The military needs to be included in climate agreements but the military cannot be greenwashed

By Katrin Geyer
6 November 2021

As the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is in full swing in Glasgow, pressure is mounting for military pollution to be included in climate agreements.

While the failure of recognising militaries as greenhouse gas emitters requires urgent rectification, “greening the military“ will not be enough to address and mitigate the ecological crisis.

The military-industrial complex has grave impacts on the environment

The military-industrial complex is one of the greatest contributors to the climate crisis and environmental destruction. If it were a country, the United States military’s emissions alone would make it the world’s 55th largest contributor.

But it’s not only energy consumption used for using and moving troops and weapons that have devastating impacts on the climate. The impact goes far beyond it. The entire lifecycle of weapons’ production, testing, and use, from small arms to explosive or nuclear weapons, have huge repercussions for biodiversity, soil, groundwater, and air. The ever-increasing military expenditure, skyrocketing in 2020 to almost $2 trillion, diverts crucial resources for ecological regeneration and climate change mitigation, food security, housing, and healthcare.

However, most governments refuse to connect the dots between military activity and environmental impacts. “The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change obliges signatories to publish annual GHG emissions, but military emissions reporting is voluntary and often not included,” observes the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) in its call for action. Similarly, the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International that just recently concluded its annual five-week session, has not yet shown any signs of meaningfully integrating ecological considerations into its work on disarmament and arms control.

Pressure is mounting

Today, 6 November 2021 is the annual International Day for the Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Along with a flurry of activities at the margins of COP26, there is real momentum building around calls for accountability of militaries’ environmental impacts.

WILPF joined CEOBS’ call for action urging parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement to commit to reducing their militaries’ greenhouse gas emissions. The call is endorsed by 215 organisations, and counting. Similarly, a petition by World Beyond War has gathered over 26,500 signatures, calling for an end to the exclusion of military pollution in climate agreements.

It appears that the message has already reached crucial stakeholders. For example, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of the military alliance North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) asserts in an interview during COP26 that “there is no way to reach net zero without also including emissions from the military.”

The risks of greenwashing the military

WILPF welcomes that the military’s environmental impacts are increasingly brought out of the shadows, and into the spotlight. There are, however, significant risks of governments, and military alliances such as NATO, legitimising their continued existence as violent, patriarchal, and oppressive institutions by following the latest trend of going green.

It is reasonable to expect that most militaries would merely attempt to greenwash their activities, instead of meaningfully reducing their impact. For example, achieving “net zero” as touted by many governments, corporations, and NATO as the solution to the climate crisis, is, in fact, exceptionally misguided, perpetuating the belief that technology and a few additional tree plantations will solve this crisis.

“Net zero” is not the answer to the ecological crisis. Nor is the answer for the US military to use solar panels or biodegradable bullets to power its death machinery, for the British army to explore alternative fuels, or for Spain to plant trees on military land to capture carbon.

In the same way that we have seen the military-industrial complex co-opt the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, such as NATO priding itself on championing gender equality and diversity whilst maintaining a patriarchal, militarised approach to the world, it is likely the same actors will now co-opt sincere calls and proposed solutions to the climate crisis to maintain the status quo.

We at WILPF reiterate our view that it is not enough to green the military-industrial complex. Its raison d’être is based upon violence, oppression, and extraction, and as long as these institutions exist, the earth will not be able to regenerate and heal. Demilitarisation, disarmament, decolonisation, and decarbonisation are needed now!