By Sarah McFarlane & Valerie Volcovici
LONDON/WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – When taking stock of the global emissions there is an elephant in room: The world's armed services.
Scientists and environmental groups are increasing pressure on the U.N. as temperatures reach new heights. They want the U.N. force all armies to disclose their emissions, and to end the long-standing exception that allowed some climate pollution to be hidden.
According to an estimate made by international experts in 2022, the military is among the biggest fuel consumers on earth. It accounts for 5,5% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Scientists and academics claim that the defence forces aren't bound by international climate treaties to report their carbon emissions or reduce them. The data published by some militaries, however, is often unreliable and incomplete.
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The reason for this is that military emissions, including those from jets, sailing ships, and training exercises, have been excluded from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases, as well as the 2015 Paris accords, on the basis that the data on energy consumption by armies may undermine national security.
Environmental groups Tipping point North South and The Conflict and Environment Observatory are now among those who use research papers, letters campaigns, and conferences to lobby for a more transparent and comprehensive military emissions reporting.
According to a campaigner who keeps track of the research, in the first five months 2023 at least 17 peer-reviewed papers were published. This is three times as many as the total number of 2022, and more than all the previous nine years put together.
In February, the groups wrote to the U.N. The groups also wrote to the U.N. in February, urging them to include all military emission data as part of global carbon accounting.
The groups stated that "our climate emergency cannot afford to allow the 'business-as-usual' omissions of military and conflict related emissions within the UNFCCC processes."
The first global stocktake – an assessment of countries' progress towards Paris climate goals – will take place during the COP28 Climate Summit in the United Arab Emirates, starting Nov. 30, and will focus on emissions accounting.
Axel Michaelowa is the founding partner of Perspectives Climate Group. He said that conflict-related carbon emissions are not included in UNFCCC's accounting.
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There are currently few indications that the lobbying campaign this year will yield any results.
In an emailed answer to questions, the UNFCCC stated that it had no plans to amend its guidance on military emission accounting. However, this issue could be raised at future summits including COP28 in Dubai.
When asked whether military emissions will be discussed at this two-week U.N. Summit, the UAE presidency stated that one of the thematic days would be "relief and recovery" without providing any further details.
Some militaries, however, are already preparing to change their reporting requirements over the next few years. Others are taking steps to reduce their climate impact.
NATO, a Western security alliance of 31 countries, has, for instance, informed Reuters that it has developed a method for its members in order to report their emissions.
Defence officials say that countries such as New Zealand are examining whether they should include previously excluded areas such as emissions from operations overseas, and Britain and Germany are addressing grey areas within their reporting.
Washington sent representatives from the U.S. Army, Navy and Coast Guard to the COP27 Climate Summit in Egypt last summer. This was the first time a Pentagon delegaiton attended the global summit on climate change.
Meredith Berger (assistant secretary for energy installations and the environment in the U.S. Navy) and one of the Pentagon delegates told Reuters: "I think it signified that we are part the conversation. We are certainly emitters"
Oil consumption and emissions by the U.S. military are declining.
U.S. Defence Logistics Agency (which oversees the oil purchases) said that 84 million barrels of oil were purchased in 2022. This is down nearly 15 million barrels from 2018. The U.S. Defence Logistics Agency, which oversees oil purchases, said 84 million barrels were purchased in 2022. This is down almost 15 million from 2018.
The U.S. Department of Defense reported that the figures include all emissions but excluded international transport fuels and bunker fuels.
Neta Crawford is a professor at Oxford University who specializes in international relations. She said that the U.S. troop pullouts from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the adoption of more fuel-efficient cars, renewable energy technologies and fewer military exercises have all contributed to the decreases in fuel consumption.
It is possible that the wider use of drones has also helped.
Unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – are one of the most effective technologies for reducing emissions, according to a senior U.S. official of defense who spoke with Reuters under condition of anonymity. When you remove a person from the aircraft you can get a dramatic improvement in energy performance.
The U.N. has been urged to change the exemptions for military purposes due to an increase in emissions resulting from the conflict in Ukraine.
Deborah Burton, of environmental group Tipping Point North South, said that Ukraine has brought this issue to the forefront in a manner other conflicts haven't.
According to a report by Dutch carbon accounting expert Lennard de Klerk, the first twelve months of the conflict in Ukraine will result in a net increase 120 million tonnes greenhouse gases. This is equivalent to the combined annual outputs of Singapore, Switzerland, and Syria.
On Sept. 26 in Oxford, academics from Oxford University and Queen Mary University of London will hold a conference to generate new research on military emissions that can help inform future reporting requirements.
Ukraine's Environment Ministry spokesperson said that it supports efforts and will seek support from governments at COP28 to make military emissions reporting more transparent.
Although the Ukraine conflict has increased the focus of climate activists on the military emissions, experts claim that it could be a distraction to governments who are focused on regional security and slow down discussions in the short term.
James Appathurai is the NATO's assistant deputy secretary general for emerging challenges.
Some militaries claim that publishing information on their oil usage would give them a better understanding of their overseas operations.
Markus Ruelke of the German Defence Ministry's Environmental Protection Unit said: "We wouldn't want everyone to know how much fuel is used in these missions, including how far we drive and fly, or how many exercises we do."
UNFCCC reports that some military emissions are reported under "unspecified fuel combustion" in the U.N. reporting tables.
Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, stated that global military emissions are still poorly understood.
He said: "It is all well and good telling people to stop traveling or switch to electric cars, whether it's an inconvenience or expense to them. But, it's difficult to do when the military gets free rides."