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To tackle climate change, we need peace – and also an accountable Defence Department

Preventing wars, demilitarisation and promoting peace are vital strategies for tackling climate change, writes Dr Sue Wareham OAM, President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War.

She also urges the Defence Department to lift its game on climate action, and to commit to improved measurement, reporting and scrutiny of military emissions.


Sue Wareham writes:

It is encouraging and long overdue that the preservation of health is now recognised as a key reason for urgent climate action. All those who have worked hard to achieve this result should feel very proud.

The consultation paper which was released recently for Australia’s first National Health and Climate Strategy rightly also recognises health equity as one of the important guiding principles.

However, there is one glaring inequity in climate strategies globally that continues to be overlooked. It is the virtual blind eye turned toward military greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while health and other civilian sectors attempt the hard yards of reducing their emissions.

Consider the climate impacts of wars and their preparation.

It is estimated that the world’s militaries may be contributing 5.5 percent of global GHG emissions – a percentage so significant that it cannot be ignored.

If the world’s militaries were a country, it would have the fourth highest carbon footprint (after China, the USA and India). As just one example of war’s intense thirst for fuel, one B52 fighter jet consumes about as much fuel in one hour as the average car driver uses in seven years.

The richest countries are spending 30 times as much on their armed forces as they spend on providing climate finance for the world’s most vulnerable countries. This is inequity on a grand scale. Notions of “security” and “threat” have been hijacked by militaries to justify wars and threats of wars that destroy prospects of genuine security for all on a sustainable planet.

War and its preparation also create new and significant sources of GHG emissions, including huge transport operations, the destruction of vegetation,  and the need for reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure.

Climate and other environmental concerns are deprioritised when nations are at war, and cooperation between nations ends. As of early 2021, seven countries were yet to ratify the Paris Agreement, and five of the seven were or had recently been involved in a conflict: South Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, Yemen and Libya (see here).

Defence lacking

In Australia, where military activity is rapidly increasing, the Defence Department is paying grossly inadequate attention to climate change.

The Australian Security Leaders Climate Group commented on the unclassified version of the recent Defence Strategic Review, stating that it “largely ignores the significance of climate risk”.  The group stated their impression that “the review regards climate change as a one paragraph concern, which should not be allowed to interfere with the far more serious business of military mobilisation in preparation for WW3.”

The Australian Defence Force says it has initiated a range of investments to drive GHG reductions, but there is no information about the level of current ADF emissions, how they are measured, or how it deals with operational emissions.

In the period 2001-2012, the Defence Department was responsible for 66 percent of total Australian Government emissions. In the same period (2001-12) the Department of Health and Ageing was responsible for less than one percent of public sector emissions.

Since 2012, no emissions data from the Defence Department has been made public, and reporting on energy use has been incomplete. It does not take into account military supply chains, a source of considerable embedded carbon emissions given the hardware needed to fight wars. Therefore, Defence’s contribution to national emissions is likely to be much higher, and to have increased proportionately since 2012.

Internationally, the reporting of military emissions is voluntary rather than mandatory, and it is most often not done. At the 1997 Kyoto negotiations, final-hour demands made by the United States led to the exemption of  such emissions from climate negotiations and from emissions reduction targets, creating a significant ’emissions gap’.

There are moves in civil society to change this, such as from the Conflict and Environment Observatory in the UK. In Australia, the Medical Association for Prevention of War is joining these efforts and advocating some steps that Australia must take to make climate action, and the National Health and Climate Strategy, genuine whole-of-government matters.

Australia should take the following steps:

  • Commit to improved measurement, reporting, and scrutiny of military emissions
  • Include military emissions from all sources and supply chains in overall calculations of Australia’s emissions, and mandate a reduction target that reflects the urgency of the problem
  • Work with other states to ensure that military emissions are on the table at the COP28 meeting in December this year.

Work for peace

To achieve the necessary GHG emissions reductions, both in Australia and globally, we must reduce military activity.

As just one part of this, we must reverse the current trajectory towards a further major war, between the US and China, which would be a disaster for the climate quite apart from its other multiple impacts. Talk of war distracts attention and funding from where it is really needed, which is in global cooperation to address our common threats.

Demilitarisation is a highly effective means of decarbonisation. A ‘green’ military is a fantasy, but one that many militaries – including our own – will probably try to pursue at our expense.

Only a peaceful planet can be healthy and sustainable.

• Dr Sue Wareham OAM is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War


Note from editor: Croakey has asked the Defence Department to respond to concerns raised in this article and the specific calls for action.

Update, 30 June. The Defence Department provided the following comment:  Defence is committed to measuring and reporting its emissions in line with the Government’s Australian Public Service Net Zero 2030 standards. Defence is committed to supporting Australia’s emissions-reduction targets of 43 per cent by 2030 (from 2005 levels) and net zero by 2050.

Croakey was also advised that questions about the Australian Government’s approach to the COP28 meeting should be referred to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.


Croakey invites readers to share news about the National Health and Climate Strategy using the hashtag #HealthyClimateStrategyOz.