The carbon emissions of war put humanity’s right to exist at risk

The world cannot prevent wars, but it can reduce their duration, limiting their intensity and environmental damage.
The world cannot prevent wars, but it can reduce their duration, limiting their intensity and environmental damage.


  • While developing countries are asked to sacrifice their growth prospects for global climate goals, it is a cruel joke to witness wasteful emissions from extended wars. Geopolitics and international security are blind spots that the climate-change movement mustn’t ignore.

The regional head of a well-regarded global philanthropic foundation recently told me that his board had decided to exclusively focus on funding causes concerned with combating climate change. Knowing that it had previously supported work on nuclear disarmament and international security, I asked why those problems were no longer of interest to the foundation. His reply left me bemused. Climate change, he told me, is a long-term existential threat to humanity.

Our conversation was taking place at a time when a nuclear threat had been issued at the onset of a major war, where drones and missiles were flying between nuclear-capable countries, with major powers having withdrawn from arms-control treaties, and hypersonic and space weapons were fast destabilizing the global balance. 

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, a measure of how close we are from annihilation, jumped to 90 seconds to midnight last year, up from 120 seconds in 2019. War remains an immediate existential threat. But, unfortunately, it has got overshadowed by climate change in terms of global awareness and activism.

I have seen climate-change activists roll their eyes when the conversation turns to geopolitics. To the extent that they engage with the subject at all, it is to argue that international politics is a major hurdle to achieving emission targets and other climate goals. They do not sufficiently recognize that war is perhaps the most undesirable source of carbon emissions. 

The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts (PERAC) in 2022, but the environmental impact of war remains at the margins of the international discourse on climate change. That is an expensive mistake.

Benjamin Neimark and his colleagues found that the “projected emissions from the first 60 days of the Israel-Gaza war were greater than the annual emissions of 20 individual countries and territories." The incremental increase in emissions over the first two months was around 280,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). If we were to bring this up to date, almost a million tCO2e has been wastefully dumped into the atmosphere. 

The researchers estimate the reconstruction of Gaza will create another 30 million tC02e of emissions. These are very conservative estimates and the real cost to the environment might be of a bigger order of magnitude. Over in Ukraine, Lennard de Klerk’s team calculate that an additional 150 million tCO2e of greenhouse gases have been emitted in the first 18 months of the Russian invasion, exceeding that of a country like Belgium.

Also read: Global CO2 emissions hit record high in 2023, IEA says

At a time when people in developing countries are being asked to sacrifice their growth prospects to achieve global climate goals, it is a cruel joke to witness such thoughtless and wasteful emissions from extended wars. The world cannot prevent wars, but it can reduce their duration, limiting their intensity and environmental damage. 

Even before the UN adopted the PERAC resolution, the international community has acted to penalize damage to the environment by aggressors (or, in realist terms, losing sides). An additional Geneva Convention protocol prohibits causing “widespread, long- term and severe damage to the natural environment." After the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was forced by the UN to pay environmental damages after burning Kuwait’s oil wells and polluting the Gulf.

In fact, the world prohibited wars of aggression in 1945 and the entire edifice of the United Nations was created to prevent them from happening. We have seen that the UN can limit wars and the international system can hold war criminals accountable. 

Let us be clear: If wars in Ukraine and Gaza are dragging on for months, it is because at least one permanent veto-holding member of the UN Security Council wants it that way—or more. Fingers must be pointed at them, both for the loss of lives of combatants and civilians and for the environmental damage that harms everyone on the planet.

In the face of the climate crisis, war is no longer only a moral crime against humanity. It is a material one against the survival of the species. It is time to treat it as such. Greenhouse emissions from wars are a global negative externality and it is no longer tenable to let off the actors that cause it.

Everyone on the planet is being asked to pay a price for the world to get to net zero. It makes no sense to allow wilful and egregious polluters to do so free of cost. Making polluters pay into a global fund that can then be deployed to compensate the victims of climate change is not only fair, it also creates the right incentives. In theory.

The problem in practice is that the international system has vested power and impunity in the hands of permanent members of the UN Security Council, ironically making these five the worst threats to human security. Ergo, UN reform ought to be on the agenda of everyone who cares about climate change. Geopolitics and international security are a blind spot that the climate-change movement can no longer afford to ignore.

Also read: Oh no, not again: We’re back under the shadow of a nuclear cloud

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