Reflecting on twenty years since the historic global anti-Iraq war marches.
Amir Amirani, director of We Are Many , Deborah Burton & Ho-Chih Lin
This 15 February 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the unprecedented global anti-war protest against the US-led coalition invasion of Iraq. The story of this amazing day was retold in Amir Amirani’s highly acclaimed cinema documentary ‘We Are Many’ released in 2015 and a film for which Tipping Point North South was proud to have been an early funder through its Film Fund. We Are Many was an important film in many ways, not least in how it made clear the disastrous (and deceitful) USA and UK foreign policy decisions that have led to more than two decades of conflict in the region. And the film also makes clear how the war in Iraq was founded upon a lie – the lie that the US political class told their citizens: that Saddam Hussein was implicated in 9/11. He was not. As British journalist Peter Oborne says in the film, it was clear that those calling for no war in the UK (the peace movement and others) knew more than the foreign office and civil service, since those anti-war voices were utterly vindicated as the war took its toll.
- In the nine years of the Iraq War, according to the Costs of Wars Project, around 300,000 people (including civilians) were killed directly and many more killed indirectly.
- The invasion of Iraq by the United States-led coalition was estimated to have released around 250 million tCO2e.
- At COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh it was revealed how significant military emissions in peacetime and war were, estimated to be 5% of global GHG emissions.
- Despite this enormous climate impact, there is a shocking lack of transparency and accountability to the UNFCCC for this particular sector.
- Ever rising military budgets fund the big GHG emitting hardware. 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.
IRAQ: THE CLIMATE IMPACTS OF WAR
The terrible and enormous human, economic and societal costs of the Iraq war and the conflicts that followed have combined to leave a scar on our global collective conscience. Yet those lessons have not been learned.
The global War on Terror is still ongoing, albeit to a much lesser degree since the end of the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq and, as of February 2022, we saw the invasion of another sovereign country by a military superpower, namely the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Once again, the media has been broadcasting images and footage of the catastrophic toll on innocent children, women and men.
And the coverage of Ukraine has also been revealing something else – the toll on the environment, on our climate and in a way the Iraq war never did.
In the nine years of the Iraq War, according to the Costs of Wars Project, around 300,000 people (including civilians) were killed directly and many more killed indirectly. If all the wars in the US-led global War on Terror were considered, the total direct casualties would be estimated to be nearly 1 million and total US war spending between 2001 -2022, $8 trillion.
But there was one ‘cost’ that had neglected and it was the climate cost because military greenhouse gas emissions in war – at that time – was generally absent from both media coverage and climate policy-making.
The invasion of Iraq by the United States-led coalition was estimated to have released around 250 million tCO2e. Professor Neta Crawford estimates accumulated emissions of the USA military at 1.3 billion metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent for the war-intensive period 2001-2018, with war-related activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria responsible for 440 million tCO2e between 2001 and 2018.
The destruction during wars of natural or man-made carbon stocks such as forests, energy infrastructure and oil wells can also reach hundreds of millions tCO2e. The burning and reconstruction of cities during and after a country-wide conflict can readily release emissions on a similar scale.
Moreover, the disposal of rubble and rebuilding from infrastructure destruction is a long carbon intensive process. A UNEP programme manager said of the Iraq cleanup – ‘the amount of trucking and emissions that would be required to dispose of this debris is like travelling from the earth to the moon multiple times’.
And for Iraq you could read Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Ukraine. The list is endless. We have no idea of the cumulative GHG emissions impact of these 21st century wars, let alone what went before in the wars of the 20th century.
UKRAINE: CLIMATE IMPACT OF WAR NOW ON THE AGENDA
Fast forward to 2022 and COP27 Sharm El-Sheikh where an official Blue Zone side event entitled ‘Dealing with military and conflict-related emissions under the UNFCCC’ was hosted by the Ukraine government and CAFOD, making a welcome change on this otherwise hidden issue.
The event had been the result of conversations developed as a result of Tipping Point North South’s June 2022 report by Axel Michaelowa et al., ‘Military and Conflict-Related Emissions: Kyoto to Glasgow and Beyond’ and presented at the COP27 event alongside a groundbreaking report by the Ukraine government ‘Climate damage caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine’. In producing the first country accounting of GHG emissions in conflict, the Ukraine report inevitably showed how much information is missing from other conflicts, past and present. It also highlighted another truth: there has not been anywhere near the same level of military emissions detail on Iraq or Syria or other conflicts. The Ukraine report also proved that if governments want to, and vitally, have the capacity to calculate emissions from war, it can be done.
At Sharm El-Sheikh it revealed just how significant military emissions are in peacetime and war. Along with the supply chain – the makers of the jets, warships, missiles, bombs and bullets – and based on partial and patchy data (because reporting is voluntary) it’s estimated at 5.5% of global GHG emissions. Some 2,750 tCO2e estimated for the carbon footprint of the world’s militaries and associated military technology industry makes it comparable to the combined emissions of civilian aviation (2%) and civilian shipping (3%) sectors.
Notably, this figure does not yet include conflict-related sources, including emissions from infrastructure or landscape fires, the degradation of carbon sinks, post-conflict reconstruction and healthcare for victims. Yet given this enormous climate impact, there is a shocking lack of transparency and accountability for this particular sector.
Just the first seven months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been estimated to be responsible for at least 100 million tCO2e. For comparison, Ukraine’s total CO2 emissions in 2021 (prior to the invasion in 2022) was 185 million tonnes. Conflict-related emissions are substantial, even before we take account of the human suffering and the long-term environmental degradation and pollution.
INDIVISIBLE: MILITARY EMISSIONS AND MILITARY SPENDING
And the other side of the coin is this: ever rising military budgets fund the big GHG emitting hardware. Tipping Point North South took a second report to COP27 – ‘Climate Collateral: How military spending is accelerating climate breakdown’ where we joined with the Transnational Institute and Stop Wappenhandel (Netherlands) to connect the dots between military emissions, military spending and climate finance and revealed that the richest countries (categorised as Annex II in the UN climate talks) are spending 30 times as much on their armed forces as they spend on providing climate finance for the world’s most vulnerable countries, which they are legally bound to do. And just one year’s military spending by the top 10 military spenders would pay for promised international climate finance for 15 years (at $100bn a year).
The possibility of keeping global temperature change below 1.5°C is rapidly receding, with global heating on track for the calamitous 3°C. At this late stage, every single effort to reduce emissions matters and this is especially true when it relates to such a major sectoral emitter, and a source – conflicts – whose emissions dynamics have historically been ignored.
To reduce military emissions we have to start by reducing excessive military spending – there is no way round it. Simply put, fossil fuels are the lifeblood of modern militaries, more military spending directly leads to more military emissions. The War on Terror, especially the Iraq War, kick-started the dramatic decades-long growth in military spending, with the United States spending more than the next top 10 military spenders combined. Where the US leads, the rest follow – global military spending is now more than $2 trillion a year, much more than what we spent during the Cold War.
Meantime, Loss and Damage needs major funding commitment and climate finance for developing countries needs to have the $100bn annual commitment made real not least for the peoples of the many post 9/11 conflicts so hard hit by 20 years of conflict, and who themselves now live with the terrible impacts of climate change.
The big military spending nations are not only up to their eyes in that post 9/11 catastrophe, their militaries also contributed to climate change itself as a result of their military activities there. We need look no further for Loss and Damage funding than inside the insane levels of spending on weaponry, all useless in the face of the greatest threat to our collective safety: climate chaos.
Amir Amirani, Producer/Director, We Are Many
Deborah Burton, Tipping Point North South, and Executive Producer, We Are Many
Dr. Ho-Chih Lin, Transform Defence Project, and Associate Producer, We Are Many