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All History of US Environmental Policy

Research paper draft

Problem: The U.S. military is the largest institutional user of fossil fuels and polluter of carbon emissions in the world. Additionally, the military acts as a massive subsidy to the oil industry through violently maintaining access to foreign oil for private exploitation. Through these means, they are arguably the largest organizational impediment to the decarbonization needed to halt climate collapse.

Geographic boundary: Primarily within the U.S., as the majority of military emissions happen domestically, but policy changes would affect everywhere U.S. military has bases & operations, plus any manufacturing happening in other countries.


  • President of the U.S., as Commander in Chief. President Biden wants to be a leader on the environment but is pro-military freedom/expansion, has helped enact policy to prevent counting military emissions, and is wary of optics of being perceived as anti-military.
  • U.S. Congress. Position is generally pro-military-expansion, since it creates jobs/grows the economy, either enthusiastically (Republicans) or to any extent anti-, wary of same optics as president. Not answerable to climate needs unless there’s re-election risk associated.
  • Joint Chiefs of Staff/leadership of military branches. Unabashedly pro-military in growing the budgets and power over time. Yet their position is more complex: they see climate as the most significant threat to military operations, and ostensibly want to mitigate that risk, but not in any way that would compromise military readiness or budgets. They will take pro-climate actions like installing renewable energy whenever it will improve military readiness, but only under that justification. They’ve funded foundational research in climate, renewable energy/solutions, and been the first government branch to make major movements under the reasoning of climate change.
  • Military contractors, who want as much business as possible with as little oversight/compliance as possible, so anti-regulation.

Key observation: none of the major stakeholders would weigh climate goals over military expansion.

Regulatory history

This history is entirely sourced from Neta Crawford’s book ‌The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War, which provided my foundational knowledge and thinking on this topic.

As former assistant secretary for installations, environment, and logistics of the U.S. Air Force Bill Anderson said, “We’re concerned about climate change…but the first mission is bombs on target.”

  • President Biden’s net zero goal, with major exemptions. In December 2021, the Biden administration ordered federal agencies to submit plans for emissions reductions, including the Department of Dense, as part of the net zero by 2050 goal. However, it came with an exception: “The head of an agency may exempt from the provisions of this order any vehicle, vessel, aircraft, or non-road equipment that is used in combat support, combat service support, military tactical or relief operations, or training for such operations.”
  • The U.S. Department of Energy and the DOD have since 2010 begun to report U.S. military emissions, but the reports exclude scope 3, military contractors, and other major categories; with such key exclusions, the numbers are not in the order of magnitude of the true total.
    • The totals, across scopes 1 & 2, decline from 76.5M MTCO2e in 2010 to 54.8 MMT in 2019. (For context, for many organizations, scope 3 emissions can be north of 90% of the total footprint.)
    • Researchers have used military employment numbers, military budgeting, fuel purchase records, the numbers available from the DOD itself, and other proxies. Researcher Neta Crawford suggests these emissions closely track war; in 1975, she estimates that number to be 109 MMT, and in the 2000s, around 69 MMT annually. Ho-Chih Lin and Deborah Burton have estimated global military emissions in 2017 around 445 MMT, around 1-5% of world emissions.
    • None of these estimates include full scope 3 (the DOD briefly reported these numbers in the 2000s, but omitted dozens of categories), military contractors—which include construction, the design and fabrication of most weapons and equipment, essential operations around food, fueling, waste management, security, and more—biogenic emissions, destruction of property including oilfields (estimated to be 2% of worldwide CO2 emissions at peaks of the Gulf War), the additional greenhouse effect potential of contrails from high-altitude Air Force aircraft, and more. Environmental destruction like the estimated 11 million barrels of oil spilled into the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War are not counted by any emissions estimates.
  • 2015 Paris Agreement. While committing parties to emissions reductions, including military emissions, both full disclosure and military emissions cuts are optional.
  • Since 1994, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has required ratifying countries, including the United States, to submit national inventories of greenhouse gas emissions.
    • The EPA prepares this for the United States, following IPCC conventions. Though the Kyoto Protocol does not apply, the EPA uses its language for military methodology, including that “emissions emissions based upon fuel sold to ships or aircraft engaged in international transport should not be included in national totals, but reported separately,” and emissions resulting from international operations resulting from decisions made by the Charter of the United Nations “shall not be included in national totals, but reported separately; other emissions related to operations shall be included in the national emissions totals of one or more Parties involved.” This means military emissions that happen on another U.N. country’s territory are not included in United States national totals. From 1990–2000, the U.S. Navy classified 79-87% of fuel use as bunker fuels, to be excluded from reporting.
    • IPCC guidelines also state: “Due to confidentiality issues, many inventory compilers may have difficulty obtaining data for the quantity of military fuel use.” They suggest aggregating military fuel use within another category to support this confidentiality, as specified in 2006 then further clarified in 2013. For research, this means UN reports do not illuminate U.S. military emissions.
  • 1997 Kyoto Protocol. When the language of the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, the U.S. successfully pushed to exempt most military emissions from reporting requirements, and watered down other language. The U.S. has since withdrawn; the agreement no longer affects our operations.
    • The military’s representative at our convention pushed for the military exemptions, which was supported by Congress, including Senators Joe Biden and John Kerry, arguing it would impose fuel cuts which would reduce U.S. combat effectiveness, and “sacrifice…our ability to offer humanitarian assistance.” These included “bunker fuel” (fuel for multilateral military operations, in ships or aircraft) being excluded from emissions inventories, and emissions from overseas bases—an installation the U.S. has more than an order of magnitude of more than the next-highest country—count for the inventories of the host nation, unless negotiated otherwise by the countries.
    • The U.S. simultaneously pushed for “flexible market mechanisms,” instead of mandatory measures or caps on emissions, to prevent carbon taxes or “heavy central regulation” from being imposed on U.S. industry.
    • In 1998, the National Defense Authorization Act included the language: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no provision of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or any regulation issued pursuant to such protocol, shall restrict the training or operations of the United States Armed Forces or limit the military equipment procured by the United States Armed Forces.” This sums up the approach the United States has long taken to the environmental consequences of military emissions.
    • In 2001, President Bush withdrew the United States signature from the Kyoto Protocol.
  • 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The Rio Declaration stated: “Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development,” and while it agreed that each party should provide “a national inventory of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals,” it did not agree upon the carbon accounting methodology and did not require specific gases to be named, the sources listed, or impose limitations on the emissions themselves.

Potential solutions

  • Require the Department of Defense to do comprehensive carbon accounting on an annual basis of all operations, including military contractors, and release that information to the public. Researchers are estimating the carbon impact of the military with little concrete data on operations and next to none on contractors or supply chain. When preparing national emissions inventories, the EPA could forego the Kyoto Protocol language we had watered down and write more ambitious, transparent policy. We should set the example for the world.
  • Remove the exemption of national security organizations from participating in the federal net zero goal.
  • Re-assess the cost of fuel inside the military to include, including recursively along the fuel’s supply chain: predicted future damage to military operations/equipment and additional conflicts caused by climate change exacerbated by the fuel’s usage, and/or high-quality, durable carbon removal required to offset the fuel’s carbon footprint. These would incentivize lowering fuel usage.
  • Accelerate plans for renewable energy installations at bases. These have been cost-effective and less vulnerable to attack than armored fossil fuel delivery, yet few bases have installed these systems.
  • Accelerate biofuel goal timetables for the Air Force; in fiscal year 2016, 8.8% of of the Air Force fleet was powered by biofuels, which has been steadily increasing in my lifetime. The Biden administration has plans (with an unclear path to the target) for all U.S. aviation fuel to be biofuel-based by 2050.
  • “The Army says it will reduce emissions 50 percent by 2030 from its emission levels in 2005,” but many of these emissions reductions, as they have in the past, will come from closing bases and reducing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. While those emissions reductions count, these targets should be expanded to operations not closing down, on metrics based on remaining activity, such as per-base or per-troop emissions. This reduces the carbon emissions of inevitable future deployments.
  • Expand the net zero goal of the Army (limited to installations, which are 30% of energy consumption, and due by 2045) to the other branches. While decarbonizing submarines and high-power aircraft is not currently possible, it would drive research and innovation.
  • Shift DARPA funding dramatically toward sustainability-oriented projects, including energy storage and carbon removal.
  • The current ideology of the U.S. diplomacy and military strategy has revolved for decades around the idea that the U.S. must “protect the global flow of oil” (Crawford), which has led us into countless wars since World War II, with roots starting 170 years ago with coal-powered steamships. Considering military emissions closely track our engagement in wars, this ideology is at the root of perhaps several percent of total global emissions since World War II. This is an active decision that could be considered.
  • As Crawford writes, “there is an opportunity to go from insecurity about the access, price, or supply of energy to less insecurity by decreasing dependence on fossil fuel.” As the United States reduces its usage of oil—whether civilian or military—the military will have to protect access to less of it. (The military seizing an opportunity to downsize would, unfortunately, be counter to all recent history; we have not cut budgets or programs even as we decreased direct warfighting.) Additionally, around 40% of international shipping is to carry fossil fuels themselves ("Review of Maritime Transport"), meaning decreases in oil usage can enable a self-perpetuate a positive cycle of emissions reductions.
  • Phase out military presence in the Middle East in the name of protecting access to oil. The United States keeps troops, aircraft carriers, bases, and other equipments permanently stationed strategically through the Middle East, ready for activation if any threat to American oil exploitation were to come up. Many strategists both inside and outside the military think this strategy is outdated, costly, and overly carbon-intensive, and could be phased out. The military proudly maintains the ability to send troops and equipment anywhere on earth on short notice if an issue were to come up.

Works cited

Crawford, Neta. "The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War: Charting the Rise and Fall of U.S. Military Emissions." October, 2022, The MIT Press,

"Review of Maritime Transport." United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, October 30, 2019,