US Bradley fighting vehicles
Pentagon aims for net zero by 2050 but with a carbon footprint greater than 140 countries critics say it needs radical change
Iffah Kitchlew / The Guardian
(March 10. 2022) — The US military, an institution whose carbon footprint exceeds that of nearly 140 countries, says it wants to go green.
On 8 February, the US army released its climate strategy.
Among other tactics, the army aims for net-zero emissions by 2050, to electrify its combat and non-tactical vehicles, to power its bases with “carbon-free” electricity and to develop clean global supply chains.
Wars, like the one Russia has unleashed on Ukraine, are extreme polluters, and while the army’s plan would significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, experts say it does not do nearly enough.
“The Department of Defense, the entity that is the US war machine, is the largest institutional contributor to global warming on planet Earth,” said David Vine, a professor of political anthropology at American University in Washington DC. “And the military does not acknowledge that.”
It does, at least, state that there is a need to reduce its “impact on the planet”. The Army Climate Strategy (ACS) admits, for example, that the US army’s nearly $740m yearly expenditure on electricity created 4.1m tons of greenhouse gases in 2020 — 1m tons more than the greenhouse gas emissions generated by Switzerland’s heat and electricity sector in 2017.
Although the ACS is reflective of the Pentagon’s newly serious stance on the climate crisis, which it has identified as a security threat, critics say the plan misses out on several crucial details.
It lacks accountability mechanisms, for one thing, said Doug Weir, research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory. “We need to ensure that scrutiny mechanisms are in place. Otherwise, it’s just military-grade greenwash,” he said.
The US military and army, for example, do not report their fuel usage to Congress, let alone itemize how much fuel was spent where, or on what war. Most US government accounting of US greenhouse gas emissions omit figures on how much the military contributes, even via a relatively easy-to-track measure like fuel consumption.
And consume fuel it does, in vast quantities. A 2019 report found that the Department of Defense is not only the largest consumer of energy in the US but is also the world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum and, thus, the world’s largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases. Between 2001 and 2017 the DoD was responsible for emitting 1.2bn metric tons of greenhouse gases — equivalent to the annual emissions of 257m cars. This year it is expected to burn through 82.3m barrels of fuel, more than the total oil consumption of Finland.
The plan aims to reduce this number — but a more impactful way for the US military to address the scale and pace of its carbon footprint is to simply do less, said Neta Crawford, political scientist and co-director of Brown University’s Costs of War project.
She points to the fact that the US military has about 800 installations in 80 countries and another 740 bases on home soil, of which about 315 are army installations. Yet by its own admission, the Pentagon says the US army operates a third more bases than it needs — it calls this “excess basing capacity”.
“Far greater savings can be achieved by just closing a base rather than making a base that is unnecessary more energy efficient,” said Vine.
Even that kind of thinking would probably not be enough to reduce the armed forces’ greenhouse gas emissions as much as is needed, however. The military’s climate impact is “not just about the environmental footprint of the military itself, it’s also about the way the operations are conducted and the way wars are fought”, said Stefan Smith, coordinator at the UN Environment Programme’s disasters & conflicts sub-programme.
“War is, by its nature, destructive.”
Postwar reconstruction, for instance, uses up a vast amount of resources. The disposal of rubble and rebuilding from infrastructure destruction is a long, carbon-intensive process, according to Hassan Partow, a UNEP programme manager.
“The amount of trucking and emissions that would be required to dispose of this debris is like travelling from the Earth to the moon multiple times,” he said, referring to cleanups that were required in Iraq.
War also degrades land, altering and reducing its carbon sequestration capacity. “The land degradation legacy in Iraq shows that when you change the land and change the soils, that changes the amount of carbon it can store,” said Weir. To what extent is unclear, as it is rarely if ever studied. But soil erosion causes carbon loss, and desertification and degradation reduceland’s ability to hold carbon — all of which probably happened in Iraq, particularly in what was once marsh land.
“We know so little about” how much land is destroyed in this matter, Weir said. “No one’s really following or documenting it.” He thinks an even larger contributor to the climate crisis than the emissions caused by fighting is the environmental changes those conflicts create.
Of course, the fighting doesn’t help. Some of the first targets in conflict zones are oil infrastructure and power plants, said Partow. The US military has frequently targeted oil tankers in Syria and just last week Russian missiles attacked a number of oil and gas facilities in Ukraine. The resulting fires give rise to heavy emissions. “In the case of Iraq … people could not see the sun from all the emissions,” Partow added. US emissions rose dramaticallyfollowing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But even non-violent conflict triggers other emissions.
“When the United States acts to increase its presence in Asia and the Pacific, it alerts the Chinese to the American presence — and they respond by making more weapons which, in turn, produce more emissions,” said Crawford.
What can be done? Rather than only see the climate emergency as a security threat that needs to be trained for, Crawford suggests, the US military should help reduce the emergency itself, and the instability it will cause.
“A much better strategy than preparing for climate change-caused war is to prevent climate change-caused war,” said Crawford.
Federal and military budgeting priorities might also need to shift, according to Lindsay Koshgarian, programme director at the National Priorities Project. The White House is expected to request a military budget of more than $770bn for the next fiscal year.
“As long as we continue to put that amount of money into the military, we will not have the resources to deal with climate change,” said Koshgarian.
Even so, the ACS is considered an important document. “It does reflect a longstanding concern in the US military — that actually has been much more progressive and advanced than most of the rest of the US government — about global warming and climate change,” said Vine.
The move to electrify army vehicles, for example, is significant in the stimulus it gives to manufacturers to produce more electric vehicles and lower their costs in the rest of the country, said Crawford.
The Department of Defense will incorporate climate risks in its future strategies as well, including the expected national defense strategy, according to Richard Kidd, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment and energy resilience. A “comprehensive” climate mitigation and sustainability plan will be released in the fall, he said.
However, the concern remains that these strategies will only treat the symptoms, and only marginally. Although the ACS highlights the need to act “now” — it says so four times in the document — the targets are set over another 20 years.
To Koshgarian, plans like the ACS prompt a bigger question: can any military goals, such as sustained land dominance by any large military, America’s or otherwise, ever be sustainable?
“There’s no such thing as sustainable fast fashion. And there’s no such thing as sustainable global military hegemony.”
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