COPS26 and Military Emissions Cuts: Where Do We Go from Here?

December 3rd, 2021 - by Doug Weir / The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS)

2021 saw a huge increase in concern over
military emissions but how do we build on this?

Doug Weir / The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS)

Greening militaries, or less environmentally destructive militaries?
Will the COP26 climate summit go down in history as the point
where the dial shifted on military greenhouse gas emissions?
Perhaps not the COP itself, but 2021 probably will.

(December 2, 2021) — It’s been an extraordinary year for the campaign to hold militaries accountable for their contribution to the climate emergency, in this post Doug Weir takes stock of where we are, and how we can build on the achievements of COP26.

Nearly a quarter of a century on from the US’s insistence that military emissions be excluded from the Kyoto Protocol, 2021 was the year when the terms of the debate changed. Instead of it just being activists calling for change, as had hitherto been the case, in 2021 militaries began to publicly acknowledge that they needed to act.

For some countries, like the UK and Switzerland, the adoption of domestic Net Zero targets in law was a major motivating factor. For NATO, a contribution of leadership from its Secretary General and the encouragement of some of its members. For the US – by far the largest contributor to global military emissions – the change in leadership in the White House set the tone for the confirmation on November 8th that the Department of Defense would work towards becoming Net Zero by 2050.

Military engagement on environmental policy is not new but the landscape around the debate on military greenhouse gas emissions is changing rapidly, and this will present civil society with challenges. It is clear that militarism, and the grotesque expenditure and consumption it demands, are inimical to sustainable development. COP26 concluded without the $100 billion pledge in annual climate finance for the poorest countries being met, yet in 2020, annual global military spending increased to 20 times that sum.

Equally, militaries and conflict will never be “green” in any meaningful sense of the word. But in the face of a climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity, and a global pollution crisis, militaries and the industries that support them can take steps to be less environmentally damaging, and be held accountable for harm caused.

The Role of Civil Society

As civil society, we must decide whether the urgency of these triple environmental crises justifies advocacy to reduce military harm in the short to medium term. If it does, then we have an important role to play in defining the environmental boundaries within which militaries operate, and in scrutinising and challenging their activities.

The “Net Zero” targets are a very clear example of why engaged and independent voices are needed. The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) has pledged to be Net Zero by 2040. The goal is welcome but extremely ambitious, with a heavy reliance on swift advances in technology. It could easily become a recipe for greenwashing if not done transparently, and if the ambition eclipses the reality of the structural changes that are needed.

These policies need to be scrutinised. A global military shift from fossil jet fuels to biofuels risks taking up land that could be used for food production, driving deforestation and biodiversity loss and releasing carbon due to land use changes. Meanwhile synthetic jet fuel, as proposed by the RAF, is produced from carbon dioxide and hydrogen using renewable energy, but for now remains very expensive and has limited availability. Similarly, how much reliance will militaries chasing Net Zero place on offsets, rather than emissions reductions at source? And how will military emissions be recorded and reported, and how open will militaries be to public scrutiny?

In countries around the world, civil society will increasingly need to hold militaries to account over their emissions, that means setting and communicating our expectations, and challenging them on the detail of their pledges and policies. We cannot hand over this space to militaries, and allow them to frame and define what is achievable, and what is necessary.


This was the approach behind the joint call on emissions pledges that we launched in the run up to COP26. The response was overwhelming, with 224 organisations supporting the call, which detailed precisely what any emissions pledges from militaries must include to be meaningful. Thanks to Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and Veterans for Peace, the text of the call even made it into a resolution in the US House of Representatives.

We were just one voice among many drawing attention to military emissions at COP26. Nearly 30,000 individuals signed World Beyond War’s petition on emissions reporting, and events linking climate, security, militarism and justice were highly visible in the COP fringe. The military exemption from emissions reporting that we documented through caught the attention of the media and generated significant coverage globally.

In spite of this, it was clear from Nancy Pelosi’s bungled response to a question on emissions that more work is needed to engage policy-makers on this issue; many of our politicians are lagging behind some in the military. It was notable that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenburg, on NATO’s first ever visit to a COP, used his platform to acknowledge that: “There is no way to reach net zero without also including emissions from the military.”

Despite the attention, military emissions were not added to the formal agenda of COP26. We have subsequently heard that there was discussion among some military states over whether to include it but, given the other issues stacked up at the postponed COP, it was always difficult to imagine states voluntarily adding another controversial issue to the agenda. Nevertheless, COP26 saw huge advances made for an issue that has historically been excluded from the climate debate.

This year has also foregrounded another potential challenge for civil society to navigate – that of state leadership on this issue. The UK, and perhaps now the US, are lining themselves up as leaders in this space. They are two of the five top military spenders. The other three are China, India and Russia and, while US military expenditure dwarfs theirs, they are yet to engage with this debate. If, as seems inevitable, we need to work towards global standards in military emissions reporting and cuts, this will require revisiting historical narratives that have focused solely on US emissions to the exclusion of discussion of other countries.

Towards COP27 and COP28

For us, our activities before and during COP26 were as much about COP27 and COP28. This is not an issue that will be resolved quickly and, as civil society it is vital that we recognise this and get organised for the long haul.

There are three things we need to do. The first is to gather the data that we need to underpin our advocacy, the Military Emissions Gap project is our contribution to that, and is intended to complement the research being undertaken by colleagues such as Concrete Impacts, the Costs of War Project and Scientists for Global Responsibility.

The second priority is to build an intersectional, global network of organisations willing to collaborate on this endeavour. The advocacy work around COP26 has helped demonstrate both the degree of international interest in his topic, and the diversity of organisations that support it. It’s a great foundation to build on, with reducing the military’s contribution to the climate emergency as a potential goal.

The third priority is to strategise. That means aligning ourselves with the processes in play, and using them to leverage attention on the topic. As this is a global issue, there is a lot of potential for national and regional initiatives to help draw attention to the scale of emissions, and the lamentable state of reporting. Our next goal must be for military emissions to be on the formal agenda of a COP – of course, how open the Egyptian (COP27) and UAE (COP28) presidencies will be to this, remains to be seen.

Doug Weir is CEOBS’ Research and Policy Director.