US military emits more greenhouse gases than many countries: Study

Wars a big contributor, but there is scope to reduce emissions

The United States Department of Defence (DOD) is the largest institutional user of petroleum and, correspondingly, the largest producer of greenhouse gases (GHGs) - which drive global warming - by a single organisation in the world, according to a study by the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University in Boston.

If it were a country, the United States military would be the world's 55th largest GHG emitter, with emissions larger than those of Portugal, Sweden or Denmark, says the paper authored by Professor Neta Crawford, Chair of Political Science at Boston University.

But if it could rethink military missions, it could reduce that, the paper suggests.

The largest sources of military GHG emissions are buildings and fuel, says the paper, titled Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, And The Costs Of War.

The DOD maintains more than 560,000 buildings at approximately 500 domestic and overseas military installations, which account for about 40 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions, Prof Crawford has calculated. The rest is from operations, which use up fuel at a staggering rate.

America's armed forces comprise more than two million people, 11 nuclear aircraft carriers, and thousands of ships and aircraft, operating globally.

"DOD emissions for all military operations from 2001 to 2017 are estimated to be about 766 million tonnes of CO2e," the paper says. CO2e means carbon dioxide equivalent - that is, all GHGs are calculated in terms of their equivalent in carbon dioxide (CO2).

 
 
 
 

Wars were a big contributor of the DOD's CO2 emissions from 2001.

"Of these military operations, it is estimated that total war-related emissions including for the 'overseas contingency operations' in the major war zones of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, are more than 400 million tonnes of CO2e," the paper says.

Ironically, a lot of the US military's operations are to protect the flow of global oil supplies - an issue once again occupying minds as Iran and the US face off, with Washington waging a mostly economic "maximum pressure" campaign to coerce Teheran into talking about giving up its nuclear ambitions, but also more recently sending an aircraft carrier group and more troops to the region.

The Pentagon has increased its use of renewable energy since 2009, investing in solar energy and other renewable power sources. But all its efforts offset less than 1 per cent of its GHG emissions, the paper says.

And ironically, climate change - notwithstanding the Donald Trump White House downplaying it - is acknowledged by the DOD as a major security risk.

Yet the military "seems unaware of how much its efforts to protect access to Persian Gulf oil, its other military operations including war, and consumption at installations are a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore ultimately of climate change", the paper contends.

"The Pentagon focuses their efforts on adapting to climate change and preparing for climate-caused insecurity, even as they continue to ensure that Americans continue to have relatively inexpensive access to imported oil. And it spews a huge amount of greenhouse gases doing so," it says.

One potential solution may be to recognise that Persian Gulf oil is no longer vital to American interests, which would remove the need to deploy forces to protect its flow.

"With dramatic growth in renewable energy and diminishing US dependence on foreign oil, it is possible for Congress and the President to rethink our nation's military missions and reduce the amount of energy the armed forces use to protect access to Middle East oil," Prof Crawford wrote this week in the Livescience blog.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2019, with the headline 'US military emits more greenhouse gases than many countries: Study'. Print Edition | Subscribe