What if countries spent less on conflict and more on climate?

Climate activists protest outside COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 12 November. (Keystone/EPA/Sedat Suna)

At the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September last year, Colombia’s new president Gustavo Petro took to the podium and asked: “What is the use of war if what we need is to save the human species?”

In a fiery address that was far removed from the carefully worded, diplomatic statements typically heard in the halls of the UN, Petro accused the global north of turning a blind eye to the destruction of the planet while using war as an excuse not to combat climate change.

“When action was most needed, when speeches were no longer useful, when it was indispensable to deposit money in funds to save humanity, when it was necessary to move away from coal and oil as soon as possible, they invented war after war after war,” he said.

Gustavo’s words were echoed by a number of other leaders from nations bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. “Sadly more resources are spent on wars than on combating climate change,” Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, declared. “This is extremely unfortunate.”

As the UN climate summit wraps up today in Sharm el-Sheikh, the question of whether western countries should be spending less on their militaries and more on fighting climate change has not featured on the formal agenda.  But a number of civil society organisations present at the conference were keen to raise the issue on behalf of countries at the frontline of the crisis.

Global military spending has continued to increase for seven consecutive years, reaching the highest figure ever recorded at $2.1 trillion in 2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Yet, at the same time, the world’s developed nations have failed to come up with the much smaller sum of $100bn per year by 2020 promised to help poorer countries adapt to the worsening effects of climate change, Tamara Lorincz from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) told Geneva Solutions from Egypt.

“Since the Paris agreement in 2015, the 30 wealthy western countries of NATO have collectively increased their military spending by $211bn annually. At the time of the Paris agreement, they were spending about $896bn. Seven years later, they are now spending $1.1 trillion on their military. But they claim that they can't find the $100bn for climate financing? We know that's nonsense,” she said.

WILPF is part of a coalition of organisations that are calling on countries to reduce their military spending and increase funds for climate financing to help countries more vulnerable to climate change invest in adaptation, mitigation and loss and damage. Together with the International Peace Bureau and World Beyond War, they are also calling for greater scrutiny into how military emissions are hindering attempts to limit global warming.

“We are worried that rising military expenditures are derailing progress on climate financing required to achieve the Paris Agreement and limit global mean temperature to 1.5C,” WILPF wrote in an open letter to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Green Climate Fund ahead of Cop27.

“We are also worried that the ongoing wars and hostilities between countries are undermining global cooperation and state capacity needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.”

A new report released last week revealed the extent to which global military spending is outstripping climate finance. Analysis by the Transnational Institute (TNI) showed that the world’s wealthiest nations are spending 30 times more on their armed forces than financial support for countries on the frontline of the climate crisis.

The 24 richest nations spent at least $9.45 trillion on their militaries between 2013 and 2020 compared to an estimated $243.9bn on climate finance for the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming.

The think tank also claimed global military spending had been “supercharged” by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has in turn caused a major increase in greenhouse gas emissions as the armed forces remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels. TNI claimed the world’s response to the war had seen climate goals “quickly thrown out the window” as countries have diverted money away from climate finance and towards military spending.

Militaries are one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions globally, as the equipment and vehicles used in preparing for and fighting wars are extremely fossil fuel-intensive. Global militaries combined are estimated to produce 5.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases. If they were a country, this would make them the fourth biggest polluter in the world, ahead of Russia, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The 2015 Paris Agreement called for countries to voluntarily report these emissions. However, most do not, leading to what has been dubbed the “military emissions gap” by the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory. Although some countries including the United States and the UK have adopted reporting standards, experts claim these do not adequately account for supply chains, emissions during conflict, and a lack of coordination between government authorities.

The seven countries who have produced the most greenhouse gas emissions are also among the states with the biggest military budgets. They include the UK, Russia, China and the United States, which spends by far the most on its armed forces.

These budgets have increased dramatically in recent years. The US spent $801bn on its military in 2021, which accounted for 40 per cent of the world’s military expenditures and more than the next nine countries combined. This year, the Biden administration increased this sum to a record high of $840bn.

By contrast, the US budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for climate change policy, is only $9.5bn. The United Kingdom has also ramped up spending on its armed forces, with plans to double military spending to £100bn by 2030. This comes alongside an announcement that the government would be using “underspends” from its climate finance budget to help fund a $1bn military aid package for Ukraine in a move that angered climate activists.

As wealthy nations pour money into their armed forces, they are failing to make good on their promises to help poorer nations tackle the climate crisis, WILPF’s Lorincz said. Research shows the world’s richest countries have consistently fallen short of the target to spend $100bn each year on climate finance – a key part of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“The historic big polluters in the West have a debt to pay to the global south that are now suffering disproportionately for a problem that they did not create, that we created, and so we need to be much more prudent with our spending,” she said.

“For us at WILPF it is just totally irresponsible that countries such as Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, the UK are spending money on a new fleet of F35 fighter jets – the most expensive weapon system in human history which is extremely carbon intensive and will lock us into five decades of carbon intensive militarism. That money instead could help the developing world with renewable energy, massively upscaling solar technologies, water purification, safe affordable housing and investment in climate education, for example.”

As Cop27 has taken place against the backdrop of an escalating war in Ukraine, it may be unsurprising that the topic of whether countries should spend less on their militaries to fund climate change efforts did not take centre stage. However, Lorincz said there was some glimmer of hope in an initiative announced by Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs and Cop president Sameh Shoukry which is the first of its kind to deal with the relationship between climate change and peace.

Presented by Egypt during the conference, the Climate Responses for Sustaining Peace initiative aims to mobilise integrated climate responses that “advance sustainable peace and development”. Lorincz said the initiative, which will be developed over an initial five-year timeframe, is significant in that it recognises that the wars being fought around the world could be holding back global efforts to combat the climate crisis.

“It recognises that the war and geopolitical tensions and divisions are impeding progress not only towards the Paris Agreement but also the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” said Lorincz. “It’s an important initiative that recognises the urgent need for peace so that the conflict and the tension and the wars end and we can work on our common challenges.”

However, she said it was up to civil society and the public to put pressure on their governments if there is any hope of influencing them to spend more on climate finance rather than their militaries.

“It is going to be up to civil society and the public to scrutinise public spending and to push their governments to not spend so much money on the military and to instead spend on climate action,” she said. “I hope that we can move more quickly because honestly we're running out of time. We cannot afford this military spending and carbon intensive militarism. We have a very small, depleting carbon budget, so we have to move quickly.”

Lorincz recalled the words of Costa Rica’s minister for foreign affairs Arnaldo André-Tinoco, who used his address to the UN General Assembly in September to appeal to wealthy nations for a “gradual and sustainable reduction in military spending” to help countries such as his fight the climate crisis.

“Human security is key to global security,” he said. “It is about prioritising the lives and wellbeing of people and the planet over the profits to be made from weapons and war.”