The Silence of the Lambs and the Wartime GHGs Emissions

The Silence of the Lambs and the Wartime GHGs Emissions

[Romina Edith Pezzot is currently a PhD researcher in international law and a teaching assistant at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Her current research focus on the interaction between international environmental law, climate change law and international humanitarian law. She holds a law degree from the University of Buenos Aires and a master’s degree in international law from the Graduate Institute.]


Last 24th February 2024 marked 2 years since the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine started. What makes this conflict unique, among other things, is that it has marked a turning point for the protection of the natural environment. Being the natural environment one of the significant casualties of this conflict, the Ukrainian people has prioritized its protection since the early stages of the hostilities. Indeed, being aware of the environmental impacts arising from the confrontations, Ukraine decided to adapt its domestic legal and institutional framework to enhance its protection. As Vöneky and Wolfrum clearly point out, the history of wartime activities is also a history of environmental damages, but—and I add, it is only the history of ‘visible’ environmental damage. What about ‘invisible and silent’ environmental damages during armed conflicts, like green-house gases (GHGs) emissions produced by military activities? The aim of this post is to unveil the damage to the Earth’s climate system produced by the so-called ‘wartime GHGs emissions’, taking as a reference the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The post likewise seeks to raise awareness about the necessity to report and reduce them to avoid worsening the human-induced climate change problem.

The Silence of the Lambs

The expression ‘wartime GHGs emissions’ (or ‘carbon bootprint’) comprehends the GHGs (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, among others) emitted by: 1) the fighting activities during armed conflicts (international and non-international, including occupations), 2) the arm industry and the military supply chains, and 3) the collateral consequences of armed conflicts, such us the carbon footprint of forced displaced civilians and refugees, among many other sources (see here, here and here). There is a cliché that has been normalized and accepted as inevitable that says: ‘The environment is the silent victim of war’. A good example that perfectly fits this phrase is the pollution of the Earth’s climate system by wartime GHGs emissions because they silently contribute to the increase of the Earth’s temperature, hence, worsening the current climate change problem.

In general, the pollution by GHGs emissions is invisible, silent and sophisticated for many reasons. First, the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere due to GHGs is invisible to our naked-human eyes (unless someone is an expert with access to special equipment for it). Second, measuring and monitoring GHGs is crucial and it requires expensive and specialized equipment and expertise. Besides, the implementation of controls and tests are necessary to ensure the accuracy, transparency and credibility of the information (see here). Third, GHGs emissions are originated in one place (for example, in the Russian and Ukrainian’s territories), but the effects of climate change can take place in another part of the world (e.g., in Africa, Asia, Latin America or the rest of Europe) through intense and extreme climate events. And lastly, GHGs effects are cumulative in the long term and their reduction or removal (known as carbon offsetting) takes time and it is also controversial because, among other reasons, there are not yet global and common standards for it (see here and here).

The Wartime GHGs Emissions

The UN International Law Commission’s Draft Principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts, proposes that the environment has to be protected during three temporal phases: before, during or after an armed conflict (Principle 1) with the aim to prevent, mitigate and remediate harm to the environment (Principle 2). Consequently, as the GHGs emissions happen before, during and after an armed conflict, it is important to monitor the carbon footprint of all its phases.

Just to illustrate, before an armed conflict starts the GHGs emissions increase because, as a consequence of the escalation of tension, States begin to prepare for it. This is what happened in 2021 when, for example, Russia sent troops and armament to the border with Ukraine, or when Ukraine started receiving military aid from allied countries. Therefore, the mobilization of human and material resources as well as the production of armament intensify the emission of GHGs because there is a higher consumption of energy. The GHGs emissions skyrocket during an armed conflict, as it has been noted by the ‘Initiative on GHG accounting of war’ in its report on the Russia-Ukraine war. The report concluded, that during 18 months of armed confrontation, 150 million tCO2e were emitted, a figure that if compared with the GHGs emissions of European countries it is more than the annual emissions of an industrialized country like Belgium (see graphic below). Finally, as to the post conflict phase, the report also highlights that it is impossible to have a reconstruction with zero GHGs emissions, unless it takes place in a low carbon way by using renewable energy sources and sustainable materials and construction techniques. Plainly put, the wartime GHGs constantly feeds the climate change problem (see here and here).

Source: ‘Climate Damage Caused By Russia’s War in Ukraine’ by the Initiative on GHG accounting of war (December 2023).

The Legal Invisibility of Wartime GHGs Emissions

This factual and intrinsic invisibility of the GHGs emissions before, during and after armed conflicts contributes to its legal invisibility. In other words, this is a taboo topic for States because it is related to their national security. Consequently, access to information by civil society is difficult. For instance, during the Kyoto Protocol’s negotiations some States lobbied for not including wartime emissions in the future treaty (see here and here). In a nutshell, nowadays under the UN climate change regime it is voluntary for States Parties to report and include their military GHGs emissions in their national determined contributions (article 4, Paris Agreement). And when they do it, this information is incomplete and unclear and relates only to energy uses at bases and fuel uses by military equipment like road transport, aviation and ships, based on the guidelines established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Consequently, nowadays there exists a gap in clearly and consistently reporting GHGs emissions before, during and after armed conflicts.

The Importance of Reporting Wartime GHGs Emissions

Current armed conflicts are taking place in a particular global environmental context that makes wartime pollution worse: the triple planetary crisis due to climate change, air pollution and biodiversity loss. Despite the high number of States Parties to the UN climate change regime and their formal commitment to reduce their GHGs emissions, there is a human activity that has escaped from the national and international carbon footprint’s scrutiny due to security reasons: the military sector. The exclusion of certain governmental areas from reporting is counterproductive and dangerous due to the severity of the problem (see here).

Yet, why is the ‘military emissions gap’ a problem? To answer this questions, it is worthy to highlight that if global military GHGs emissions were a State, it would have the fourth highest carbon footprint (see graphic below). Consequently, from a legal perspective, the uncontrolled wartime GHGs emissions delays and hinders the achievement of the objective of the UN climate change regime: the stabilization of the Earth’s temperature and holding the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In this regard, according to the World Meteorological Organization and NASA, the year 2023 is the warmest year on record. Furthermore, the lack of reporting by States makes it impossible for measures to be adopted to reduce the GHGs emissions. What it is unknown it cannot be mitigated. And this has also consequences in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal number 13, that urges the adoption of action to combat climate change and its impacts. To clearly express it, the adoption of mitigation measures by States in another sectors or areas, does not compensate the omission of reporting and mitigating the wartime GHGs emissions.

Source: (November 2022).


The unreported and uncontrolled wartime GHGs emissions is a factual and legal gap that exacerbates the global climate crisis. The effects of the increase of the Earth’s temperature affects all humanity and not only the States in whose territory the emissions are produced. The wartime GHGs emissions produce widespread, long-term and severe damage to the Earth’s climate system. The lack of reporting also contributes to the polluters’ impunity for their emissions. Until when the environment and the Earth’s climate system will continue being the silent and invisible victims of armed conflicts? It is time to change the mindset and understand that living in a healthy environment is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

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