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 which, on the face of it, sounded ambitious – reducing the alliance’s military emissions by 45% 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 it will be made available to all allies to help them reduce their own military emissions.”

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

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

“That, alongside their decision to not publish the methodology about how they are going to be counting their emissions, is an incredibly disappointing outcome,” he says. “Nato should be taking a lead on this, they had the possibility here to set an international standard because big polluters like Russia and China also have large military emissions. Instead they retracted and elected to go for this opaque process of ‘trust us, we will reduce emissions – in our offices in Brussels.”

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

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Opaque methodology

Getting an alliance-wide agreement on reducing military emissions was always going to be a challenge, Weir concedes, because Nato members are coming from very different starting points. Some, like Norway, the US and France, are monitoring military emissions in a somewhat transparent way. Others, like Poland and Turkey, have not shown any enthusiasm for this.

That said, the failure in Madrid to agree a transparent and shared way to measure military emissions is a missed opportunity, he says: “It appears that the methodology Nato has developed to help both it and its members count their emissions will not be made public.” Despite the development of a methodology being announced in 2021, nothing was published after the Madrid summit, nor has Nato made a commitment to make the methodology public.

“The inability to scrutinise or assess how Nato, and those of its members that adopt the methodology, are counting their emissions means that external stakeholders, whether they are policymakers, researchers or civil society, will be unable to determine the veracity of any claimed cuts or pledges,” says Weir. “In essence, Nato is asking for its emissions reduction policy to be a matter of faith.”

The emissions of war

The exact contribution of military activities to climate change is shrouded in mystery because for years those activities have been exempt from most countries’ climate measurements and targets. The Military Emissions Gap project, which has tried to track military emissions, has found that state reporting of military emissions to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is poor. “Nato risks worsening this further by sending a message to other states that military emissions data, and the calculations behind it, should not be made public,” says Weir. Some countries say they cannot reveal emissions because of national security concerns, while most do not even provide a justification.

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 fossil fuel consumption of military vehicles. According to a 2019 study by Boston University, the US Department of Defence is the world’s largest consumer of petroleum. A study commissioned by the European Parliament last year found that the carbon footprint of EU militaries in 2019 was about 24.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – the same impact as 14 million cars.

Stoltenberg said in Madrid he believes that switching fuel sources for military equipment will be crucial to lowering emissions. “There is a technological revolution happening right now, a green energy revolution,” he said. “One that can be of huge benefit for our militaries. Already today, the best new cars are electric cars. And I believe that in the future, the most advanced military vehicles, and the most resilient armed forces, will be those that do not rely on fossil fuels.”

Weir believes Stoltenberg is genuine in his desire to lower the alliance’s emissions but that he is encountering a brick wall from more reluctant member countries. “Stoltenberg is committed to this, his work on climate as Norwegian prime minister shows he’s definitely fully bought into all this stuff. But then there are the militaries within NATO.”

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