Scorched earth: the war in Ukraine also weighs heavily on the climate
The war in Ukraine has shown the heavy toll military conflict takes not only on people but also on the planet, experts at the UN climate summit in Egypt said.
From emissions caused by diesel-powered tanks, fighter jets and missile explosions to urban and forest fires and massive waves of refugees, the conflict has also spewed huge amounts of greenhouse gases.
“This is a big emissions field and nobody has really tackled this problem,” said Axel Michaelowa, director of the University of Zurich’s international climate policy research group.
Russia’s invasion has plunged Ukraine into misery, heightened geopolitical tensions, driven up global energy and food prices, and distracted the global community from the urgent need for climate action.
A rapidly warming world “cannot afford a single shot”, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told COP27, arguing that the aggressors are “destroying the world’s ability to work together for a common goal”.
But aside from these massive global shockwaves, the actual carbon footprint of war – and peacetime armies – is also huge, experts said, while acknowledging that they so far lack precise data.
According to a commentary published in the journal Nature last week, estimates of global warming emissions from global militaries are between 1 and 5 percent of the global total.
This can be compared to shipping or aviation – both around 2%, according to the paper led by UK researchers.
If the US military, the world’s biggest spender, were a country, it would have the highest per capita emissions in the world, at 42 tons of CO2 equivalent per member of its personnel.
When one of its F-35 fighter jets travels 100 nautical miles, it releases as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the average British petrol car does in a year, the experts wrote.
“Past and Present Conflicts”
Ukraine has started to calculate the emissions directly and indirectly linked to the invasion launched by Russia on February 24, a first for a country at war.
Fires in buildings, forests and fields have sent 23.8 million tons of CO2 equivalent into the sky, and the fighting itself 8.9 million tons, according to the project titled Initiative on GHG Accounting of War. .
The displacement of people caused 1.4 million tons, said the project created two months into the war, while rebuilding destroyed infrastructure will result in an additional 48.7 million tons of carbon emissions.
The total rises to almost 83 million tonnes as a direct result of the war, now in its eighth month – compared to around 100 million tonnes produced from all sources by the Netherlands during the same period, depending on initiative.
“It shows us how much we miss other conflicts past and present,” said Deborah Burton, co-founder of the group Tipping Point North South. “We haven’t had that level of detail on Iraq or Syria or other conflicts.”
The authors of the Nature commentary argued that it was high time to address the issue.
“Why are the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and United Nations climate summits silent on military emissions? ” they wrote.
“The short answer is politics and lack of expertise.”
Ukraine’s project aims to address this “sort of blind spot” in calculating global emissions, said Lennard de Klerk, a private-sector carbon emissions expert who was involved in the initiative.
Nature’s commentary experts hope that COP27 and next year’s climate conference in Dubai will bring “opportunities to formalize this change”.
“The best step in our opinion would be to bring this directly to the IPCC process,” Michaelowa told AFP.
“The challenge is that military data is generally kept confidential, but there are opportunities to find proxies.
“You know which planes are operating in which area, you have an idea of the intensity of emissions from certain types of vehicles,” Michaelowa explained.
“So by using proxy data, you should be able to have estimates of military emissions that are at least accurate to the plus or minus 10-20% level.”
The Nature authors argued that carbon emissions “must be officially recognized and accurately reported in national inventories, and military operations must be decarbonized.”
“Military broadcasts must be put on the global agenda.”