How to Assess the Carbon Footprint of a War

ENVIRONMENT, 18 Dec 2023

Benjamin Neimark | The Conversation - TRANSCEND Media Service

12 Dec 2023 – The US military alone contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than over 150 countries. There are tepid attempts by militaries to green their war machines–electric tanks or ships run on biofuels–yet there is practically no discussion of how they contribute to climate change, especially during war.

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

12 Dec 2023 – We know that war is bad for the environment, with toxic chemicals left polluting the soil and water for decades after fighting ceases. Much less obvious are the carbon emissions from armed conflicts and their long-term impacts on the climate.

Colleagues and I have estimated that the US military alone contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than over 150 countries, but too often discussions of the links between militaries and climate change focus only on future risks to global security in climate-affected settings. There are many tepid attempts by militaries to green their war machines – developing electric tanks or navy ships run on biofuels – yet there is very little discussion of how they contribute to climate change, especially during war.

Militaries are not very transparent and it is extremely difficult to access the data needed to run comprehensive carbon emissions calculations, even in peacetime. Researchers are essentially left on their own. Using an array of methods, colleagues and I have been working to open this “black box” of wartime emissions and demand transparent reporting of military emissions to the UN’s climate body, the UNFCCC.

Here are some of the ways militaries create emissions, and how we go about estimating them.

Direct and indirect emissions

Some military emissions are not necessarily specific to wartime, but dramatically increase during combat. Among the largest sources are jet fuel for planes and diesel for tanks and naval ships.

Other sources include weapons and ammunition manufacturing, troop deployment, housing, and feeding armies. Then there is the havoc that militaries cause by dropping bombs, including fires, smoke and rubble from damage to homes and infrastructure – all amounting to a massive “carbon war bootprint”.

In order to account for all of this carbon, researchers must begin with basic data surrounding direct “tailpipe” emissions, known as Scope 1 emissions. This is the carbon emitted directly from burning fuel in the engine of a plane, for instance. If we know how much fuel is consumed per kilometre by a certain type of jet plane, we can begin to estimate how much carbon is emitted by a whole fleet of those planes over a certain amount of missions.

Then we have emissions from heating or electricity that are an indirect result of a particular activity – emissions from burning gas to produce electricity to light up an army barracks, for instance. These are Scope 2 emissions.

From there, we can try to account for the complex “long tail” of indirect or embodied emissions, known as Scope 3. These are found in extensive military supply chains and involve carbon emitted by anything from weapons manufacturing to IT and other logistics.

To understand combat emissions better, my colleagues have even proposed a new category, Scope 3 Plus, which includes everything from damage caused by war to post-conflict reconstruction. For example, the emissions involved in rebuilding Gaza or Mariupol in Ukraine will be enormous.

Aerial shot of bombed buildings in Gaza
Rebuilding Gaza will require lots of energy and building materials – and therefore emissions. Haitham Imad / EPA

Concrete problems

Our most recent research, looking at the US military’s use of concrete in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, illustrates some of the calculations involved. During its occupation of Baghdad, the US military laid hundreds of miles of walls as part of its urban counterinsurgency strategy. These were used to protect against the damage caused by bombs planted by insurgents, and to manage civilian and insurgent movements within the city by channelling residents through authorised roads and checkpoints.

However, concrete also has a massive carbon footprint, accounting for almost 7% of global CO₂ emissions. And the concrete walls in Baghdad alone – 412km (256 miles) – were longer than the distance from London to Paris. Those walls caused the emission of an estimated 200,000 tonnes of CO₂ and its equivalent in other gases (CO₂e), which is roughly equivalent to the total annual car tailpipe emissions of the UK, or the entire emissions of a small island nation.

Ukraine war has the carbon footprint of Belgium

In Ukraine, colleagues have begun the colossal task of adding up all the above factors and more in order to calculate the carbon effects of Russia’s invasion. This work is revolutionary as it attempts to do the very difficult task of accounting for the emissions of war in almost real time.

Missile in roadside
An unexploded missile in Ukraine, April 2022. Drop of Light / shutterstock

These researchers estimate the carbon footprint of the first year of the war to be in the region of 120 million tonnes of CO₂e. That’s roughly the annual emissions of Belgium. Ammunition and explosives alone for around 2 million tonnes of CO₂e in that period – equal to almost 1 billion beef steaks (150g), or 13 billion kilometres of driving.

A focus on conflict emissions is particularly timely given the Ukraine and Israel-Gaza wars, but also because of draft legislation concerning the 27 legal principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts (Perac) that was passed by the UN general assembly in December 2022. While Perac is a major step forward, it still has little to say about greenhouse gas emissions during conflict.

Governments should adhere to their obligations to transparent and accurate reporting of military emissions. People are beginning to link armed conflict, greenhouse gas emissions and environmental protection, but the topic remains under-reported and unresearched – it’s time to shine a spotlight on this hidden aspect of war.


Senior Lecturer, School of Business Management, Queen Mary University of London



Go to Original –

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Share this article:

DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

There are no comments so far.

Join the discussion!

We welcome debate and dissent, but personal — ad hominem — attacks (on authors, other users or any individual), abuse and defamatory language will not be tolerated. Nor will we tolerate attempts to deliberately disrupt discussions. We aim to maintain an inviting space to focus on intelligent interactions and debates.

74 − 67 =

Note: we try to save your comment in your browser when there are technical problems. Still, for long comments we recommend that you copy them somewhere else as a backup before you submit them.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.