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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2010

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Editorial - "Just" Carbon

The article by Liska and Perrin that is published in this issue raises the question of whether the military should “pay” for the greenhouse gas emissions that arise from the fuel they use, and the associated consequences for non-sustainability outcomes of using renewable sources of biofuels for their operations.

This question in turn raised another variation of the ethics of climate change: Is it “just” to allow greenhouse gas emissions from activities that are considered benign or righteous?

For example, there will be many who will accept “sunlight” carbon, namely the carbon-based emissions arising from growing plants or from renewable sources of power and heat. This acceptance of “benign-ness” rests on the presumption that the carbon emissions are recycled and immediate, and not from fossilized plant remains that were placed in the planetary crust to cool an evolving and heating Earth.

Next on the list of benign carbon might be the emissions from the land use of the very poor—those with tiny plots and a few livestock. The government of India has used this argument as a basis for reducing the exposure of India to future reductions in total greenhouse gas emissions from the huge stock of Indian-based additions to atmospheric warming.

Bur more problematic for this version of climate change ethics might be the carbon-based emissions arising from war, and the need to deal with the threat of international terrorism. Here is where Liska and Perrin's analysis becomes more pertinent. They cite an annual total of carbon-based emissions from U.S. defense–based activities as 172 million metric tons.

Together, emissions from conventional military fuel use and acquisitions total about 172 MMt of CO2e per year. This implies an intensity factor of 0.289 MMt of CO2e per billion dollars of conventional U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) expenditures.

The UK government has used a figure of $40 per ton of carbon equivalent as a guide price for carbon costs. To charge this against the Pentagon would amount to some $3.25 billion for the defense budget, or about 5 percent of total defense spending. In an article published in Environment last year (Vol. 51, No. 6, November-December 2009), Martin Parry and his colleagues claim that the full cost of adaptation to climate change could range from $100 to $500 billion annually by 2030. This would place the notional cost of carbon at around the UK shadow price figure.

$3.25 Billion annually from the DoD for “just” carbon emissions could be deployed to invest in the necessary infrastructure of future adaptation. For example, it could provide the equivalent funding for military personnel to construct coastal defences in vulnerable low-lying coastal areas; or new water supplies for drought stricken areas, or where existing fresh water supplies are becoming saline; or flood alleviation channels for flood-prone, rain inundated areas, many of which are inhabited by very poor people who are not responsible for the climate change drivers that cause them to be so endangered.

They cite an annual total of carbon-based emissions from U.S. defense–based activities as 172 million metric tons

Maybe there is a case for military “just carbon emissions, where the military action is justified by international law and custom. But there is also an equal case for the carbon offsets from the military greenhouse gas production to be set against the very dangers of enhanced climate change. If the military were trained to support adaptability investments for dealing with the consequences of climate change in a sustainable manner that is directed towards the most vulnerable in the fairest manner, then there could well be a case for “just” carbon.

—Tim O'Riordan

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