Download executive summary: Indefensible: Executive Summary [PDF]

Download full report: Indefensible: The true cost of the global military to our climate and human security [PDF]

For the companion ‘sustainable human safety’ report, go to Global military spending, sustainable human safety and value for money.


This report focuses specifically on the military-oil industry relationship to reveal its role in climate breakdown. It argues that we must start to quantify, expose and act upon the climate burden put upon people and planet by the world’s big military spenders.

Until now, we have collectively and consistently ignored the massive yet unaccounted for responsibility of the world’s militaries for climate change, from their day-to-day operational activities to the wars and conflicts of which they are part. We must start to factor both into climate calculations because we are ignoring them at our peril.

The 8-point recommendation plan at the end of this report aims to address this.

The elephant in the room: military spending as a driver of climate change

The UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2018 confirms that global efforts to decarbonise are way off track, and despite pledges to cap them, global emissions continue rising on the back of economic growth. One hugely important economic sector consistently ignored in attempts to tackle climate change – it ranks as the UK governments 4th largest area of expenditure and a sector that has made negligible efforts to decarbonise – is the defence/military sector. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from military activities and wars are not included in global emissions totals, meaning we have significantly underestimated the total global GHG emissions from all human activities so far.

Greenhouse gas emissions from day to day military activities and attendant wars are so substantial that we will never achieve the zero-emission goal recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by 2050 without also making our militaries carbon neutral. If we do not decarbonise our militaries and urgently reframe our approach to foreign policy, security thinking and defence spending, the world’s militaries will themselves become a threat to our collective “human security”.

By analysing the existing data and research, we can piece together a disturbing picture of the global military’s environmental impact:

    • The carbon footprint of the global militaries and associated defence industries is 445 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (2017); this is larger than the annual greenhouse gas emission of the entire country of Italy, and not much smaller than the total GHG emissions by UK (505 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) and France (482 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) respectively.
    • The global militaries and defence industries account for at least 1% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions, and the figure could be as high as 5%. For comparison, civil aviation accounts for approximately 2.1 % of global GHG emissions, and international aviation alone is responsible for around 1.3% of global GHG emissions. This means that the global military-industrial complex accounts for the compatible amount of greenhouse gas emissions as civil aviation which is essential for global trade and our modern well-being. When everyone is thinking to do their bit by taking fewer flights and buy local food and consumer products, militaries are having a free pass to buy and operate as many big-ticket gas guzzlers (eg, F-35s and Eurofighter Typhoons) as they want, with no hard question asked by our politicians.
    • If we rank the world’s militaries together as a single country, they would be the 29th biggest oil consumer in the world, just ahead of Belgium or South Africa. To put it another way, this is half the oil consumption of the world’s 5th biggest economy, the UK or the 6th biggest, France.
    • The total carbon footprint of EU15’s militaries and defence industries is 60 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent ― that is the same amount of emission as Ireland and roughly 2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions by EU15 in 2017. In the EU, direct CO2 emissions from aviation account for about 3% of total emissions. The EU prides themselves to be the world’s first region to address CO2 emissions from international aviation so it is inexcusable for them to neglect the climate impact of their militaries and defence industries when both sectors generate compatible amount of greenhouse gases.
    • The total GHG emissions of the nine-year Iraq War (between 2003 and 2011) were approximately 254 million tonnes of CO2 That’s slightly more CO2 released than the 14th biggest economy in the world, Spain, in 2016, and only a quarter less than the 6th biggest economy, France.

This ongoing emissions burden will be sustained as long as excessive global military spending is used to develop and purchase ever more oil-dependent expensive jets, tanks and missiles, which in turn create destruction and greenhouse gases (all the while generating significant shareholder profits). The irony, indeed hypocrisy, of the USA and other leading military nations’ spokespeople being among some of the loudest voices calling for action on climate change (summed up by ‘everyone but us’) is not lost on some observers, since it is precisely those same military nations that know their own contribution towards creating the climate crisis in the first place. But that inconvenient truth is skilfully masked by another narrative that is more easily and widely taken up – the need to manage the consequences of climate change and the resulting emergencies and chaos.

And governments are covering the climate burden of their respective militaries’ tracks well.  At the time of the Iraq War, the USA negotiated an exemption from reporting emissions. To this day, the reporting each country is required to make to the UN on their emissions excludes any fuels purchased and used overseas by the military. And under the Paris Agreement of 2015, countries are still not obliged to cut their military emissions.

Oil, military spending and conflict are currently indivisible, and combined have played and continue to play a major role in impeding or reversing development in communities and nations across the global south as ordinary people pay the price in myriad ways. There seems to be no end in sight as governments (especially the big military spenders) are themselves locked into foreign, security and defence spending strategies that are self-destructive, with endless war-for-oil conflicts that create millions of refugees; conflicts that result in ever-greater military spending on ever-more fossil-fuel dependent equipment operated by fossil-fuel reliant militaries.

Our collective future in this post-climate change world must be guided by social, economic and environmental justice, and in doing so, more fully deliver the global human security we all need to survive and thrive. Unfortunately, the world’s militaries (and the biggest beneficiaries of these budgets are the defence companies) are not working to that measure of ‘defence’.

We are now on the brink of a new conventional and nuclear arms race. Global military spending is rising ever closer to ‘the $2 trillion redline’, with 85% of global annual military spending ($1.9 trillion) accounted for by the top 20 spenders alone. The ‘peace of mind’ secured by nations through foreign, security and defence policies derived from fossil-fuel dependent militaries is – on many critical counts – no longer fit for the 21st century. The time has come to replace outdated notions of ‘national security’ with policies that reflect all 21st century threats to our collective safety.

While this report highlights the destructive merry-go-round of war, devastation and rebuilding, it presents a ground-breaking new formula to help countries progressively convert their military spending into funds for meeting environmental and human needs. The Five Percent Proposal is a two-part formula that: 1) halves global military spending over 10 years, with those savings redirected to human need; and 2) implements a 5% threshold formula, designed to rein back military spending thereafter. It has been developed through lessons learned on campaigns such as debt, trade and tax.

There are now just 11 years (at the time of writing) to meet the international pledge to limit global warming to moderate levels (below 1.5°C) by cutting global greenhouse gas emissions to 45% below 2010 levels by 2030. On 1st May, 2019, and after intense pressure, the UK parliament finally declared ‘a climate emergency.’ Thereafter, the Department for Transport’s (DfT) Head of Aviation said “it may be necessary to consider the Committee on Climate Change’s recommended policy approach” to restrict the growth of flying in the UK. This statement was only in relation to commercial aviation, ignorant of the UK’s significant military aircraft emissions burden.

We need a quantum shift in our willingness to address the significant role of the global military in climate change and the urgent need to decouple it from oil. And if we do make progress on this issue, then (albeit belatedly) we will have recognised that our collective ‘defence’ is as much about how we resource early warning and disaster risk reduction and all it entails, as it is about terror threats and conventional warfare. Every aspect of human activity is now under the climate spotlight and demands transformational re-thinking. The global military should be no exception.