The planet-warming emissions generated during the first two months of the war in Gaza were greater than the annual carbon footprint of more than 20 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations, new research reveals.
The vast majority (over 99%) of the 281,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2 equivalent) estimated to have been generated in the first 60 days following the 7 October Hamas attack can be attributed to Israel’s aerial bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by researchers in the UK and US.
According to the study, which is based on only a handful of carbon-intensive activities and is therefore probably a significant underestimate, the climate cost of the first 60 days of Israel’s military response was equivalent to burning at least 150,000 tonnes of coal.
The analysis, which is yet to be peer reviewed, includes CO2 from aircraft missions, tanks and fuel from other vehicles, as well as emissions generated by making and exploding the bombs, artillery and rockets. It does not include other planet-warming gases such as methane. Almost half the total CO2 emissions were down to US cargo planes flying military supplies to Israel.
Hamas rockets fired into Israel during the same period generated about 713 tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to approximately 300 tonnes of coal – underscoring the asymmetry of each side’s war machinery.
The data, shared exclusively with the Guardian, provides the first, albeit conservative estimate of the carbon cost of the current conflict in Gaza, which is causing unprecedented human suffering, infrastructure damage and environmental catastrophe.
It comes amid growing calls for greater accountability of military greenhouse gas emissions, which play an outsize role in the climate crisis but are largely kept secret and unaccounted for in the annual UN negotiations on climate action.
“This study is only a snapshot of the larger military boot print of war … a partial picture of the massive carbon emissions and wider toxic pollutants that will remain long after the fighting is over,” said Benjamin Neimark, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL), and co-author of the research published on Tuesday on Social Science Research Network.
Previous studies suggest the true carbon footprint could be five to eight times higher – if emissions from the entire war supply chain were included.
“The military’s environmental exceptionalism allows them to pollute with impunity, as if the carbon emissions spitting from their tanks and fighter jets don’t count. This has to stop, to tackle the climate crisis we need accountability,” added Neimark, who partnered with researchers at University of Lancaster and the Climate and Community Project (CCP), a US-based climate policy thinktank.
Israel’s unprecedented bombardment of Gaza since Hamas killed as many as 1,200 Israelis has caused widespread death and destruction. According to the Gaza health authority, almost 23,000 Palestinians – mostly women and children – have been killed, with thousands more buried under the rubble presumed dead. About 85% of the population has been forcibly displaced and faces life-threatening food and water shortages, according to UN agencies. More than 100 Israeli hostages remain captive in Gaza and hundreds of Israeli soldiers have been killed.
In addition to the immediate suffering, the conflict is exacerbating the global climate emergency, which goes far beyond the CO2 emissions from bombs and planes.
The new research calculates that the carbon cost of rebuilding Gaza’s 100,000 damaged buildings using contemporary construction techniques will generate at least 30m metric tonnes of warming gases. This is on a par with New Zealand’s annual CO2 emissions and higher than 135 other countries and territories including Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Uruguay.
David Boyd, the UN special rapporteur for human rights and the environment, said: “This research helps us understand the immense magnitude of military emissions – from preparing for war, carrying out war and rebuilding after war. Armed conflict pushes humanity even closer to the precipice of climate catastrophe, and is an idiotic way to spend our shrinking carbon budget.”
Climate consequences including sea level rise, drought and extreme heat were already threatening water supplies and food security in Palestine. The environmental situation in Gaza is now catastrophic, as much of the farmland, energy and water infrastructure has been destroyed or polluted, with devastating health implications probably for decades to come, experts have warned. Between 36% and 45% of Gaza’s buildings – homes, schools, mosques, hospitals, shops – have so far been destroyed or damaged, and construction is a major driver of global heating.
“The catastrophic aerial attack on Gaza will not fade when a ceasefire comes,” said Zena Agha, policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, who writes about the climate crisis and the Israeli occupation. “The military detritus will continue to live in the soil, the earth, the sea and the bodies of the Palestinians living in Gaza – just as it does in other postwar contexts such as Iraq.”