In 1997, at the eleventh hour after torturous back-and-forth bargaining that would become the Kyoto Protocol, American negotiators raised one last demand – greenhouse gases generated from military operations should be exempt from being counted against a country’s emission totals.
Since the United States would be in constant war over the next two decades, the loophole, if you can call it that, proved to be farsighted. Outside the Pentagon, probably no one really knows exactly how much the United States military has been contributing to global warming.
While the 2015 Paris Agreement closed that loophole, former president Donald Trump opted out of all participation in the climate pact two years later. In any case, the agreement itself was vague over how a country’s military should count its emissions from actual operations.
But as one of the world’s largest organisations, the US military’s normal fuel consumption – and therefore carbon footprint – outside of war is staggering enough to exceed whole countries.
Summarising their findings, which were published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers in 2019, a team of researchers at Lancaster University and Durham University wrote: “The US 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 US 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.”
It’s estimated the US military leaves behind a carbon footprint larger than that of each one of 140 countries out of the world’s about 200 territorial entities.
In 2019, Neta Crawford, a political scientist at Boston University, found the US Defence Department owned or operated 585,000 facilities, occupying 10,926,512 hectares of land spread across 160 different countries. If this is not a global military-based empire, then nothing is. The Pentagon headquarters in Washington alone emitted the equivalent of more than 24,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
But that’s not all. As the world’s No 1 arms dealer, the US is spreading its weapon systems and their logistics and transportation around the world. Chief among these are jet fighters such as the F-35s, which have replaced the old F-16s and are being sold to allies. In 2018, of the 379 million litres of fuel the Defence Logistics Agency bought, about 265 million were jet fuel.
This has created problems for more environmentally responsible allies. With its green commitments, as a buyer of the F-35s, the Norwegian government is caught in a bind. According to the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen, “Average fuel consumption for the new fighter jets is estimated to be as much as 60 per cent higher than for today’s fighter jets. For each flight hour, there is 5,600 litres for the F-35, compared to 3,500 litres for the F-16.”
Environmentalists in Canada are likewise up in arms against their country’s purchase of the F-35s. Lockheed Martin, the jet’s designer and builder, is selling it to 14 US allies and military partners including Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Belgium and Singapore.
Despite lip service being paid to environmentalism and carbon neutrality, the US military’s real priorities are security and lethality. Every major weapon system, be it a jet fighter or an aircraft carrier, is loaded with carbon-intensive technologies that cannot be scaled back without compromising their effectiveness and raising costs.
No other country’s military, not even that of China, remotely compares with the destructive carbon footprint of the US military for the simple reason that America outspends the next nine countries combined. And since it is also the most aggressive, judging by the number and intensity of wars it has waged since the end of the second world war, it will never allow any international climate treaty to restrain its military’s operations and planning.
That’s why whatever comes out of COP27 in Egypt, it won’t make a difference to the US military.