We need to do more to understand the climate costs of war if we’re to identify pathways towards emissions reductions and increased resilience during recovery.
Armed conflicts often halt or reverse economic development. Because of this, it is generally assumed that they lead to reductions in the emissions that contribute to climate change. But as Eoghan Darbyshire and Doug Weir explain, as we learn more about the societal and environmental changes that occur in insecure and conflict-affected areas, it’s becoming clear that economic output alone does not tell the whole story.
Many of the environmental and societal changes that occur in conflicts can create new and significant sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the same time, the collapse of environmental governance associated with conflicts can create or sustain the conditions that allow polluting practices to flourish, and constrain efforts to address them. Some of these problems extend into the post-conflict period, a time when weak institutions and ungoverned spaces can allow unsustainable activities to proliferate. Yet conflicts can also create opportunities for economic or societal change that can contribute towards future emissions reductions.
In this post, we examine some of the direct and indirect sources of emissions during and after conflicts, before exploring how their scale could be better characterised. We deliberately exclude the direct emissions from military operations, which are dealt with in a separate post. Because much of the research around climate change and conflicts focuses on climatic risks to peace and security, rather than how conflicts influence emissions, this post also calls for more research into the relationship between conflicts and emissions.
Emissions trends during conflicts
Emissions during conflicts are typically a function of how and where conflicts are fought, as well as their intensity. While direct emissions can be obvious, we often need to dig deeper to untangle the indirect influence that conflicts have on emissions.
Oil production, storage or transportation infrastructure is often a target of fighting, as has been the case in Colombia, Libya, Syria and Iraq. Fires and spills generate emissions, and at times oil infrastructure is actively weaponised. It has been estimated that the 1991 Gulf War’s oil fires contributed more than 2% of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions that year,1 with distant and long-lasting consequences. This includes pollution from the fires contributing to the accelerated melting of Tibetan glaciers due to the soot deposited on the ice.
Vegetation can also be a target of warfare, with the carbon it stores released when it is removed. The historic use of chemical defoliants and mechanical clearance in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had the military goal of eliminating forest cover, with between 14-44 % of Vietnam’s forest lost. More recently, forest was burnt in Nagorno-Karabakh – likely to aid drone warfare, crops have been attacked in north east Syria, and protected areas set alight in Israel by incendiary kites.
The indirect emissions from active conflicts are the hardest to quantify, but perhaps the most significant given that they extend across many sectors, and into the future. In the early phases of fighting, the main emissions will arise from damaged infrastructure, the loss of vegetation, and delivering humanitarian aid. Monitoring indirect emissions first requires that we understand the relationship between societal change and the environment as many of these changes relate to the coping strategies employed by the civilian population.
When energy infrastructure and markets are impacted by conflicts but a need for fuel remains, people often turn to more harmful and less efficient alternatives. For example in Syria, there is a crisis of artisanal oil refining, with little understanding of how the highly polluting practice contributes to emissions. The same is true of deforestation for firewood and charcoal, which is well-documented in the DRC, Yemen, South Sudan, Syria and elsewhere. Transboundary human displacement can contribute to the annual emissions from neighbouring countries, for example those of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey from those displaced by the fighting in Syria.
Significant resources are required to deliver food, water and shelter to civilians affected by conflict, and the humanitarian sector has a large carbon footprint. Fuel use is particularly high – in 2017 costing an estimated $1.2 billion, or 5% of aid expenditure – mainly for logistics and to power the generators delivering vital electricity. Displaced persons camps can also release carbon following landscape changes, for example the deforestation near the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, something donors and agencies have sought to address through Nature-based Solutions.
It remains an ambition for humanitarian organisations to expand the sector’s ‘Do No Harm’ principle to carbon emissions. To do so baselines should be established, charters signed, and reduction commitments considered, as some groups have done already. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the feasibility of emissions savings, for example by reducing travel, swinging aid cuts may make it harder to implement environmental programmes covering sustainable and local food provision, green procurement and logistics, estate management, and moves to clean energy. Humanitarian and development agencies are moving forward on the transition to clean energy, including the UNHCR, which saved nearly 1 Mt of CO2 in 2019 – although careful implementation is required to avoid environmentally harmful outcomes.
Locked in and infrastructure emissions during protracted conflicts
As a conflict becomes protracted or frozen, some significant sources of anthropogenic emissions can become locked in. Under-development, a lack of external investment and weak governance can result in old polluting technologies remaining in use, where they might otherwise have been replaced.
An example of this is the practice of flaring – burning excess petroleum gas as a by-product of oil production, which releases it as CO2. The volumes involved are huge. Figure 1 shows how flaring intensity has risen substantially in Libya, Syria and Yemen during the conflicts there, despite overall declines in total output as oil production has stalled. The same trend was seen during the conflict in Iraq and, critically, has continued post-conflict. This is a noted trend for countries facing instability or conflict.
Figure 1: Trends in flaring volume and intensity in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Note the different scales on the y axes. Flaring data from the Earth Observation Group at Colorado School of Mines, as described here and in Elvidge et al., (2015). Oil production data from the US EIA.
In Libya and Iraq, there have been moves to increase the domestic utilisation of gas, either in energy production or liquefied for export. Nevertheless, instability has doubtless constrained efforts to reduce the practice of flaring. In these four countries the flaring intensity is well above the global average, with them alone contributing approximately 15% of global flaring emissions – equivalent to at least 51 MtCO2e of emissions in 2020.2 Such are the volumes involved, a 2018 study found that both Yemen and Iraq could meet their emissions reductions targets under the Paris Agreement just by halting the practice.
In reality, some unburnt petroleum gases and other pollutants from combustion, like black carbon, are also emitted during flaring – the combustion products depend on the fuel quality but also flowrates and the addition of oxygen, both factors that could conceivably be affected by conflict with maintenance and flaring optimisation limited. Our preliminary analysis of air pollution over the main flaring region in Libya shows an increase in absorbing black carbon aerosol since 2012. This suggests that there has also been a decrease in flaring quality.3 Therefore, the true carbon cost of flaring is likely much greater than estimated from CO2 emissions alone. Furthermore, another great unknown is how natural gas venting rates have changed – this is significant as methane has a global warming potential 28 times greater than CO2.
Ageing energy infrastructure may also have to switch activities to meet the challenges associated with conflicts. In Ukraine, the Luhanska power plant had to increase production and switch to low grade coal following disruption to fuel supplies. In Lebanon the Zouk power plant runs on heavy fuel oil which, following the introduction of tighter International Maritime Organisation regulations for marine fuel is one of the few markets for it; it is produced in surplus by Iraq. This is partly because the upgrading or repair of Iraq’s refineries has been inhibited by instability. Other examples of locked in emissions from the energy sector include the continued use of old transport fleets with poorer regulatory standards, or fugitive methane emissions from the extractive sector, such as those from abandoned or unmanaged coal mines in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Ageing or unmaintained facilities are not just an energy sector problem. Again in Libya, 90% of wastewater is released to the sea untreated, and nearly half of all treatment plants are not functioning; likely increasing GHG emissions from the waste. Similarly, solid waste management has deteriorated, with 40% of waste left on the streets and the proliferation of higher emitting informal landfills and open air waste burning. These trends in dysfunctional wastewater treatment and solid waste management are common to most conflicts, for example in Gaza and Yemen respectively.
Emissions from land use changes
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 23% of anthropogenic GHG emissions arise from agriculture, forestry and other land use changes. Many conflicts are characterised by large scale land use change, and emit carbon indirectly through the loss or modification of vegetation and soils as carbon sinks. Although as the example of agricultural intensification in some areas of northern Iraq under Islamic State’s control shows, this is not always the case.
Large scale land use changes can take a number of forms, and influence emissions in different ways. One of the most common is where insecurity or socio-economic drivers lead to the forced abandonment of agricultural land, as was the case in Bosnia, or see climate, water availability and conflict combine to increase bare areas, as has been the case in Syria. The deliberate destruction and then abandonment of agricultural land due to conflict – as occurred in other parts of northern Iraq – can lead to increased CO2 emissions.
In occupied Crimea, land degradation has resulted from water scarcity, caused in part by Ukraine’s upstream damming of the North Crimean Canal. While as insecurity and conflict increase, this can drive deforestation, as is currently the case in Myanmar where the military junta uses timber sales for revenue.
Fire is often one of the primary means of vegetation clearance. We estimate that the carbon emissions from vegetation fires in conflict areas in 2020 alone were approximately 1,456 Mt CO2e.4 Although many of these fires won’t be directly or indirectly associated with conflict, for instance lightning-ignited wildfires, even a conservative estimate of 10% would be equivalent to approximately half the UK’s annual emissions.
The fate of wetlands warrants particular attention during conflicts. They can act as significant carbon sinks and disruptions to their hydrology can lead to them becoming carbon sources. The deliberate draining and destruction of the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq in the 1990s saw 90% of this important ecosystem destroyed, and with it the way of life of the Marsh Arabs. Efforts to restore them are ongoing.
Military activities can also lead to long-lasting land use changes. In eastern Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh we see vegetation clearance along the lines of contact, while very significant changes were caused in Myanmar’s Rakhine State due to a deliberate scorched earth policy. The development of fortifications and installations can also impact fragile areas, for example in Kuwait, and in Iraq, where the increase in dust over military bases can be observed from space. Top soils, and their carbon storage potential, are commonly affected by conflict. Soil erosion and desertification linked to warfare has been identified in Syria, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Both desertification and soil erosion can accelerate the loss of carbon from soils and reduce their potential to be effective carbon sinks.
Conflicts can also influence emissions from the marine environment, for example where oil spills impact coastal ecosystems, through increasing waste water discharge due to urban damage or through increased sediment runoff following deforestation or land degradation.
Governance collapse and disengagement from international projects and processes
We have already seen how the collapse of environmental governance can encourage practices that increase emissions, or which lock in polluting technologies. An additional dimension of weakened governance is how it reduces the likelihood that conflict-affected states will participate in international processes and projects to address climate change – often in spite of their own vulnerability to climatic shocks.
Reporting to the UNFCCC illustrates this phenomenon. Reviewing its foundational national communications, we find that Libya has never submitted, whilst the last submission from Syria was in 2010. Few conflict-affected countries have provided any biennial updates. As of early 2021, seven countries were yet to ratify the Paris Agreement, the majority of which are or have recently been involved in a conflict: South Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, Yemen and Libya.
This lack of participation in international processes is compounded by the postponement or cancellation of internationally funded development projects to promote sustainable development and renewable energy. This too can lock in emissions, for example, conflict has seen the abandonment of Global Environment Facility projects to develop geothermal energy in Yemen, drive energy efficiency in Syria, and promote sustainable land management in Libya.
On a more immediate level, weak governance in fragile and conflict-affected settings can see control over high emitting resources lost to non-state armed groups, for instance Islamic State’s grip on Iraqi oil fields. It can also facilitate corruption, which in turn can drive highly damaging projects such as the corruption-linked plans to drill for oil in tropical peatlands in the DRC – one of the continent’s most important carbon sinks.
Emissions trends after conflicts
The societal and developmental changes in the period following conflicts can be as profound as those that occur during them. This can lead to rapid emissions’ growth, which often takes place in an institutionally weak environment and, as explored above, with outmoded or ill-maintained infrastructure. This section examines two sources of emissions common to many post-conflict areas: urban recovery, and land use changes.
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas can create staggering levels of destruction. This often creates a substantial environmental legacy, including the carbon costs of debris management, the remediation of contaminated areas and reconstruction. In cities like Mosul, Sirte and Homs, with widespread destruction, managing debris presents an enormous and energy-intensive challenge. It is estimated that clearing the debris from Aleppo and Homs alone would require more than 1 million truck journeys.
Construction consumes huge volumes of raw materials, and generates huge volumes of emissions as a result – 3,560 Mt CO2e globally in 2019. Cement production is particularly carbon intensive, accounting for 8% of global GHG emissions, and may be more inefficient in aged facilities in conflict areas. Of the housing stock in conflict-affected areas of Syria, nearly ten percent is totally destroyed and nearly a quarter partially destroyed – estimates suggest the rebuild will emit around 22 Mt CO2.
Land use changes
Beyond the cities, the post-conflict period can see significant changes in land use. This can be as a result of economic development, populations returning to previously insecure areas, or agricultural expansion or conversion. This typically takes place in a weak institutional context with limited rule of law, often leading to harmful environmental change.
The surges in deforestation documented in many post-conflict areas exemplify this phenomenon. Most notorious is Colombia, where the demobilisation of the FARC in a conflict underpinned by unequal land rights created the conditions for particularly rapid forest loss. It is in no way unique, indeed in areas with tropical forest, deforestation linked to the transition to peace is the norm, as this study on Nepal, Sri Lanka, Ivory Coast and Peru demonstrated. Our own recent assessment has estimated that in 2020, deforestation in a selection of active and post-conflict countries was responsible for emitting 1.1 MtCO2e – nearly four times the total emissions from the UK in 2020.
While emissions are on a far smaller scale than those from deforestation or widespread agricultural changes, dealing with the legacy of war remnants can also contribute to emissions, and in some cases over many decades. Taking just anti-personnel mines, they are present in 57 states and 131 km2 were cleared in 2019. Clearance is an energy intensive process in which the environment is not the primary concern, and which can directly or indirectly destroy vegetation and, through mechanical demining, soil carbon sinks. More attention should be given as to how the changes in land use that follow clearance could be used to reduce emissions or boost resilience. This is particularly important where the long-term presence of remnants may have conferred protection on an area, allowing it to rewild and store carbon.
Tracking emissions during and after conflicts
We need more research and better methodologies.
Looking beyond GHG emissions alone
It is worth noting that climate change is not solely driven by GHG emissions. The atmospheric radiative balance can be perturbed by both surface heat or water fluxes and emissions of short-lived climate forcers, which can act to alter aerosol and cloud properties, together changing regional climate and weather. Changes in surface fluxes will occur from land use changes, the scope of which we have identified above, whilst emissions of short-lived forcers will primarily be from black smoke plumes such as oil fires, flaring and conflict-associated dust.
There is also an increasing trend of militarising fragile geographies that fulfil indispensable roles in climate regulation – be that expansionism in the Arctic, which plays a key role in cooling through the albedo effect, sending troops into the Brazilian Amazon, Indian encampment at the Siachen glacier, or in future, the possible weaponisation of the atmosphere through geoengineering.
Need for new methodologies
Because of the impact of conflicts on environmental governance, we cannot rely on national emissions reporting alone. However, some insights can be gleaned from global emissions inventories. There are two main databases: CDIAC,5 and EDGAR,6 each with slightly different and flawed methodologies. In Figure 2 we show the time-series of emissions from all fossil fuel sources, and just the oil and natural gas sector, for Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Figure 2: Trends in emissions for four countries affected by conflict based on one existing emissions inventory.
Both methodologies suggest that in each case conflict has resulted in a reduction or plateauing of total emissions. From this figure alone, it may be possible to conclude that war is “good” for the climate as emissions are reduced. This would be an incorrect take for three reasons. Firstly, these emissions databases do not incorporate land cover changes, fires, or biogenic emissions. Secondly, they are based on uncertain information or ‘default’ assumptions – obtaining correct activity data for conflict areas is particularly challenging, let alone knowing representative emissions factors. Thirdly, they do not address the “locked in” emissions from old and degraded infrastructure, which post-conflict will be relied upon to rejuvenate the economy, or requires reconstruction.
This overview has sought to demonstrate the complex and often context-specific relationship between emissions and conflicts, and emissions and peace. It is an understudied area and one where far more scrutiny is required. There are several reasons for this. The most immediate is that all states have international obligations to address their emissions, and this process is impossible without reliable data. Moreover, at a time where militaries are recognising the security threats that climate change is creating it is only right that we factor in the carbon costs of conflict itself. This should not just address direct military emissions, but also the emissions that can be expected to result from the conditions associated with conflicts, and their aftermath.
Finally, conflicts can create opportunities to build back greener, or to encourage sustainable transitions in energy production, land use or urban development. Understanding how any given conflict has created increased carbon emissions or degraded carbon sinks would greatly facilitate the identification of recovery and climate mitigation projects, as well as climate adaptation programmes.
We believe that developing methodologies to track the influence of war and peace on emissions is vital, and our aim in writing this is to encourage research interest in this question. If we only focus on the role of climate change in driving insecurity, we will miss opportunities to fully understand the climatic costs of war, and to identify pathways towards emissions reductions and increased resilience during recovery.
Eoghan Darbyshire is CEOBS’ Researcher, Doug Weir its Research and Policy Director
- Based on airborne studies at the time – Hobbs and Radke – and retrospective estimates from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center – for the Kuwait fires (130,438 thousand metric tons of carbon), and global emissions (6,142 million metric tons of carbon).
- The Colorado School of Mines flaring data shows the 2020 total CO2 emissions from flaring in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen is 22.0547 bcm, and globally is 152.4370 bcm. The 22.0547 bcm volume is converted into CO2 emissions using the conversion factor of 2.3 kg of CO2e per cubic metre as described by Romsom and McPhail., 2021 – this assumes perfect combustion and thus is a conservative estimate of total carbon emitted.
- We used the UV Aerosol Index product annual time-series analysis to show the aerosol index increasing from ~1.5 pre-2012, to 2 in 2020. A more detailed analysis is required to rule out the influence of dust on this data. The aerosol index OMTO3d 1° product is measured by the OMI instrument on board the Aura satellite. Data was produced from the Giovanni online data system, developed and maintained by the NASA GES DISC. The area of main flaring in Libya was defined by a bounding box of 18.5° to 21.5° latitude, and 27.5° to 29.5° longitude. The raw data can be obtained from this link. The phenomenon can be seen anecdotally from satellite imagery, which shows the smoke colour from flaring in Libya visually darkening over time.
- Based on CEOBS’ analysis of the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED4s) for the following countries: Iraq; Syria; Lebanon; Israel; Palestine; Yemen; Libya; Ukraine; Somalia; Afghanistan; Colombia; Chad; South Sudan; Dem. Rep. Congo; Ethiopia; and Myanmar.
- The Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.
- Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research.