As the world gathers at COP28 in Dubai amidst an accelerating climate crisis, the Oakland Institute’s new brief, Exempted! The US Military Industrial Complex and the Climate Crisis, reveals a critical blind spot in global climate agreements. Despite being the world’s largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gases, the US military is completely exempt from international reporting obligations, significantly undermining global climate action.
This omission is not accidental. The US government has ensured that military emissions — which currently represent 5.5 percent of global emissions — were excluded from the annual reporting requirements of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and were made optional under the 2015 Paris Agreement. This lack of transparency has kept military emissions masked and undercounted, allowing militaries across the world to evade accountability.
The primary beneficiary of this exemption is the US, the largest global military spender. In 2021 alone, the US military emitted at least 100 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, surpassing the emissions of entire nations. Diverting resources away from healthcare, education, and renewable energy, US defense spending eats up almost 50 percent of the federal budget annually. For fiscal year 2023, the US approved a breathtaking defense budget of US$816 billion, while only appropriating US$1 billion in direct climate finance.
“Exempted not only from international reporting requirements, but also from domestic decarbonization pledges, the world’s single largest institutional emitter has been let off the hook while continuing to grow its destructive practices,” said Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute.
This devastation extends beyond US borders. The large and rapidly expanding global presence of the US military increases emissions, exacerbates environmental pollution, disregards the rights of local and Indigenous communities, and harms people across the world by fueling or directly participating in many armed conflicts — all with impunity.
Responsibility for these socio-environmental harms lies not only with the US military but also with the entire US military-industrial complex (MIC), which includes defense contractors and weapons manufacturers. These entities, which emit more than the US military itself, have long avoided any form of accountability due to their influence over the US government, manifest in the revolving doors between the defence industry and government officials, along with the legal bribery made permissible through campaign contributions.
The climate strategies that have come out of the US military have not only omitted, but entirely ignored the most meaningful way of reducing military emissions — downsizing. In fact, the US military is actively expanding its military presence in several key regions, which directly contradicts its commitments to emissions reductions and undermines environmental justice.
“As the window to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all is rapidly closing, governments and climate negotiators at COP28 must hold militaries worldwide accountable for their significant historical and ongoing contribution to environmental and human destruction. The US government must be held liable for its military emissions. Enforcing proper reporting requirements and environmental protections is the first crucial step towards achieving environmental and climate justice,” concluded Mittal.