Uncle Sam’s Carbon Footprint: The Military’s Role in Pollution

Fuel is the ‘blood of the military’ … and is critical to the life of the theater of operation. (U.S. Army Petroleum and Water Department, Fort Lee)

When you look up graphs of greenhouse gas emissions you will see all the emissions neatly categorised by different categories, like transport, and shipping, agriculture, waste, manufacturing and construction. But there is one category that is missing in nearly every single graph. And that is the military.

Militaries worldwide are excluded from disclosing how much greenhouse gasses like Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Nitrous Oxide they emit. Which means that no one really knows how much most of the armies worldwide really pollute.

Of course there are some countries that do publish the emissions of their militaries — like the Netherlands. But countries like the United States, arguably the world’s military powerhouse, does not.

So how did we get to this point? How did militaries worldwide get excluded from reporting on their greenhouse gas emission?

About those emissions

Militaries are some of the biggest polluters, ever. The defence industry is sometimes referred to as the “war machine”, and like a machine, armies worldwide rely on fuel to operate. Especially the U.S. military has a particularly bad track record when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. This is unsurprising given its enormous size; the U.S.’s military budget is currently around 700 billion dollars yearly. Which is more than the spending of the next 8 countries combined (which includes Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK and Germany). Besides its enormous spending, the U.S. military is also a global affair. It has around 800 established foreign bases worldwide.

So it’s unsurprising that an article in the conversation stated that “The U.S. Military is a bigger polluter than as many as 140 countries”. With all of the spending and the international presence, the U.S. military is one of the largest polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more climate-changing gases than most medium-sized countries, like Peru and Portugal. Which — just to put it in perspective — is also more than Morocco, Switzerland, Sweden, Hungary, Finland, New Zealand and Norway.

We know from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), that the U.S. army emitted more than 70 million metric tons of CO2 in 2014. Which is equal to putting 15 million more cars on U.S. roads for one year. This number however, does not include any greenhouse gas emissions from the emissions at overseas military bases and the use of any of the equipment and vehicles.

The Iraq war was responsible for 141 million metric tonnes of carbon releases in the first four years of the war alone, which is more than 139 countries, and the same as putting 25 million cars on roads in the U.S.. Not just that, the U.S. military has also been one of the most active polluters across the world, leaving heavily polluted sites throughout the U.S. and their other strongholds. John Dingell, a Michigan Congressman said that “almost every military site in this country is seriously contaminated”. In the U.S. alone, there are 900 of these super polluted sites (also known as “Superfund Sites”), which supported military needs. One of these is Camp Lejeune. The contamination of Camp Lejeune was called “the worst example of water contamination this country has ever seen”. In 1981 officials were already saying that the drinking water around camp Lejeune was contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals like Methyl-Ethel Ketone and a cleaning agent known as TCE, but it took until 1984 to take any action.

Collateral Damages

What’s more, is that this use of fuel is actually a large cause of casualties. Transporting oil is a big task. To do so, many armies use large convoys of trucks and cars to transport the oil between bases.

During Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, convoys brought in fuel from Pakistan and Jordan to replenish the operations. These supply convoys typically are made out of 16 trucks which means that these convoys struggle to be flexible in their operations and their schedules relatively predictable. Given that nearly 80% of all the supply trucks that operated in Afghanistan and Iraq were carrying fuel, the predictability of these convoys ultimately made them perfect targets for insurgency forces ambushes and attacks. As a result nearly 3,000 U.S. contractors died during fuel transport between 2003 and 2007 in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So… Why Oil?

Eugene Gholz, a professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, said that: “for a long time oil has played a special role in military history and American foreign policy […] to fight you need access to oil”. And arguably: to have access to oil you need to fight.

After oil drilling became an industrialised practice in the early 1900s, oil became really important during wars. During World War I oil became the main fuel for ships, tanks and planes. Germany even attacked the U.S. oil export to Britain and France to undermine their power. Access to oil truly was really the make it or break it point in war, because Germany lost World War I, partly because they didn’t have access to enough oil to sustain their campaign.

With the end of the next war — World War II — the use of petroleum-based fuels became ingrained to the way wars are fought, and oil consumption has since then risen 175% to 22 gallons per soldier per day. And like Eugene Gholz pointed out: oil has become one of the most important parts of U.S. foreign policy. In fact: every president since Richard Nixon has explicitly called for either “energy independence” or, at least, increased “energy security”. Because whilst the U.S. used to be the biggest exporter of oil, they quickly got overrun by other exporters like Saudi Arabia and Mexico. But by relying on foreign oil, the U.S. would become dependent on these foreign supplies in their operations and moves. To mitigate that potential risk the U.S. strived to have access to sources of oil. To keep this access to foreign sources of oil the U.S. has positioned themselves close to these sources of oil. To maintain this access, the U.S. passed the Mineral Leasing Act in 1920 in response to attempts from France and Britain to shut U.S. oil companies out of the Middle East. The Mineral Leasing Act denied access to foreign governments and organisations from France and Britain to any U.S. mineral rights, unless these governments allowed similar access to their rights to U.S. companies.

The shift: Kyoto Protocol

In 1992, the United Nations member states came together in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Kyoto Protocol. Via: WIRED

This framework acted as a roadmap on how countries wanted to tackle climate change, and it was actually the first framework of this international scale. In 1992 when the framework was signed, climate change was high on the radar with countries around the world. There was more and more evidence to suggest that with more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere there would be a rising sea level that would quickly cover areas around the world like the Netherlands and the Maldives, an increase of extreme weather events and a radical extinction of plants and animals. With the Framework on Climate Change, UN member states wanted to stabilise the level of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere as much as possible, by for example looking at alternative sustainable energies like solar or wind energies.

But as some time went on it became obvious that with just the signing of this framework we wouldn’t get very far at reducing greenhouse gases at all. Instead, what was needed, was something to hold signatories accountable for what they emitted. So, the decision was made to sign a protocol on top of the framework to set individual emission goals to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions radically. So in 1997, the signatories of the UN framework came together in Kyoto, Japan, to sign one of the most significant protocols when it comes to climate change: the Kyoto Protocol.

The first issues

During a speech Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, celebrated the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. “This is a great stride forward in our struggle to confront one of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century: climate change […] climate change is a global problem, it requires a global response”. And there were lots of reasons to celebrate, because the Kyoto Protocol introduced something new: reporting on progress and emissions to keep track of how countries were doing with regards to their goals. This reporting part is extremely important, because, for the first time, countries were pushed to report on their emissions — much like accountants do — and be accountable for these emissions.

In the first drafts of the protocol, military emissions were part of the list of categories that countries would have to report on. But the inclusion of the military was left out in the final signed document. The exemption of the military came from a particular push to have any parts that mentioned military emissions removed from the protocol. This push came from the U.S.

The push to exclude the military from the protocol came mainly from U.S. concerns around sovereignty and security. This push came from a very similar rationale as the U.S.’s push to have oil independence. The U.S.’s Department of Defence (DoD) was gutted at the idea that their operations might be altered — or even dependent — on an foreign protocol. According to Ambassador Eizenstat who represented the U.S. in Kyoto, “the Defense Department […] told us they wanted international peacekeeping forces exempted, and they were. They told us they wanted to make sure those forces were exempted, even if the U.N. Security Council didn’t authorize the operation, and they were”. The one “military” thing that was covered in the Kyoto Protocol were bunker fuels. Bunker fuels is the name for any dense and heavy fuels that are used for naval ships. But including bunker fuels does not even come close to covering all sources of greenhouse gas emissions by the military. However, the push to exclude the military didn’t just come from the Department of Defence.

The COMPASS Letter

According to U.S. Senate documents, a committee known as the “Committee to Preserve Security and Sovereignty” (also known as COMPASS) — wrote a letter to Clinton before the talks about the Kyoto Protocol, saying that: “the treaty will hamstring American military operations around the world and would lead to the creation of a ‘Climate Change Secretariat,’ which would usurp the authority of elected local, state and federal governments”. Though very little is known about this letter, or the committee that sent it to Clinton, we do know that the people who signed the letter were former national security personnel Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Cheney and Caspar Weinberger.

Senator Kerry said during a Hearing to the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the U.S. Senate that this COMPASS letter suggested that the Kyoto Treaty threatened to limit the exercise of American military power. And that “by exempting only U.S. military exercises that are multinational or humanitarian, unilateral military actions, as in Grenada, Panama, and Libya, will become politically and diplomatically more difficult.’’

What COMPASS was arguing was that by signing the Kyoto Protocol without having the military emissions excluded from the protocol there would be both a really valuable insight into the U.S.’s military might — which might hamper U.S. security — and signing the protocol would make the U.S. dependent on this agreement for their expenditures. All of this was against the idea of U.S. independence and sovereignty. According to Senator Gilman in 1998, if the U.S. signed the Kyoto protocol there would be significant cuts to their operations as “armour training could be cut by some 300,000 miles a year, naval steaming days cut by 2,000 days a year, and Air Force flying hours cut by some 200,000 hours”.

Besides the points on security and sovereignty that the COMPASS letter covered, the letter is pretty interesting because of who signed it. One of the people who signed the letter was Richard — or Dick — Cheney. You’ll probably have heard of Dick Cheney, who was one of the former Vice-President of the U.S. But if you’re like me, then you probably didn’t know that Cheney used to before his position as Vice-President, Cheney was the chairman of Halliburton Co. — a multinational company which is one of the world’s largest oil field service companies. Arguably, given Halliburton’s stakes in oil, they would have a major interest in keeping military oil expenditures high besides protecting U.S. sovereignty and security, namely: money.

Halliburton won a U.S. contract worth $7 billion in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, which meant that they were the only company delivering oil and infrastructure to the U.S. army during that war. However, Halliburton Co. was investigated in 2004 — just a year before the Kyoto Protocol came into effect — for overcharching the U.S. army for fuel and taking bribes from a Kuwaiti subcontractor. Halliburton apparently charged the U.S. government $2.68 per gallon to import gasoline to Iraq from Kuwait. A price that cost the government an extra $166.5 million.

The U.S. Signing

Though we can’t be sure what impact this COMPASS letter may have had, we do know that ultimately the military was exempted from the Kyoto protocol. As Eizenstat put it: “yes, the military will be protected. We would not have wanted Kyoto to tell our military or anybody else what to do”. This means that even now in 2021 we aren’t sure how much the U.S., or many other militaries contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. More than that, though the U.S. did sign the Kyoto protocol, they are the only signatory that has never ratified it. Which means that the U.S. never implemented any of the steps or actions listed in the protocol. The reason why the U.S. never ratified the protocol is because it was seen as a threat to the U.S. economy, and like the efforts that needed to be made by the U.S. was too much in comparison to developing nations like China and India.

What next?

In 2015 the Kyoto Protocol was followed up by the Paris Agreement, which is the bigger and better big brother to the Kyoto Protocol. For the first time all countries were unified in one single agreement and it was even harsher when it came to cutting out greenhouse gases from countries’s diets. Like the Kyoto protocol, countries set individual goals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. With the Paris Agreement, countries are not obliged to reduce their military emissions but the exemption is no longer automatic in the calculations.

Joe Biden signing the Paris Agreement. Via: BBC

At the time of signing, Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement. This decision has been reversed by Joe Biden on the 19th of February, who agreed to cut carbon emissions in half. Despite this step in the right direction, the military remains a blind spot behind a cloud of greenhouse gases. In order to have a clear idea of what impact we’re making on our environment it’s important to have the militaries included in our greenhouse gas reporting and make the evaluation what is most important to us, sovereignty and security, or longevity.




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Gi Marz

Gi Marz

Multilingual writer writing about language learning & open source investigations