Militaries and arms companies can reduce emissions, but you can’t greenwash an industry of mass murder and destruction

Hannah Sharland
20 July 2023 /

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) could soon become a corporate partner with one of the world’s leading professional bodies for sustainability. As previously reported, the Canary received a tip off that the UK Ministry of Defence-sponsored nuclear weapons company is seeking membership with the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA).

The thing is, arms companies, and militaries more broadly, can’t greenwash away their industry’s mass murder. The idea of a “green military” is a farcical oxymoron. How many green initiatives add up to the countless people killed by the military industrial complex? Trick question – they never could.

AWE is set to join a who’s who of corporate criminals. IEMA’s partner directory hosts a compendium of some of the worst companies for polluting the planet, violating human rights, and risking the safety of workers en masse.

It’s also no surprise then that AWE wouldn’t be the first arms manufacturer to receive membership. IEMA includes military and aerospace companies BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, and Babcock Group in its corporate partner directory. Additionally, a range of contractors and outsourcing businesses which offer services to defence projects also hold membership.

That some of the biggest companies – profiteering off of a trade in killing people – have a corporate badge of sustainability, epitomises everything that’s wrong with green capitalism. Crucially, it brings the harms of the military-industrial-complex – on both people and the planet – into sharp relief.

Yet what it all comes down to is: this is an industry that simply should not exist. No amount of green flourishes or reductions in carbon emissions can take away from this fact. Nor is it possible to extricate the climate and biodiversity crises from their inherent origin in colonial fossil fuel capitalism.

It’s about more than emissions

Even so, in early July, Reuters reported on a new campaign to hold world militaries accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Environmental groups Tipping Point North South and the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) have teamed up with scientists from multiple UK universities. The coalition is pushing for greater transparency and reporting of military GHGs.

One 2019 study estimated that if the US military was a country, its fuel usage alone would place it ahead of 140 other nations for carbon emissions. However, information on the true scale of the US’s GHG emissions is patchy. CEOBS has highlighted that for many countries, there is a “military emissions gap”. This refers to a nation’s omission in the reporting of their military’s GHG output.

As a result, militaries around the world have evaded scrutiny on their greenhouse gas emissions. Highlighting the inordinate scale of their climate-wrecking fossil fuel consumption is therefore laudable work.

But it misses the bigger picture. Calling for militaries and arms companies to ‘green’ and decarbonise will simply offer a new layer of vindication for an industry that deals in death and devastation. In other words, it is an exercise in greenwashing for a murderous and ecocidal industry.

Decarbonising doesn’t deal with the environmental aftermath of heavy artillery. Nor does it address the unjust devastation of communities. Moreover, the environmental pollution and harms of war can continue to hurt marginalised people for years after. There can be nothing ‘sustainable’ about this industry – nor should we try to sustain it in a world where we avert the worst climate futures.

Carbon neutral isn’t morally neutral

For its six cents, AWE has promoted its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and hit “net zero”. Setting aside the issues with “net zero” as a concept, this only covers its scope 1 and 2 emissions. These are GHGs just from its operations – not, for example, from emissions generated by its end products. Of course, like most corporations and governments across the globe it’s also enamoured with the likely too little, too late 2050 target.

Conversely, some military establishments have set more ambitious targets. Yet, this is still greenwashing for an unconscionable industry. For instance, in 2021 the UK’s RAF announced plans to reduce its carbon emissions. It pledged to meet “net zero” by 2040. This is a decade earlier than the UK’s legal countrywide climate target. It primarily plans to achieve this through converting its air fleet to greener fuels. This involves a mixture of ethanol, waste oil-based sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), and synthetic fuels for its aircraft.

In effect then, ‘green’ militaries will swap out a fossil fuel-powered fighter jet with a death plane that flies on vegetable juice or dead animal fat, and pat themselves on the back for being carbon neutral. Meanwhile, that plane will continue to rain down destruction on already marginalised people in the Global South. Naturally, arms manufacturers will capitalise on the opportunity to devise these greener munitions of mass murder and misery.

Climate plans that consolidate power

Author Amitav Ghosh has argued that climate denialism is no longer the main barrier to climate action. In his book The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, he suggests that military nations have long accepted the scientific basis of the climate crisis. However, what they do not welcome is the necessary relinquishment of their geopolitical influence and monetary power. In short, they make a political choice to not envisage an end to the era of fossil fuels.

Moreover, Ghosh has pointed out that extreme climate-exacerbated weather disasters have become a new source of militarisation. Everything from the military intrusion into disaster relief, to the racist borderisation of many aspects of society are, in effect, climate plans. They just happen to be climate strategies that maintain the military’s role in upholding colonial and capitalist dynamics of power.

The militarised border policies of fortress Europe and the racist racist policing of Black and Brown communities throughout the UK are part and parcel of the right-wing response to an intensifying climate crisis. As climate-fuelled disasters force people from their homes in search of safety, military nations like the UK have doubled down on sickening immigration policies. This is all intentional.

As Ghosh succinctly put:

The job of the world’s dominant military establishments is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change—the carbon economy and the systems of extraction, production, and consumption that it supports. Nor can these establishments be expected to address the unseen drivers of the planetary crisis, such as inequities of class, race, and geopolitical power: their very mission is to preserve the hierarchies that favour the status quo.

It’s also no secret that world powers from the Global North have started wars for oil. To overlook this well-documented connection is to give the military-industrial-complex a free pass. Moreover, it also makes IEMA complicit in its crimes. Badging arms manufacturers and the UK’s Ministry of Defence with its corporate partnership pours fuel on the climate fire.

And that’s the rap. Suiting up weapon-makers and warmongers in ostentatious displays of supposed sustainability – be it membership of leading environmental bodies, or grandiose pledges to convert entire munitions to greener technologies – cannot hide one key fact: so long as the military-industrial-complex continues to exist, so too will the systems of economic dominance and ecological ruin destroying the planet. There can be no climate justice without its abolition.

Feature image via Sgt Pete Mobbs/Wikimedia, resized and cropped to 1910 by 1000, licensed under OGL v1.0