We reflect on the role that militaries played in COP28, whether behind closed doors, centre stage, or by their absence.
COP28 was a memorable COP for many reasons; a record-breaking 100,000 attendees, the first ever ‘peace day’, and the landmark establishment of a long awaited loss and damage fund. But yet again, and as with its predecessors, no outcome documents mentioned the contribution that military activities or warfighting makes to the climate crisis. Ellie Kinney reports on what was new.
The Global Stocktake fails to take stock
As the desert dust settles on COP28, the outcomes of the conference have been variously hailed as both ‘historic’, and ‘grossly inadequate’. The conference marked the end of the first Global Stocktake process, a review built into the Paris Agreement to help states collectively assess where they are, where they need to go and how to get there, as well as to identify gaps to address. After coming close to near-failure, a final text was approved that recognised the need to ‘transition away from fossil fuels’ but failed to acknowledge the impact of military activity or armed conflicts on climate action.
It’s testament to the power of civil society that fossil fuels have finally been named as a cause of the climate crisis, particularly with a record-breaking 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists present. But despite efforts from campaigners this year, including submitting information into the official process and raising the issue at the Technical Dialogue meeting, the Global Stocktake missed an opportunity to name another key driver of the climate crisis – militarism.
Always money for war
The progress made at COP28 is undoubtedly a small step forward, but the frustration felt by many lies in the fact that it’s great leaps that are needed. The contributions made by countries to the loss and damage fund are a welcome starting point, but at a conference where attention was drawn to the ongoing war in Ukraine, and several delegates wore keffiyehs in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, many questioned where states’ priorities lie.
The US pledged just $17.5m, a drop in the ocean compared to its staggering military spending of $876.94bn in 2022. Even the more generous contributions feel tokenistic when compared to annual military budgets; Italy and France both pledged the most – $108m, but spent $33.49bn and $53.63bn respectively on their military budgets in 2022 alone. Germany’s contribution of $100m is vastly overshadowed by the country’s recent ambitions to increase its military budget by €10bn.
Russia and Israel, both busily causing wartime environmental destruction and increasing military greenhouse gas emissions, are yet to pledge anything to the fund (although as a Non-Annex 1 country, a category for mostly developing countries, Israel isn’t expected to). Michelle Benzing, representing the Women and Gender Constituency in the closing plenary, summed up the contradictions of COP28 well by asking why there is always money for war and never for climate action.
Behind closed doors
While military emissions may have been missing from the negotiations, and the outcome document, militaries certainly weren’t missing from the conference. On ‘peace day’, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg appeared alongside US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, German State Secretary Jennifer Morgan, and UNEP Executive Director Inger Anderson at a Munich Security Conference event Climate Security Moment: Assuming Joint Leadership.
The event aimed to convene leaders and stakeholders to ‘discuss how to scale up concrete action on the climate security crisis’, with statements covering the impact of climate change on defence, the toxic legacy of wars, and the need for net zero militaries. According to the Munich Security Conference, ‘it was followed by an off-the-record roundtable discussion amongst a selected group of around 50 decision-makers and experts from the international security and climate communities.’
CEOBS was unable to get access to the roundtable discussion, and we aren’t aware of anyone within the Peace@COP community or our wider network who were invited to attend the event. This opacity shouldn’t come as a surprise given the state of military emissions reporting, but this behaviour sets a dangerous precedent for the terms on which militaries are able to engage with the UNFCCC.
Questioning the ‘facts’
Some militaries were more visible than others, and didn’t stick to closed events. At the Higher Education Pavilion, the Center for Climate and Security and the University of Pennsylvania hosted Assistant Secretary of the US Army, Installations, Energy, and Environment Rachel Jacobson, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Arctic and Global Resilience Iris Ferguson for a ‘fireside chat’ on Climate Geopolitics and the US Military.
The chat covered the increasing impact of climate change on defence, the role of the US Army overseas, and the DoD’s reasons for attending COP28 (“if you’re not here, you’re not relevant”). Some parts were eye-opening. For example, lamenting the training days military personnel lose due to having to respond to more natural disasters, or promoting the strategic benefits of working on projects in countries like the Dominican Republic to support access to the critical minerals necessary for the green transition.
We would argue that there are other climate interventions that militaries should be prioritising, such as addressing their own emissions. When we suggested this, the speakers were quick to assure us that the DoD only represents 1% of the US’s total emissions. We questioned how confident the speakers were on this, given that US reporting doesn’t include scope 3, the military supply chain. It is estimated that military supply chain emissions could be around 5 times higher than the emissions from direct fuel or energy consumption, so this is a significant omission. Their answer? We were told that it was “not possible” for the US DoD to have a grasp on the scale of its scope 3 emissions.
The exchange was a useful reminder of the legacy of US lobbying for a military emissions reporting exception at COP3 back in 1997. This has resulted in a sector that for decades has not had to answer for its contribution to the climate crisis. If militaries are going to be engaging in the UNFCCC process in future, this should be on the terms that they finally produce accurate and transparent data on their emissions to date.
Calling out the elephant in the room
The wars in Gaza and Ukraine, and COP28’s increased focus on peace and security, helped leverage attention on military and conflict emissions. While the programme for the Presidency’s ‘peace day’ featured surprisingly little on peace itself, and almost nothing on the role of militaries, civil society organisations and academic institutions hosted a record number of events on peace and on conflict sensitivity.
Beyond the side events and panels, civil society was creative in its messaging. Militarism was called out as the elephant in the room during a protest outside the main negotiation rooms, this featured an inflatable elephant, and was coordinated by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Elsewhere, a powerful art exhibition Nature Footprints, coordinated by Peace@COP, showcased the impact of environmental and climate change on conflict-affected communities around the world. It was exhibited outside the main meeting rooms to catch the attention of negotiators and decision makers. In our conversations with attendees from country delegations, NGOs and UN bodies, few were surprised by linkages between the climate crisis and militarism.
The Global Tipping Point report, supported by more than 200 researchers from 90 organisations, explored harmful planetary tipping points. It identified warfare and everyday military activities as responsible for vast GHG emissions. The Initiative on the GHG Accounting of War published a third update to its estimate of the climate damage caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which now covers the first 18 months of the war. It suggests that Russia is responsible for an additional 150m tCO2e – more than the annual emissions from a highly industrialised country like Belgium. Journalists were also paying attention, with coverage including Al Jazeera, Firstpost, The Guardian, The New Arab, The Conversation focusing on the devastation in both Ukraine and Gaza, and placing this in the context of the wider contribution of militaries to the climate crisis.
As societal awareness and pressure grows, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the UNFCCC to delay addressing the impact of militarism on the climate crisis, and COP29 must provide a breakthrough. Next year will be a key opportunity for states as they develop the next round of updated and more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions, which are due in 2025. Governments must recognise that military emissions reductions are essential to meet the Paris Agreement commitment to limit global warming to no more than 1.5oC.
Looking ahead to COP29
COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan, holds risks and potential for further attention on military and conflict emissions. Another major oil and gas producer, and one where human rights concerns have also been raised regarding critical media and anti-government protests, Azerbaijan has a long history of integrating the environment into its political and military disputes with neighbouring Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. At times environmental narratives have been actively weaponised, and it is not at all clear whether this could facilitate or undermine attention on conflict emissions next year.
How the UAE’s peace day precedent will develop also remains to be seen, as will the widespread concerns about petrostate hosts using COPs to greenwash the fossil fuel industry, while making backroom deals to increase production. Either way, civil society must continue to push for greater awareness of the intersection between militarism, conflicts and the climate crisis, and pursue another record-breaking year for events, interventions, protests and press coverage, especially if we can expect military representatives to continue to attend.
Ellie Kinney is CEOBS Campaigner, Linsey Cottrell contributed to this blog, both attended COP28.