Smoke billows following Israeli strikes in Rafah near the Palestinian Egyptian border in the southern Gaza Strip on December 14, 2023 Image Credit: AFP

War is a major cause of death and suffering for millions of people around the world. It not only kills those who are directly exposed to it, but also affects future generations who inherit the consequences of war.

War also damages the environment and contributes to the climate crisis by emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which trap heat in the atmosphere and cause global warming.

According to various estimates, more than 230 million people died as a result of war from 1900 to the present. Some of the most devastating wars in the last century include the two World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Syrian Civil War, and the recent deaths in Gaza due to the Israeli bombardment of civilians.

The current death toll of global conflicts is the highest in the 21st century, with about 240,000 people killed in 2022 alone.

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Displacement by war and conflict

Wars are also associated with GHG emissions, which consist of various pollutant gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases.

An estimate based on data from the International Energy Agency and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute suggests that the world’s militaries emitted about 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2019, which is about 2.3% of the global total.

The United States, the largest emitter of military operations, emitted about 205 million tonnes of CO2 in the same year, which is equivalent to 0.4% of the global total. These estimates do not account for the emissions from the industries that supply the militaries with weapons and equipment, nor the emissions from the environmental damage and displacement caused by war and conflict.

The amount of GHG in Gaza is estimated to be 70 million tonnes during the last 40 days. Some less reliable sources use a simple method of multiplying the number of casualties by the average carbon footprint of a person.

Such a method only considers the reduction in emissions, 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 per year. This is, of course, assuming only the reductions, but does not consider the emissions from the military operations, the infrastructure damage, and the reconstruction, which are likely to be much higher than the emissions from the population loss.

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A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip shows smoke rising above buildings during an Israeli strike in Gaza. Image Credit: AFP

Unfortunately, the GHG emissions from wars and military operations are not well reported or accounted for by most countries. This is partly because of a loophole in the international climate agreements, which do not require or oblige countries to include their military emissions in their targets or inventories.

This loophole was created in 1997, during the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, when the United States insisted on excluding emissions from multilateral operations, activities that involve more than one country, and from ships and aircraft associated with international transport.

The Paris Agreement, which was signed in 2015, does not include the exemptions for military emissions, but it leaves it to the discretion of each country to declare them or not. Therefore, most of the data available rely on estimates from independent researchers and organisations, which may vary depending on the sources and methods they use to measure the impact and the quantity of the GHGs.

In 2021, during the Conference of Parties (COP) 27 in Glasgow, climate activists, academics, and civil society organisations gathered in one of the tents and demanded that the organisers include military emissions on the formal agenda of the United Nations meeting.

Emissions from military operations

More than 200 civil society organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, signed the Conflict and Environment Observatory’s call for governments to commit to reductions of emissions from military operations.

They argued that war and climate change are interlinked and that addressing one requires addressing the other. They also urged the international community to adopt a human rights-based approach to climate action and to ensure that the most vulnerable and affected people are protected and supported.

However, with more than 2% of the global emissions not reported and remaining classified data, the global warming will remain under limited control.

Despite all the efforts and the hard work made during the conferences of parties (COPs), the International Energy Agency reported on the last day of COP28 in UAE that the pledges made so far are not enough to limit the global warming to 1.5°C.

Today, nearly 130 countries have pledged to triple renewables while 50 oil and gas companies have agreed to cut out methane emissions by 2030 as per the report. If everyone delivers on their commitment, it would decrease global energy-related GHG emissions by 4 billion metric tons. This stage is indeed less than 30% of what is required to cap global warming at 1.5°C.

Dr Abdulla Al Nuaimi is the Chairman of the Advisory Council of Sharjah. He is a former UAE minister of Infrastructure Development and for Climate Change and Environment