dollars yearly. Which is more than the spending of the next 8 countries combined (which includes Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK and Germany). Besides its enormous spending, the U.S. military is also a global affair. It has around 800 established foreign bases worldwide.

Collateral Damages

What’s more, is that this use of fuel is actually a large cause of casualties. Transporting oil is a big task. To do so, many armies use large convoys of trucks and cars to transport the oil between bases.

So… Why Oil?

Eugene Gholz, a professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, said that: “for a long time oil has played a special role in military history and American foreign policy […] to fight you need access to oil”. And arguably: to have access to oil you need to fight.

The shift: Kyoto Protocol

In 1992, the United Nations member states came together in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Kyoto Protocol. Via: WIRED

The first issues

During a speech Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, celebrated the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. “This is a great stride forward in our struggle to confront one of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century: climate change […] climate change is a global problem, it requires a global response”. And there were lots of reasons to celebrate, because the Kyoto Protocol introduced something new: reporting on progress and emissions to keep track of how countries were doing with regards to their goals. This reporting part is extremely important, because, for the first time, countries were pushed to report on their emissions — much like accountants do — and be accountable for these emissions.

The COMPASS Letter

According to U.S. Senate documents, a committee known as the “Committee to Preserve Security and Sovereignty” (also known as COMPASS) — wrote a letter to Clinton before the talks about the Kyoto Protocol, saying that: “the treaty will hamstring American military operations around the world and would lead to the creation of a ‘Climate Change Secretariat,’ which would usurp the authority of elected local, state and federal governments”. Though very little is known about this letter, or the committee that sent it to Clinton, we do know that the people who signed the letter were former national security personnel Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Cheney and Caspar Weinberger.

The U.S. Signing

Though we can’t be sure what impact this COMPASS letter may have had, we do know that ultimately the military was exempted from the Kyoto protocol. As Eizenstat put it: “yes, the military will be protected. We would not have wanted Kyoto to tell our military or anybody else what to do”. This means that even now in 2021 we aren’t sure how much the U.S., or many other militaries contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. More than that, though the U.S. did sign the Kyoto protocol, they are the only signatory that has never ratified it. Which means that the U.S. never implemented any of the steps or actions listed in the protocol. The reason why the U.S. never ratified the protocol is because it was seen as a threat to the U.S. economy, and like the efforts that needed to be made by the U.S. was too much in comparison to developing nations like China and India.

What next?

In 2015 the Kyoto Protocol was followed up by the Paris Agreement, which is the bigger and better big brother to the Kyoto Protocol. For the first time all countries were unified in one single agreement and it was even harsher when it came to cutting out greenhouse gases from countries’s diets. Like the Kyoto protocol, countries set individual goals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. With the Paris Agreement, countries are not obliged to reduce their military emissions but the exemption is no longer automatic in the calculations.

Joe Biden signing the Paris Agreement. Via: BBC

Open Source Investigations on International affairs, technology and women in the world