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Carbon Footprints of Wars? Who Wants to Know?

Updated: May 29

Have you ever wondered what the carbon footprint of any war could be? Carbon footprint is the total quantity of Green House Gases (GHG) like carbon dioxide that is released or discharged by individuals or groups of people from everyday activities.

We often think of carbon footprint in terms of combustion engines on our daily drives, factories and types of machinery we see daily but how much of such thoughts or attention is paid to the possible calculation of carbon footprint in war zones? But really who remembers carbon footprint in places of war artillery, human deprivation, death and the tussle for power in whatever form?

Much has been written on the carbon footprint of our daily errands in our cars, households, our mobile gadgets, flying across the Atlantic, going to space, astronomy labs, interior renovations, even fashion week and we can now calculate our carbon footprints, which is no longer news, so why not wars? Perhaps, in the face of more complexity and fight to survive, the carbon footprint of wars needs to come to the forefront of Climate Change and development discussion. To say, such thoughts could prevent looming wars would be such a reach but maybe, it could open small windows of opportunities to see wars differently and have us all embrace greener alternatives to things like energy demand.

Why should I care?

To be fair, absolute figures on carbon prints are nearly impractical, and for wars, the complexity is deeper but we should be “climate change concerned”. Research led by Julia Pongratz in 2011 using climate-carbon simulations focused on the impact of wars on carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere between ad 800 and 1850. The study further claimed that deforestation was a bigger issue of climate change than wars and plagues. However, the length of conflict matters and war machinery has now become more sophisticated and possibly deadlier than they were in the past which would mean, wars should be a big concern in the present climate change discourse.

Human casualties in wars always make the headlines during the war and post-war but understanding how the carbon footprint of wars can further create a chain reaction from increased global warming like heatwaves, forest fires, rising sea levels, drought, and floods miles away from the main areas of conflict is an important insight for the understanding carbon footprint of war thousands of miles away. These event leads to human displacement as more people become displaced across the world and flee to other countries for safety.

Wars, Wars and More Wars

Days of the Gulf War, the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan, the wars in different parts of Africa, the Middle East and now Ukraine, and Sudan (plus many undocumented, forgotten ongoing bombardments) have opened discussions on global energy demands, reviving nuclear power and the reality of race even in war. Thick dark smoke from bombardments and shelling, endless lines of cars of people running across the Ukrainian border and Increased human traffic powered by fossil-fueled engines should have us all thinking of the carbon footprint of wars, now that for many it is hits close to home. People often refer to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster with the international aftermath as though it happened such a long time ago but that should be a reminder of how much wars fought in the past and ongoing can adversely impact the climate with far-reaching impact. War means increased demand for different forms of energy in a world still largely dependent on fossil fuels to power homes and businesses.

Where are the Numbers?

The fact that information on the carbon footprint of wars in the past is almost nonexistent should beg the question of why wars are not actively discussed in major climate forums like Davos or the Conference of Parties (COP). War discussions in such forums are more in the form of protests from “outsider groups” like Stop The War Coalition. The amount of money spent on wars would probably be small compared to the impact of GHG from a single bombardment and the immediate impact on the surrounding environment and consequently, the aftermath carried in air particles miles away, chemicals that end up in the groundwater if we could measure such in monetary terms which would be an unrealistic approach.

Wars are so expensive, energy-intensive and complex that to understand the carbon footprint of wars, we have to look at the whole cycle from mass production of weapons in factories, warships on the high sea, deliveries, the litres of fuel involved from planning to execution, the war itself (including casualties) with miles flying thousands of miles and the aftermath. Imagine the number of countries in the world with military and war pieces of machinery, all the bombing and shelling going on, many of which do not make the news. Imagine the money spent and the global climate change impact which is yet to be researched.

Yes, we now know there is more CO2 in the atmosphere, yes, we know the earth is warming faster and we have passed many of the Earth's boundaries and we have the expenditures in billions of dollars of many wars (past and present) but we still cannot place numbers on the carbon footprint of wars.

Yes, wars have massive carbon footprints because information on the military apparatus of different countries offers some information but what exactly is the impact of carbon footprints of wars on the Zero emissions goal? How do we put numbers to it through research, so we can start finding the solutions? Can the carbon footprint of wars in the past and present become central to issues at influential climate change forums?

This article was first published in 2020.

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