The Environmental Impact of Defence Activities: A Case for Clean Tech Solutions

As global tensions persist, the environmental ramifications of defence activities have once again come to the forefront, prompting a critical examination of sustainable practices within military operations. Researchers estimate the carbon footprint of the first year of the Ukraine war to be around 120 million tonnes of CO₂e[1], while the first two months of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza have produced more planet-warming gases than 20 climate-vulnerable nations do in a year[2]. It is essential to note that this data, alarming as it is, might be conservative, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive understanding of the environmental implications of such conflicts and other defence activities.

Environmental Challenges in Defence:

Although defence-related operations are essential to maintaining national security and stability, they often come at a cost to the environment. The impact of military operations, ranging from resource consumption to pollution, raises concerns about sustainability and their long-term consequences which encompass potential lasting damage to ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and persistent pollution on our planet. An ecosystem, a complex and interconnected web of living organisms and their environment, and biodiversity, the variety of life within this system, are key components affected by these activities.

Conventional military activities, involving routine or traditional operations with standard practices and equipment, contribute to a notable environmental impact through the high consumption of energy, primarily derived from the use of fossil fuels like diesel and gasoline. These fuels power vehicles, aircraft, and other equipment, forming a significant part of the resource demands associated with day-to-day military operations. Furthermore, extensive military expansion, representing a substantial increase in the scale and scope of military capabilities, exacerbates these concerns. Such expansion involves the establishment of new military bases, increased deployment of troops, and the development of additional facilities.

As the military footprint grows, so does the demand for resources and the generation of waste, including hazardous materials like ammunition and explosives, which often lead to non-recyclable waste due to safety and security considerations. Extensive waste generation in military operations includes items such as spent ammunition casings, explosive remnants, and other materials contaminated with hazardous substances.[3] The nature of these materials, often resulting from the destructive nature of military activities, poses challenges for recycling. Safety concerns and the potential for residual contaminants make it difficult to implement traditional recycling processes without risking harm to human health and the environment. This expansion leads to pollution, ecological degradation, and adverse effects on air quality, ecosystems and biodiversity.

Furthermore, the challenge is worsened by the carbon footprint of defence activities. Among the largest sources of military emissions are jet fuel for planes and diesel for tanks and naval ships.[4] The manufacturing of weapons and ammunition, the deployment of troops, the housing and feeding of armies are additional sources.[5] Likewise, the destruction that military bombings create amount to a tremendous “carbon war footprint” since they cause smoke, fires, and rubble from demolished homes and infrastructure. The environmental impact extends beyond conventional weaponry. Biological[6] and chemical weapons[7] introduce hazardous substances into the environment, leading to contamination of air, water, and soil. This contamination poses risks to both ecosystems and human populations. Nuclear activities, such as testing and deployment, have profound and long-lasting effects on the environment. Radioactive materials released during nuclear events contaminate large areas, affecting both the immediate surroundings and distant regions. Moreover, cyber warfare, though primarily operating in the digital realm, indirectly impacts the physical environment. For example, attacks on critical infrastructure systems can lead to environmental hazards or disruptions, affecting the ecological balance.

The UN Draft Principles on “protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts” highlight the urgent need to reinforce and advance the conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of the environment during armed conflicts.[8] These principles aim to address the environmental impact of military activities comprehensively. Reforms in this context could involve strengthening regulations and practices to minimize ecological harm, ensuring responsible waste management, and promoting the restoration of affected ecosystems.

Military Carbon Emissions

Militaries are not very transparent, and it is quite difficult to access the data required to calculate their carbon emissions. The restriction on disclosing detailed data, including carbon emissions, stems from the imperative to safeguard national security, the need for operational secrecy, the protection of confidential technologies, and maintaining preparedness for potential conflicts, even during periods of peace.

As per an estimate by Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) and Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), globally, militaries are among the largest consumers of fuel, contributing 5.5 percent of global emissions.[9] If global militaries were a country, they would have the 4th highest carbon footprint in the world, exceeding the emissions of entire countries like Russia.[10] With ongoing wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, military budgets and activities are on the rise, likely increasing their carbon footprint substantially. The inaugural International Military Emissions Gap Conference in September 2023 addressed this critical issue of military and conflict-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, emphasizing the need for states to balance national security and environmental conservation.[11] This decarbonisation will likely be driven by the need to improve the security of energy supply and exploiting the advantages of a low-carbon energy transition, rather than protecting the environment.[12]

The Clean Tech Imperative:

Cleantech, short for clean technology, refers to innovative technologies and business models that yield competitive returns for investors while offering solutions to global challenges. Clean energy accounting for 7% of the world’s energy demand, includes hydropower, wind, solar, geothermal, biofuel, and ocean power.[13] In India, there are  currently more than 50 startups working to find new ideas to power the existing clean energy technology, without compromising national growth and development.[14] It ranges from companies offering solutions for cleaning and purifying air and water, to those specializing in bio methanation technology to address organic waste management and rooftop solar energy. The Indian environment market, encompassing various sectors and industries that focus on environmental conservation, sustainability, and clean technologies, is estimated to be growing at 9 per cent per annum.[15] Cleantech could be worth more than oil by 2030.

Clean Tech Solutions in Defence:

The integration of cleantech solutions into defence activities becomes imperative to transition from conventional practices that contribute to pollution and resource depletion. This shift can improve overall effectiveness, cut costs, and promote a responsible and sustainable approach to national security.

The application of clean energy technologies in the defence market, spanning military communications, national defence engineering, armed construction, and military science and technology, offers advantages such as cost savings, energy independence, and reduced logistics challenges in remote military installations. Recognizing the force multiplier effect of energy efficiency, military officials emphasize the need for safer sources of power to enhance national security, which, for them, is a more compelling reason than cutting emissions.[16] Government mandates, national security imperatives, and a broader push toward sustainable practices, like those mentioned below, contribute significantly to the growth of clean tech solutions in the defence sector.

  1. Integration of Renewable Energy:

One of the major contributors to the environmental impact of defence activities is the extensive use of fossil fuels. A notable trend in the defence market is the increasing adoption of renewable energy sources and energy-efficient technologies.[17] Clean alternatives, such as solar and wind energy, can power military installations, minimizing the carbon footprint. The US Department of Defence (DoD) has already supported companies like NextEra Energy Inc.[18] and SDIC Power Holding[19], investing in initiatives promoting renewable energy for defence research, development, and commercialization. As the largest institutional energy consumer globally, the US military is also exploring the use of green fuels.[20]

In the context of the South China Sea dispute, where littoral nations face challenges in matching China’s military strength, an innovative counter-salami slicing approach involves the strategic deployment of offshore wind turbines and the production of green hydrogen.[21] Vietnam, with its coastal advantage and government support, has initiated investments in offshore wind energy, potentially serving as a foundation for surveillance in the region. The sheer size of these turbines could delineate boundaries and provide a natural defence mechanism against China’s assertive activities in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This shows how clean technology alternatives, such as solar and wind energy, can be adopted for powering military installations, allowing defence operations to minimize their carbon footprint.

2. Advanced Waste Management:

Military-impacted sites may pose significant hazards due to organic contaminants including potentially toxic compounds (PTCs), energetic compounds (ECs), chemical warfare agents (CWAs), and military chemical compounds (MCCs). ECs like explosives (TNT, RDX, HMX) and propellants cause contamination from manufacturing, training, demolition, weapons use.[22] Recent advances in environmental analytical chemistry, persistence, bioavailability, and risk assessment suggest efficient risk reduction through biological means. Biotech measures such as bioremediation and phytoremediation emerge as eco-friendly and cost-effective technologies, offering sustainable solutions for remediating contaminated military sites by harnessing the power of nature to restore balance.[23] They utilize natural processes involving microorganisms, plants, and enzymes to degrade, transform, or remove contaminants from soil and water. Therefore, they clean up military contamination in a more sustainable way.

3. Green Infrastructure Development:

Three categories of activities cause organic contaminant release: infrastructure/military bases, training exercises, and armed conflicts. Designing military installations with sustainability in mind, incorporating green roofs, energy-efficient buildings, and water conservation practices, can significantly reduce their environmental impact. Moreover, simulators in armed forces not only enhance realistic training but also offer environmental benefits by eliminating fossil fuel consumption and reducing carbon emissions associated with live training.[24] Exploring alternative and sustainable fuel options, such as green hydrogen, further contributes to environmentally conscious military practices in the country’s energy transition strategy.[25]

4. Electrification of Military Vehicles:

Since military vehicles play a significant role in the defence industry, adopting drop-in biofuels, enhancing engine efficiency, exploring alternative fuels for heavy-duty vehicles and naval vessels, utilizing electric vehicles (EVs) for noncombat fleets can significantly lower carbon emissions. Transitioning to sustainably generated alternative fuels could even achieve a 100 percent reduction in carbon emissions. It may also be possible to build a more environmentally friendly fleet without sacrificing operational capabilities because of developments in battery and electric propulsion technologies. They also offer advantages such as lesser noise, having a lower thermal signature and the ability to power mission-critical equipment and payload packages.[26] The military’s dependence on fossil fuels is a problem. Convoys are open to attack from enemy forces and insurgents. Using hybrid cars in the military is a lethality tactic with logistical advantages.[27] Additionally, the military will use less fuel and save money. The military’s ground vehicles will become obsolete in a time when industry has moved to more capable and efficient technology if they are not electrified.

Global Recognition and Initiatives

Net-zero defence forces by 2050 are possible with priority placed on mission-critical capabilities and smart leveraging of technology.[28] Countries like the USA, France, and the UK, have recognized the impact of climate change on national security, adopting climate change principles within their defence strategies. India, acknowledging the critical role of the environment in its security paradigm, is taking steps towards sustainability, including the use of renewable energy in military operations. Initiatives like the MILES (M+ Innovation Lab for Environment and Sustainability) Challenge 2021, a collaboration between AGNIi Mission, Amplus Solar, and GoMassive, aims to propel India into a leading position as a cleantech innovation hub, aligning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.[29]

The military is a key stakeholder in India’s journey towards a “just transition” amid growing environmental and societal concerns related to fossil fuel usage. The military’s adverse impacts on the environment can be refuted by its involvement in environmentally sustainable activities.[30] Technology and research potential of the military alongside the energy industries can result in societal benefits. Exploring partnerships with defence agencies and research institutions for technology development and piloting clean energy initiatives in military operations can further drive market growth and contribute to the defence sector’s sustainability goals.

The Way Forward:

The environmental impact of defence activities must not be ignored, necessitating proactive measures. Integrating clean tech solutions is not only an environmental imperative but also a strategic necessity. A net-zero approach serves as a strategic move against geopolitical challenges and climate change.

Policymakers and defence departments play a pivotal role in driving technological innovation and change across society. Military forces around the world should actively embrace and invest in technologies that promote sustainability, ensuring low carbon considerations become integral to procurement processes, research agendas, and innovation initiatives. By doing so, they not only contribute to global efforts in combating climate change but also enhance their operational efficiency and resilience. The concept of ‘Decarbonized Defence’ i.e., the process of reducing carbon emissions and mitigating the environmental impact within the defence sector, serves as a triple win – protecting soldiers and operations, undermining geopolitical adversaries heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and actively combating climate security risks.


[1] Lennard de Klerk, “CLIMATE DAMAGE CAUSED by RUSSIA’S WAR in UKRAINE by Initiative on GHG Accounting of War,” June 1, 2023,

[2] Nina Lakhani, “Emissions from Israel’s War in Gaza Have ‘Immense’ Effect on Climate Catastrophe,” The Guardian, January 9, 2024, sec. World news,

[3] “Rooting for the Environment in Times of Conflict and War,” UNEP, November 6, 2019,

[4] Benjamin Neimark, “How to Assess the Carbon Footprint of a War,” The Conversation, December 12, 2023,

[5] Ibid.

[6] United Nations, “Biological Weapons Convention – UNODA,” United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, n.d.,

[7] Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Eliminating Chemical Weapons,” OPCW, May 28, 2019,

[8] “United Nations – Office of Legal Affairs,”, n.d.,

[9] Stuart Parkinson, “How Big Are Global Military Carbon Emissions?,” Responsible Science, no. 5 (n.d.): 2023,

[10] Dr Stuart Parkinson and Linsey Cottrell, “Estimating the Military’s Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions” ( Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) and the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), November 2022), Estimating_Global_MIlitary_GHG_Emissions_Nov22_rev.pdf.

[11] “Proceedings of the First Military Emissions Gap Conference,” CEOBS, November 2, 2023,

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Clean Energy for Defense Market Size and Forecasts (2021 – 2031), Global and Regional Share, Trends, and Growth Opportunity Analysis,”, accessed February 29, 2024,

[14] Gunja Sharan, “List of 38 Cleantech Startups Working towards Making India’s Future Sustainable,” Inc42 Media, February 4, 2023,

[15] “Overview of Clean Technology in India – Indian Chamber of Commerce and Culture in Slovak Republic,”, accessed February 29, 2024,

[16], 2024,

[17] “Clean Energy for Defense Market Demand and Growth Insights 2024,”, accessed February 29, 2024,

[18] “NextEra Energy, Inc. | Renewable Energy, Solar Energy, Wind Energy, Clean Energy,”, n.d.,

[19] “SDIC Power Holdings Co..Ltd,”, 2020,

[20] Simran Rathore, “US Military’s Clean Energy Initiatives | Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,”, February 6, 2024,

[21] Shambhu Sajith, “Offshore Wind in the South China Sea: A Counter-Salami Slicing Strategy for Vietnam,”, November 13, 2023,

[22] Carmen Fernandez-Lopez, Rosa Posada-Baquero, and Jose-Julio Ortega-Calvo, “Nature-Based Approaches to Reducing the Environmental Risk of Organic Contaminants Resulting from Military Activities,” Science of the Total Environment 843 (October 2022): 157007,

[23] Ibid.

[24] “Supporting Defence Sectors Efforts towards Sustainability: Application of Simulators in Army Training” (THE ENERGY AND RESOURCES INSTITUTE), accessed February 29, 2024,

[25] “Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari Urges Stakeholders to Make Alternative Fuels like Green Hydrogen Available to People at Cost-Effective Rates,”, May 25, 2023,

[26] MATT CRISARA, “The Pentagon Wants to Electrify Its Military Vehicles—Here’s What That Could Look Like,” Popular Mechanics, November 18, 2023,

[27] Walker Mills Wiechens Ryan, “The Lethality Case for Electric Military Vehicles,” Modern War Institute, December 1, 2022,

[28] Harry Bowcott et al., “Decarbonizing Defense Carbon Emissions | McKinsey,”, accessed February 29, 2024,

[29] “The MILES Challenge: Advancing Cleantech,”, September 15, 2021,

[30] Ch. Sravan and Prajna Paramita Mishra, “When National Defence Meets Decarbonization: Arming India’s Just Transition with Military Assistance,” Energy Research & Social Science 98 (April 2023): 103030,

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