The United States military machine and the greenhouse gas emissions


The United States military machine, is the world’s biggest institutional consumer of petroleum products and the world’s worst polluter of greenhouse gas emissions. The role of the United States military is not on the agenda of the Paris COP21 Climate Conference. There is an elephant in the climate debate that by United States demand cannot be discussed or even seen. This agreement to ignore the elephant is now the accepted basis of all international negotiations on climate change.
It is well understood by every possible measurement that the Pentagon, the United States military machine, is the world’s biggest institutional consumer of petroleum products and the world’s worst polluter of greenhouse gas emissions and many other toxic pollutants. Yet the Pentagon has a blanket exemption in all international climate agreements.
Benjamin Neimark, Senior Lecturer at Lancaster Environment Centre in Lancaster University stated that ever since the Kyoto Accords or Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1998, in an effort to gain United States compliance, all United States’ military operations worldwide and within the United States are exempt from measurement or agreements on reduction. Interpress Service reported on May 20, 1998 that the United States Congress passed an explicit provision guaranteeing United States military exemptions.
Benjamin Neimark asserted that the complete United States military exemption from greenhouse gas emissions calculations includes more than 1,000 United States bases in more than 130 countries around the world, its 6,000 facilities in the United States, its aircraft carriers and jet aircraft. Also excluded are its weapons testing and all multilateral operations such as the giant United States commanded NATO military alliance and AFRICOM, the United States military alliance now blanketing Africa. The provision also exempts United States/UN-sanctioned activities of “peacekeeping” and “humanitarian relief.”
Benjamin Neimark further noted that the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol nevertheless became the basis of all future proposed international meetings on a climate treaty, including Copenhagen 2009, Cancun, 2010, Durban 2011, Doha 2012 and the United Nations upcoming 21st Conference of the Parties on Climate Change meeting in Paris in 2015. In all past international conferences it was again and again the United States government that refused to be bound by any treaty.
Oliver Belcher, Assistant Professor of Geography at Durham University stated that the United States military’s carbon bootprint is enormous. Like corporate supply chains, it relies upon an extensive global network of container ships, trucks and cargo planes to supply its operations with everything from bombs to humanitarian aid and hydrocarbon fuels.
Greenhouse gas emission accounting usually focuses on how much energy and fuel civilians use. But recent works shows that the United States military is one of the largest polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more climate-changing gases than most medium-sized countries. If the United States military were a country, its fuel usage alone would make it the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, sitting between Peru and Portugal.
Oliver Belcher noted that in 2017, the United States military bought about 269,230 barrels of oil a day and emitted more than 25,000 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide by burning those fuels. The United States Air Force purchased 4.9 billion dollar worth of fuel, and the navy 2.8 billion dollar, followed by the army at 947million dollar and the Marines at 36million dollar.
According to Oliver Belcher, it’s no coincidence that United States military emissions tend to be overlooked in climate change studies. It’s very difficult to get consistent data from the Pentagon and across United States government departments. In fact, the United States insisted on an exemption for reporting military emissions in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This loophole was closed by the Paris Accord, but with the Trump administration due to withdraw from the accord in 2020, this gap will will return.
The recent study is based on data retrieved from multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to the United States Defense Logistics Agency, the massive bureaucratic agency tasked with managing the United States military’s supply chains, including its hydrocarbon fuel purchases and distribution.
The United States military has long understood that it isn’t immune from the potential consequences of climate change, recognising it as a “threat multiplier” that can exacerbate other risks. Many, though not all, military bases have been preparing for climate change impacts like sea level rise. Nor has the military ignored its own contribution to the problem. The military has invested in developing alternative energy sources like biofuels, but these comprise only a tiny fraction of spending on fuels.
Patrick Bigger, Lecturer of Human Geography at Lancaster Environment Centre, in Lancaster University argued that the American military’s climate policy remains contradictory. There have been attempts to “green” aspects of its operations by increasing renewable electricity generation on bases, but it remains the single largest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons in the world. It has also locked itself into hydrocarbon-based weapons systems for years to come, by depending on existing aircraft and warships for open-ended operations.
Patrick Bigger stated that climate change has become a hot-button topic on the campaign trail for the 2020 presidential election. Leading Democratic candidates, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, and members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are calling for major climate initiatives like the Green New Deal. For any of that to be effective, the United States military’s carbon footprint must be addressed in domestic policy and international climate treaties.
The recent study shows that action on climate change demands shuttering vast sections of the military machine. There are few activities on Earth as environmentally catastrophic as waging war. Significant reductions to the Pentagon’s budget and shrinking its capacity to wage war would cause a huge drop in demand from the biggest consumer of liquid fuels in the world.
As Patrick Bigger well explained, it does no good tinkering around the edges of the war machine’s environmental impact. The money spent procuring and distributing fuel across the United States empire could instead be spent as a peace dividend, helping to fund a Green New Deal in whatever form it might take. There are no shortage of policy priorities that could use a funding bump. Any of these options would be better than fuelling one of the largest military forces in history.