Connect with us

Learn more about what communities across the world are doing to support the drive for sustainability.

Enter your email address to receive our newsletter

By submitting your email address, you agree to receive email updates from U&I Global in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Unsubscribe at any time.

Back to top

Partnerships for the Goals

Military Sustainability – Forgotten Sectors Causing Climate Change

The whole world is looking for ways to save CO2 to prevent humanity from a climate catastrophe. Billion-dollar agendas are supposed to guarantee that our societies become carbon-neutral by 2050 – sometimes more sometimes less seriously pursued. Nevertheless, all areas of the economy, politics and life are affected by the restructuring measures. All of them? Not quite! 

The military and the arms industry have a special position in the fight against climate change. The sector and its impact on the climate remain unmentioned in the grand plans, as if it did not exist. Armaments and the military neither appear in the Paris Climate Agreement nor are they obliged to report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Yet the sector is one of the biggest climate polluters.


Take the US military: based on World Bank figures, in 2017 the US armed forces needed 42.9 million litres of oil every day for their combat equipment, as well as the extensive network of container ships, trucks and cargo planes to supply their branches and operations around the world with everything needed. Besides, there is the energy consumption of military-owned real estate. In 2017, the US military emitted 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This would put the US armed forces, if they were a state, in 50th place among the largest CO2 emitters in a country comparison – ahead of Sweden, Finland or Ireland. Added to this are emissions from the manufacture of military and civilian equipment, as well as the damage to people and the climate from chemical or biological weapons. 


The US military emits more CO2 per year than medium-sized countries like Ireland.


Of course, it is not only the US that damages the climate. Every army in the world, every armament company contributes its share. Amazingly, even smaller militarily such as from Morocco (58 million tonnes), Peru (50 million) and New Zealand (37 million) have similarly high CO2 emissions. 

Overall, however, the data situation is difficult. Almost no country provides clearly categorised information on the military’s CO2 emissions. Only fuel purchases are tracked – but only those made domestically; missions abroad are not considered. The data are mostly estimates. The actual figures are often far higher.

There is certainly no detailed reporting of CO2 emissions during the manufacture of equipment by the defence industry. This does not mean that they are not included in national statistics – they are just hidden. In Germany, for example, fighter planes fall under the heading of aircraft and spacecraft manufacturing. Firearms and artillery show up in the categories “Repair of fabricated metal products” and “Installation of machinery and equipment”. Emissions for electricity and heat are reported under energy. The basic material of many weapons, the “emission-relevant” steel, is recorded under iron and steel production.


So, while we try to produce cars that use less or no fossil fuels, Leopard 2 tanks are still allowed to use 414 litres of fuel per 100 km or Eurofighters 160-530 litres of paraffin per minute. Looking at the military material that the countries of the world own or commission, one arrives at almost unimaginable quantities of tonnes of CO2 that are emitted during production and use. According to the NGO Oil Change International, the Iraq war alone is said to have generated 141 million tonnes of CO2 in four years – the equivalent of 25 million extra cars being emitted over a whole year.


In one year, the Iraq war produced as much CO2 as 4 million additional cars on the roads.


One thing is certain: every year, ever greater sums are invested in the training and deployment of our soldiers and the further development of their equipment. In 2018, the global military budget amounted to 1.82 trillion US dollars – every 47th dollar spent worldwide goes to the military. Every day, warlike conflicts rage around the world, some of which are kept alive with considerable technical and human resources. The resulting environmental damage is completely disregarded. 


The military has a blank cheque for the purposeful destruction of the environment.

In the meantime, these abuses are not only known to the media or committed environmentalists, but also to some governments. Switzerland, for example.

The small country wants to spend 650 million Swiss francs (705 million USD) to make its army carbon-neutral by 2050. Mobility and the army’s numerous properties are particularly important. By 2030, for example, all oil heating systems in army buildings are to be replaced by alternative ones. To increase the share of self-produced electricity and to become independent of foreign energy suppliers, photovoltaic systems are planned on all suitable roofs and facades. Training grounds are to be used in part for nature conservation. Fossil-fuelled vehicles are to be replaced by electric ones. Where this is not possible, in the case of fighter jets, tanks, etc., fuel consumption is to be reduced. In addition, there are numerous other measures.

Of course, the Swiss army is not comparable with the armies of its neighbours in terms of its capacities and missions, let alone with those of the USA, China, or Russia. In addition, Switzerland has just a small arms industry and therefore does not have to consider the environmental damage caused by the production of weapons and civilian equipment. And even the Swiss Armed Forces cannot become completely carbon-neutral – but they want to plant trees and invest in sustainable projects all over the world to compensate for this. Even Greenpeace appreciates the Swiss efforts – it is a real start, according to the NGO. 


Carbon-neutral army and arms industry – sensible and feasible? 

This raises an important question: Is it sensible and possible to maintain a (nearly) carbon-neutral army? 

On the Arms Industry:

It is certain that the defence industry should do what is technically possible to make equipment and production processes environmentally friendly and make progress towards military sustainability. But how far can one go without limiting the military’s operational capability? 

Basically, defence companies are driven by the needs of their customers and competition among themselves. The aim is to get as large a quantity of their own products as possible to the customer. 

Influence on the production

The real influence on the companies is therefore exerted by the customer, i.e. the state, which buys the products. The company is geared to its needs. This is what counts: The bigger the order or the importance of the customer, the more likely it is that the company’s entire product portfolio will be geared to its needs – smaller buyers then have to be satisfied with what is there.

So far, most customers value performance and reliability above everything else. So, if no buyer cares about climate protection, a company will continue to place more emphasis on the performance of the weapon than focusing on sustainable military. 

It would be interesting, however, if the protection of the climate were to become an indispensable guideline for all political actions in legal texts. Then companies would also be required to pay attention to the climate friendliness and sustainability of their equipment. One pressure point that is already taking effect is the cost of purchasing and operating military equipment – many countries are already making savings in this area.

Equipment capabilities

Military equipment must first and foremost work, especially in the field. New technologies and materials are aimed primarily at increasing reliability, safety, and performance. Alternative forms of energy and new materials could therefore be considered for powering or producing equipment, weapons, and structures if they are reliable, sufficiently available, and financially viable. However, since sustainable products have so far hardly come close to the values of conventional ones, some time and research will be needed before we go into the field with climate-friendly equipment. So, for the time being, few savings are possible here.

On the Military:

One approach from Switzerland can be adopted by every military in the world: renovate their own existing properties in terms of energy, upgrade them in terms of alternative energy production and use sustainable materials to build facilities within the own country. Civilian equipment that is only needed domestically could also be converted to technologies such as electricity or hydrogen. Waste heat from data centres could be used to heat the barracks. Water treatment plants could make the water reusable for cleaning the equipment.

It becomes more difficult when we talk about possibilities for combat equipment or operations. One thing is for sure: the possibilities to act in a climate-friendly way during operations are quite small. The safety of the soldiers and the availability and reliability of military material are too important. Here, damage to the environment and excessive CO2 emissions can only be prevented through more sustainable products, more sophisticated supply chains and proactive and considered action. The same applies to manoeuvres – no military in the world would sacrifice the practice of real-life scenarios for the sake of the climate. At the same time, the question arises whether interdepartmental political pressure for more climate protection would naturally limit the military’s deployments, especially if the damages to the climate were priced in. War would thus become even more expensive than it already is.

In addition, there is the issue of stability and peace. Can states afford to be less militarily active in the wake of increasing terrorist activities and conflicts, for the sake of the climate? Or could less military activity by states for the good of the environment even reduce conflicts?

Here, too, many states cannot be stopped from playing the war game, either because they think they must be the world’s police or out of pure self-interest. In this context, it is also clear that a state, even if it is not globally militarily active, needs certain capacities for self-protection. 


What is Possible?

Ultimately, there will be no carbon-neutral military missions in the foreseeable future. And that has to do with the fact that security is non-negotiable. If you want it, you must invest, no matter what it costs. It has to work, no matter how. And that is precisely the expectation states have on the arms industry. In addition, most citizens have not yet liked climate protection to the military. For them, too, the primary consideration is that the army must do its job.

If states do not consider carbon-neutral armies relevant or possible and societies are not aware of the environmental damage caused by the military, CO2 emissions and other environmental destruction caused by the military will not change nor will any progress towards a sustainable military be made. Neither will that of the arms industry. The greatest potential at present lies in those measures that the military can take domestically. There is some hope in efforts towards military sustainability, like those of Switzerland or the first attempts by the German research organisation Atmosfair to produce CO2 neutral fuel in larger quantities. However, there is still a long way to go.

Join the movement for a better tomorrow now!

Sign up for our mailing list and never miss a beat on the movement for sustainable development.

We are building a movement for a better tomorrow. If you want to be part of something truly special, sign up for our mailing list now.

No spam or unwanted information, only content, stories, and information on the greatest push for good in human history.

By submitting your email address, you agree to receive email updates from U&I Global in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Unsubscribe at any time.

Our newsletter goes out at the end of each month and you can unsubscribe at any time.