Demilitarization = Decarbonization = Systemic solution

The armed-to-the-teeth, heavily armored and well fed gorilla in the room at the COP26 is the military. Yet none of the leaders of the major economies wants to even mention the military industrial complex in the same sentence as climate change. It is a no-go area, like a radioactive fallout zone from nuclear weapons testing, or the land polluted by Agent Orange in Southeast Asia and by depleted uranium in Iraq (although these areas are, alas, not always restricted areas, with innocent civilians still suffering side effects decades later).

The military should not have been excluded from COP26. All of the G20 countries are major military powers and resultantly major military-related polluters. There are no estimates (to my knowledge) of pollution and environmental damage caused by militarism globally, but it would be a staggering figure.

Declassified UK has revealed that the UK military alone produced 6.5 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2017-18, which is more than the annual emissions of Uganda. The carbon footprint of the EU’s military expenditure in 2019 was conservatively estimated to be the equivalent of about 14 million average cars emissions a year. The US military is the world’s single biggest institutional polluter.

As Andrew Feinstein notes, if the Pentagon was a country, it would be the 47th largest polluter on the planet. Every fighter jet, tank, aircraft carrier, armored personnel carrier, helicopter and Humvee belches out huge amounts of carbon emissions.

To achieve such stellar pollution figures requires lots of money to be spent. In the US case, $778 billion a year, 39% of the world total of nearly $2 trillion in 2020. The UK, the host of COP26, is to spend £190 bn by 2025 on the military.

Demilitarizartion would ideally have been on the agenda at COP26, with countries urged to commit to 1), slash military budgets to provide funds for decarbonizing the world economy, and 2) end nuclear weapons. After all, what is the point in discussing ways to ‘save’ the world from environmental collapse while still having weapons that are capable of nuclear armageddon, with the world 100 seconds to midnight? ‘Billions of people impacted by rising sea levels and climatic change’ is the same kind of headline for the potential fallout from a nuclear explosion – billions killed and impacted.

The $2 trillion a year spent on the military is a figure politicians seemingly do not baulk at, yet do about pledging – and more importantly actually stumping up – the woefully inadequate $100 billion that was promised at COP25.

Lets have half of that yearly military expenditure spent on efforts to improve the environment and humanity, which is roughly that of NATO members’ military spending – 55% of the global total, so just over $1 trillion.

According to the Energy Transition Commission’s Making Mission Impossible: Delivering a Net-Zero Economy report, the cost of this transition over the next 30 to 40 years is only about 1% to 2% of global GDP per year. By contrast, NATO has an annual military target spending of 2% of members’ GDP.

Yet what about cutting the spending of the other military powers, China (13% of global share), India (3.7%) and Russia (3.1%)? Yes, they would also have to slash spending to reduce their carbon emissions. But it should be considered that NATO’s budget is more than three times the combined spending of China and Russia. NATO, and primarily US, military spending would have to be significantly cut for Beijing and Moscow to be convinced to reduce their spending in favor of de-carbonizing economies.

The argument in favor of demilitarizing economies to provide additional funds to finance the ‘green’ transition goes beyond the money. It is about changing economies heavily dependent on the military industrial complex, and all that comes with it. This includes putting all that research and development, all those smart minds working on ways to kill people, to instead focus on the climatic and environmental challenges ahead.

De-militarization also means de-militarizing society, so de-militarizing minds. The militarization of entertainment is particularly nefarious, permeating brains from a young age. Indicative of this is that last week, in my child’s school newsletter, a young boy was quoted as saying he wanted to be a F-16 jet pilot when he grows up. He is probably not making the connotation with death and destruction wrought by jet fighters, but it is clear he has internalized the glorification of military technology. De-militarization and de-carbonization go hand-in-hand, to turn swords into plowshares.

Yet if slashing the military’s carbon emissions had been part of COP26 discussions, it would no doubt have been camouflaging rather than greening: Tesla tanks, ‘green’ bombs and eco-friendly B52 bombers running on, er, hydrogen – in other words, army green colored green-washing.

This is actually happening, with the US and UK militaries proclaiming they are trying to cut carbon emissions. At the same time, military spending is increasing. The US budget was up by 4.4%, while the UK earlier this year announced it would expand its nuclear weapons program by 40%, with Trident to cost £31 billion ($42.1 bn).

That is $42.1 bn that could be spent far more wisely in the UK, and to go towards a global pot to mitigate the impact of climate change. The money could also be spent on outcomes with positive rather than negative long-term ramifications. For it is not just money being wasted now on the military. Slashing military budgets will reduce environmental damage and future costs to the public.

Take the UK’s 20 nuclear-powered submarines that have been retired from service since 1980. Disposal of hazardous radioactive waste has not been completed on any of these subs, and is expected to take until the late 2060s. The current tab for decommissioning is £7.5 billion ($10.1 bn). There are a further 10 submarines (currently active) to decommission some time in the future.

As the world takes stock of the ‘blah blah blah’ COP26, let’s ramp up calls to demilitarize society as part of efforts to decarbonize economies.

As Martin Luther King said: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”



Paul Cochrane is an independent journalist covering the Middle East and Africa. He lived in Bilad Al Sham (Cyprus, Palestine and Lebanon) for 24 years, mainly in Beirut. He is also the co-director of a documentary on the political-economy of water in Lebanon, “We Made Every Living Thing from Water”.