When NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg opened the alliance’s summit in Madrid, Spain, at the end of June, he announced a new climate policy that sounded ambitious at first glance — cutting the alliance’s military emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050

“We also have a responsibility to reduce emissions,” he said. “To this end, we have developed the first methodology for measuring NATO’s greenhouse gas emissions – civilian and military. It sets out what to count and how to count it, and will be made available to all allies to help them reduce their own military emissions.

However, Stoltenberg was vague on details such as who the target applies to and what the base year for measurement would be. Momentum was building for all member countries to agree a joint climate plan with emission reduction targets, and some media reported that this happened in Madrid – but what was agreed at the June summit remains unclear.

“Stoltenberg’s statement was disappointingly ambiguous about what they actually meant,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory think tank. The agreed target is only for facilities that NATO operates. “[However] it is the armies of its members that are the main source of emissions for NATO, not NATO as an institution,” Weir points out.

“This, along with their decision not to publish the methodology of how they will count their feeds, is an incredibly disappointing result,” he says. “NATO should take a leading role in this, they had an opportunity here to engage.” international standard because big polluters like Russia and China also have big military emissions. Instead, they backed off and chose to move to this opaque process of “trust us, we’ll cut emissions – in our offices in Brussels”.

According to a NATO representative, the base year that will be used to measure NATO’s institutional emissions is 2019, “which offers the best comparable data before the pandemic.” The target would apply to NATO headquarters in Brussels, its military headquarters (such as those in Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands) and military equipment owned by NATO, such as its AWACS surveillance aircraft and drones. However, the amount of equipment directly owned by NATO is limited.

Opaque methodology

Reaching a union-wide agreement reducing military emissions it will always be a challenge, Weir admits, because NATO members come from very different backgrounds. Some, such as Norway, the US and France, monitor military emissions in a somewhat transparent manner. Others, such as Poland and Turkey, showed no enthusiasm for it.

However, the failure in Madrid to agree on a transparent and shared way of measuring military emissions is a missed opportunity, he says: “It appears that the methodology that NATO has developed to help both it and its members count its broadcasts, will not be made public.” Despite the development of methodology being announced in 2021nothing was published after the Madrid summit, nor did NATO commit to making the methodology public.

“The inability to study or assess how NATO and those of its members who adopt the methodology count their emissions means that external stakeholders, whether politicians, researchers or civil society, will not be able to determine the veracity of any either claims of cuts or promises,” says Weir. “Essentially, NATO wants its emissions reduction policy to be a matter of faith.”

The issues of war

The exact contribution of military activities to climate change is shrouded in mystery because for years these activities have been excluded from most countries’ climate measurements and targets. The Military emissions gap project, which attempted to track military emissions, found that state reporting of military emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was poor. “NATO risks making this even worse by sending a message to other countries that military emissions data and the calculations behind it should not be made public,” says Weir. Some countries say they cannot disclose emissions due to national security concerns, while most do not even provide a rationale.

A 2019 study published in the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers found that if the US military were a country, it would be the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Much of the emissions come from the heavy consumption of fossil fuels by military vehicles. According to a 2019 Boston University study, the US Department of Defense is the world’s largest consumer of oil. A study commissioned by the European Parliament last year found that the carbon footprint of EU armies in 2019 was around 24.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – ​​the same impact as 14 million cars.

Stoltenberg said in Madrid that he believed switching fuel sources for military equipment would be critical to reducing emissions. “There’s a technology revolution going on right now, a green energy revolution,” he said. “That could be of enormous benefit to our military. Even today the best new cars are electric cars. And I believe that in the future, the most advanced military vehicles and the most durable armed forces will be those that do not rely on fossil fuels.

Weir believes Stoltenberg is sincere in his desire to reduce the alliance’s emissions, but faces a brick wall from more reluctant member states. “Stoltenberg has committed to this, his work on climate issues as Prime Minister of Norway shows that he is definitely fully on board with all of these things. But there are also armies within NATO.

The Conflict and Environment Observatory recently published a military greenhouse gas accounting framework outlining best practices and emphasizing transparency as key to effective reporting. “There are so many opportunities and benefits for NATO to do this in general in terms of information sharing,” says Weir. “But I guess the stars weren’t aligned enough in Madrid.”

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