Why it’s so hard to measure the climate impacts of conflict

Tabulating the emissions of war is slippery for 3 key reasons

jets fly over ground explosions

They might not all make headlines Stateside, but as of today, there are more than 110 armed conflicts occurring across the globe, according to the Geneva Academy of International Law and Human Rights. Most of those conflicts are taking place in climate-vulnerable locations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. 

The emissions, environmental, and human costs of armed conflict fuel a feedback loop that can perpetuate worsening global conditions. “There’s no way you can destroy an area without having huge climate impacts as well as the humanitarian impact,” says Ellie Kinney of The Conflict and Environment Observatory. 

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Thing is, we don’t have a full view on just how emissions-heavy armed conflicts actually are across the globe. We chatted with experts on wartime emissions to understand why this is such a hard number to pin down, because to address the environmental costs of conflict, we first need a better understanding of what they are.

Military carbon accounting is voluntary

While climate agreements set by the United Nations or some countries require nations to log the emissions associated with a range of sectors, like shipping and aviation, there is a gap in reporting on military emissions, Kinney explains. The Kyoto Protocol, the first international climate agreement signed at COP3 in 1997, gave the world’s militaries an exemption from reporting the emissions of overseas conflicts. The Paris Agreement, signed at COP21 in 2016, similarly deemed that reporting voluntary, leaving what could be a massive piece of carbon accountability off the negotiating table.

Because of this, data is limited, often hidden in civilian categories like aviation, or not reported at all. “In every decarbonization, you have to know what your emissions are in order to set targets and reduce them,” says Lennard de Klerk, an expert in carbon reporting at the Initiative on GHG Accounting of War. 

“It’s so important for the climate movement to make these connections and see the bigger picture of what’s going on here.”

Ellie Kinney, The Conflict and Environment Observatory

That means any data points you encounter are estimates. In late 2020, for instance, The Conflict and Environment Observatory found that carbon emissions from the world’s militaries hitt 5.5% of the global total—slightly less than the entire country of India and around double that of the shipping industry. An analysis de Klerk published in Dec. 2023 found that in the 18 months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, greenhouse gas emissions have totaled 150 million metric tons of CO2e, or about the same as the annual emissions of Belgium. “The majority of the damage is the damage is there in Ukraine and it hurts Ukranians,” says study author de Klerk, “but the impacts of the climate of course hurts us all.”

We’re only seeing part of the emissions picture

The climate impacts don’t stop when the fighting is “over.” Conflict destroys all kinds of infrastructure: buildings, pipelines for electricity and energy, water lines, food supply chains, sanitation systems, and more. “That has a real impact on how resilient an area, and consequently, a population is to the impacts of climate change,” Kinney adds. Just in the last year, we’ve seen these effects manifest as food and energy shortages in Ukraine, worsening water and sanitation crises in Gaza, and increased vulnerability to flooding and drought in Sudan

Because the aftereffects are so myriad, calculating the emissions implications of building (or rebuilding) infrastructure during and after wars is necessary to understand the full scope of the problem. “There’s no way you can destroy an area without a huge climate impact,” Kinney says.

One paper published in the journal Antipode in 2023, for example, found that the 256 miles of concrete walls built during the U.S. occupation of Baghdad between 2003 and 2008 produced around 200,000 metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e), which is about the same as the total annual car tailpipe emissions of the U.K. The same research team also estimated that rebuilding 100,000 buildings destroyed in Gaza will produce 30 million megatons of CO2e, or about the same as New Zealand’s annual emissions. 

War creates excuses to pull back progress

War and conflict can act as an opportunity to unwind progress that is already underway to curb emissions, further compounding potential climate impacts. For instance, members of the House of Representatives floated attaching a rider boosting liquid natural gas (LNG) exports onto the latest foreign aid package. (It didn’t make the final cut.) LNG proponents argue that boosting U.S. production and exports could help keep countries off of Russian oil and gas

Conflict bubbles up conversations about energy security, which is the idea that having all the resources we need within our own borders is vital. Some elected officials argue that fossil fuels are the way to accomplish this, but according to the International Energy Agency, a diverse energy portfolio is what actually is key. Not to mention, fossil fuels cause conflict: Just 10 countries control 75% of the world’s oil, and, according to Harvard’s Belfer Center, up to half of all wars since 1973 trace back to oil and gas.

War is a climate issue, one with impacts that reach the entire global community. The only way to find out just how big its bootprints are is to push for more accountability. “So much of the caution around talking about the environmental climate impacts of war comes from the fact that they haven’t been spoken about—it feels like you’re drawing attention away from the immediate [impacts],” says Kinney. “It’s so important for the climate movement to make these connections and see the bigger picture of what’s going on here.”