Media release, 19 May 2020
The carbon footprint of British military spending is 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, a new report launched today has estimated. This is more than 11 times the figure the Ministry of Defence (MOD) usually highlights when discussing the British military contribution to global heating – and is similar to the emissions produced by over six million average UK cars in a year.
The report – published by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) and Declassified UK (DUK) – accuses the Ministry of Defence of being “highly selective” in the information it publishes about its carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.
Globally, military carbon emissions are thought to be a large contributor to the climate emergency – but research on them is typically hampered by a lack of transparency. This new report has critically assessed the information published by the MOD and UK arms companies – using the latest scientific research to provide a more extensive assessment of impacts. The SGR-DUK report delves into many issues more deeply than a recent report by the National Audit Office.
British military carbon footprint
In the main text of its annual reports, the MOD only publishes figures for the direct carbon emissions of its ‘Estates’ – i.e. military bases and civilian buildings. In the 2017-18 – the latest year for which in-depth data is available – this was approximately 0.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). However, this only amounts to one-third of its total direct carbon emissions. The MOD only reveals figures for deploying military equipment – including combat planes, warships, and tanks – in an annex to its annual report. Furthermore, it does not provide an overall total for its direct emissions.
But even this is not the complete picture. The MOD’s direct emissions do not include the impacts of the arms industry – both in the UK and overseas – which builds the equipment, nor the impacts of the supply chain, including raw material extraction.
Using figures from an array of industrial and academic sources, the SGR-DUK report provides estimates for the carbon emissions of the British arms industry, indirect emissions within the UK, and the total carbon footprint including all lifecycle emissions.
The UK-based company with the largest carbon emissions was found to be BAE Systems. Its UK emissions were found to be about 30% of the total for the nation’s arms industry as a whole.
The report also estimates that the carbon footprint of British arms exports is over 2 million tCO2e. These emissions would be counted in the carbon footprints of the importing countries.
Furthermore, the report cast doubt on the MOD’s ability to reduce military carbon emissions in the future – pointing to government plans to markedly increase military spending, deploy huge new aircraft carriers, and expand overseas military bases. Any new military operations would increase carbon emissions even more.
Lack of transparency and accountability
The report finds that a lack of transparency and accountability extends beyond the British military’s carbon emissions to include some of its other environmental impacts.
The report points out that the MOD itself decides when it is exempt from civilian environmental laws – and third-party monitoring and verification is patchy. Indeed, in a separate report published by the National Audit Office only last week, it identified that the MOD’s “oversight arrangements for environmental matters have not been functioning well”.
The SGR-DUK report identified three other key concerns:
- There is a long history of mismanagement of the British military’s radioactive waste. For example, the MOD has yet to complete the dismantling of a single nuclear submarine since the first retired back in 1980 – and now has twice as many of these vessels in storage as it has operating at sea.
- The British military doesn’t publish any assessments of the environmental damage caused by its war-fighting activities.
- The MOD also seems to ignore the latest scientific research showing the catastrophic global environmental impacts which would result if it launched its nuclear weapons.
The report concludes that the only way Britain can minimise the environmental impacts of its military is to move away from an aggressive military posture – cutting back on the manufacture and deployment of highly polluting warships and combat planes – and devoting many more resources to tackling non-military security threats such as pandemics and climate change, and doing much more to tackle the roots of conflict. The report stated that this “should include a comprehensive ‘arms conversion’ programme including all relevant UK companies, including funding for retraining of workers”. It pointed in particular to the potential for more engineers and scientists to move into the green energy and industrial sectors.
Dr Stuart Parkinson, author of the report and executive director of SGR, said “The Ministry of Defence is not being straight with the public over its real environmental impacts – or that these impacts are contributing to major global problems such as the climate emergency. They are also failing to appreciate that a different approach to security – one which moves away from aggressive, polluting technologies towards one with a priority on preventing global non-military threats such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic – would be better both for security and for the whole of society.”
1. The 36-page report – entitled ‘The environmental impacts of the UK military sector’ – can be downloaded from:
2. Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) is a UK-based membership organisation which promotes responsible science and technology. Its membership includes hundreds of natural scientists, social scientists, engineers and professionals in related areas. It carries out research, education, and advocacy work centred around science and technology for peace, social justice and environmental sustainability. It is an active partner of ICAN, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. For more information, see http://www.sgr.org.uk/
3. Declassified UK is the leading website for in-depth analysis and exclusive news on British foreign policy, investigating the UK military, intelligence agencies and its most powerful corporations. For more information, see: https://www.declassifieduk.org
4. The report from the National Audit Office is entitled ‘Ministry of Defence: Environmental Sustainability Overview’ and can be downloaded from: https://www.nao.org.uk/report/environmental-sustainability-overview/