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The Environmental Costs of Wars

by Denisa Ogoyi Africa Americas Asia Europe Apr 25th 20227 mins
The Environmental Costs of Wars

Wars have always been a part of human history. There are many costs of wars; they kill, injure and disable people also causes major trauma and mental issues in survivors. Nature is not left out in all this chaos. Through history we know how many natural ecosystems have been destroyed in wars, most often irreversibly. The military of many countries have already accepted that climate change is real and that they have to act accordingly. The role of each military is to protect its country from any potential harm; this should also include climate change. Simply put, nature must become a part of the protection.

Wars are very much a part of human’s history. The first war ever recorded happened in 2700 BCE between Sumer and Elam. Since then, hundreds more have occurred and the reasons for them have varied from economic and religious, to defence, and revolution. 

Nowadays, a country’s defence is handled by its military, bringing a sense of security for its nation. But that security comes at a cost for the environment; the military is one of the most energy-intensive sectors in the world. As retired US army general and former CIA director David Petraeus already said in 2011, “energy is the lifeblood of our warfighting capabilities”. War efforts and the military overall requires significant energy, and it’s mostly derived from fossil fuels.

Armaments and the military both do not appear in the Paris Climate Agreement, meaning that they are not obliged to report to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on their climate action and progress. Yet the global military sector is on the top of the list of the world’s climate polluters. 

The environmental impact of war starts long before the war begins. The building and maintenance of military forces alone require extensive natural resources. When conflict breaks out, the war itself causes devastating destruction to ecosystems including species loss, and creates the potential for invasive species. Other monumental impacts to the environment include deforestation, waste dumping, soil and water poisoning, crops destruction, and the reduction and extinction of animals and plants. The worst is that wars don’t just end with a signed agreement between the fighting countries; many regions affected by war are not expected to recover for decades, forcing people to fight for a better life with limited resources and a damaged environment which they depend on. 

Greenhouse Gas Emissions From the Military

The US Department of Defense is the world’s single largest institutional consumer of oil, which makes them one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters. Military vehicles, aircrafts, ships and buildings all require huge amounts of energy, usually oil. All these heavy duty machines also emit far more carbon dioxide (CO2). In 2017, the US Air Force used USD$4.9 billion worth of fuel; and in the same year, the US military was responsible for 59 million tons of CO2 – equivalent to the overall emissions of some industrialised countries such as Switzerland or Sweden. 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 car exhaust being emitted over a whole year.

Likewise in the United Kingdom, emissions from its military activities represent nearly 50% of the overall UK’s emissions, highlighting the sector’s significant – yet often disregarded – role in global warming. 

Military leaders accept that climate change is real and the consequences can be felt daily around us. A very clear message was sent during the White House climate summit in 2021 where Lloyd J. Austin III, an American retired United States Army four-star general, described the climate crisis as “a profoundly destabilising force for our world,” and brought to attention the potential for widespread havoc and bloodshed that has been and will continue to be experienced.

You might also like: US Military Pollution: The World’s Biggest Climate Change Enabler

Environment Impacts and Costs of Wars

The former UN Secretary general Ban Ki-moon once said: “the environment has long been a silent casualty of war and armed conflict. From the contamination of land and the destruction of forests to the plunder of natural resources and the collapse of management systems, the environmental consequences of war are often widespread and devastating”. 

The environmental impact of wars and the extent of which depends on various factors, such as the nature and length of the conflict, what weapons were mostly used, and how big an area is occupied etc.

One example is the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The rainforests in Vietnam provided ideal conditions for Vietnamese soldiers to hide whilst US soldiers had no knowledge on how to survive and adapt to them. It became the reason why between the years between 1961 and 1971 the US military became highly dependent on defoliants. They cleared out forests to enable them to see their enemies more easily, and it would liquidate their enemy’s source of food. Overall, 73 litres of chemical substance was sprayed over rainforests, targeting specifically on cultivated land to disrupt rice production and destroy crops. The results seen in Vietnam were horrific and the consequences are still being felt today. Nearly 50% of the mangroves – which are important carbon sinks and coastal protection – have been destroyed. The natural habitats within the Vietnamese forests that were homes for vulnerable species such as tigers, elephants, bears, and leopards have been irreversibly destroyed. Soil across the land has lost its nutrients and eroded. As a result, the ecosystem services that people and wildlife depend upon have been widely reduced and limited. 

But it’s not just large-scale conflicts like the Vietnam War that causes detrimental i pacts on the environment; war of any size can lead to long-lasting consequences, too. For instance, during the Rwandan civil war (1990-1994), around 750,000 refugees settled at the edge of the Virunga National Park and used the environment to satisfy their daily needs. Based on the statistics, nearly 1,000 tons of wood were cut a day for two years for home building and cooking. In the wake of the conflict, a total of 105 sq km of forest were completely damaged and another 35 sq km stripped bare. These beautiful forests were home to at least 190 species of trees, 275 species of birds, and 12 species of primates. The same Virunga National Park was home to the largest population of hippos in the world with nearly 30,000 individuals living there in 1974. Compounded with the rise of wildlife poaching, the population number reduced to just about 1,000.

What Can Be Done?

While it’s impossible to prevent any wars and conflicts, there are ways in which we can reduce the military’s carbon footprint and impacts on the environment. As Lieutenant Richarch Nugee, a retired senior British Army Officer once said, “by changing the way we operate, across land, sea and air domains, defence will play its part in the fight against climate change.”

In the US for example, the US Department of Defense finally recognised global warming as a national threat in 2010, and subsequently took efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emission. Most notably, 44% of their petroleum-fuelled vehicles have been replaced by hybrid and electric cars. The sector has also installed huge solar arrays to generate electricity for their bases. As a result, the Pentagon announced they have reduced their petroleum use by 41% compared to 2005 levels, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 23% relative to 2008 levels. 

The Ministry of Defence in the United Kingdom has similarly launched the Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy where they aim to reduce emissions and to use renewable energy as much as possible, which would contribute to UK’s net zero by 2050. One of its first goals is to reduce the build estate emissions no less than 30% by the year 2025. 

Militaries around the world have been gradually adopting more sustainable initiatives. For the US Army, their sustainability goals can help enhance mission effectiveness, reduce their environmental impact, comply with federal sustainable mandates, and achieve levels of energy independence that enhance continuity of mission-essential operations.

Switzerland, a country known for its neutrality, wants to invest USD$705 million by creating a carbon neutral military by 2050. By 2030, they plan to exchange all oil heating systems within military buildings and replace them with “alternative ones” – presumably with renewables. Some other measures include the enhancement of self–produced electricity, all suitable roofs and facades to be fitted with photovoltaic systems, and independence from foreign energy suppliers. The Swiss Armed Forces also plans to plant trees and support sustainability projects where possible. Certainly, the Swiss Army cannot be compared in size with that of the US, Russia, China or other big capacity military, but it is a real start and sets a great example on how to emphasise sustainability priorities in the military department. 

Climate change represents a real threat to global security, and every country has its priority to protect itself from any potential harm. Building and maintaining military  forces require huge amounts of energy and resources, and only by gradually replacing fossil fuel-powered equipment with ones powered by renewable energy sources can we achieve military sustainability. Of course the ideal scenario would be for no war to ever again happen; wars only bring about destruction to the innocent people and to even more innocent a party – nature –  which we depend highly upon. Wars are never worth starting and as H.G. Wells once said: “if we don’t end war, war will end us.”

Tagged: war

About the Author

Denisa Ogoyi

Denisa is a full-time mom based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She holds two Master degrees, one in Environmental Management and one in Environmental Sustainability. She loves reading about environmental issues and success stories and writes about them to help others see and understand the issues surrounding us that we tend to overlook.

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