The impact of armed conflicts on the environment, climate justice and eco-solidarity actions

Armed conflicts, whether internal or international, have considerable human and environmental costs. In addition to the loss of human life and the massive displacement of populations that they can cause, these conflicts have a major impact on ecosystems. Environmental degradation caused by conflicts contributes significantly to global climate change. This situation raises in particular the question of the sharing of climate responsibilities between the industrialized nations still in the process of growth in the North (main producers of arms and munitions) on the one hand and the economically weak nations of the South on the other. 

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Military activities, such as bombings and the use of weapons, can destroy natural habitats, forests, waterways, and even disrupt the fauna and flora. These activities through chemical and waste spills also result in pollution.. Land mines, for their part, can remain active long after the end of conflicts, preventing land regeneration and presenting harmful dangers for fauna and flora. Note also that the warring parties most often resort to the unsustainable overexploitation of natural resources to finance their war efforts. 

Consequences of armed conflicts 

As we have just seen, wars produce devastating consequences on populations, economies and ecosystems. Among these effects, the direct and indirect contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is often underestimated. Here is how these emissions are generated in the context of conflicts: 

Twelve billion balls (about two for every human) are produced each year. No one wants to run out of ammo, and to be left alone. Ben Carmel 

Population displacement :

When conflict breaks out, it often leads to massive displacement of populations. They flee war zones to find refuge elsewhere. These movements generally result in the creation of refugee camps. In these camps, local natural resources are heavily strained to meet the needs of refugees. For example, trees are cut down to provide firewood, which contributes to deforestation. However, forests play an essential role in absorbing carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases.1

Destruction of infrastructure: 

Wars and conflicts often result in massive destruction of infrastructures, ranging from buildings and roads to bridges and factories. Rebuilding this infrastructure requires raw materials like cement and steel. Their production is energy intensive and generates significant GHG emissions. For example, cement production is one of the main industrial sources of CO2 emissions2

Militarization :

The production and use of military equipment requires a large amount of energy. For example, an assault tank can consume 40 times more more fuel than a regular car3. Military operations, troop movements, the use of vehicles and weapons, and the production of weapons are all activities that consume enormous quantities of fossil fuels. 

Furthermore, the arms industry itself is energy intensive. Factories producing military equipment often operate at full capacity during conflicts, which increases their energy consumption and, therefore, their GHG emissions.4

In summary, although wars and conflicts are primarily known for their human and economic costs, their impact on the environment, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, should not be neglected. Awareness of this impact can help strengthen the case for preventing conflict and finding peaceful solutions to disputes. 

We have guided missiles, but from misguided people. Martin Luther King.

Invisible environmental degradation following armed conflicts 

Some examples of environmental degradation specifically linked to conflicts:  

  • Gulf War (1990-1991): One of the most notable environmental incidents was the burning of oil wells by Iraqi forces during their retreat from Kuwait. These fires released huge amounts of soot and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, seriously affecting air quality and potentially contributing to climate change.5.  
  • Agent Orange” during the Vietnam War : The United States dropped Agent Orange, a herbicide, over large areas of Vietnam to destroy vegetation and expose enemy positions. This substance contained dioxin, a highly toxic compound that affected generations of Vietnamese and led to massive deforestation6.  
  • Conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo : Armed conflicts have often led to illegal and unregulated mining in environmentally sensitive areas. This not only degraded the environment local, but also financed the continuation of hostilities7 until These days.  
  • Population displacements : Conflict can displace millions of people, often forcing them to settle in areas with limited natural resources. This can lead to deforestation, water resource depletion and other forms of environmental degradation. When it comes to precise numbers, quantification is difficult due to variability in conflicts and measurement methods. Additionally, conflicts can lead to indirect environmental consequences, such as when the economic and social systems of a country at war collapse, leading to poor resource management that tramples the commons.8
  • Plutonium pollution in Andalusia: The January 17, 1966 air accident in Andalusia, where a US Air Force Boeing B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs collided with a tanker, resulted in the bombs falling. Although these weapons did not trigger an atomic explosion thanks to a safety device, they dispersed a large quantity of plutonium particles into the atmosphere and ground. The situation was all the more worrying since Spain, under the Franco dictatorship, had no protocol for atomic accidents. Although Spain was in the development phase of its civil nuclear program, the first plant was not planned until 1970, and safety was not a priority. Decades later, in 2015, a decontamination agreement was signed between the United States and Spain to clean up this historic disaster9
  • Toxic war in Ukraine:  UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) has revealed the devastating environmental impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, declared that the war is “toxic”, with serious ecological consequences. Thousands of incidents, including air, water and soil pollution, have been identified. Andersen stressed the importance of ending this destruction for the security and public health of Ukrainians and neighboring countries. After a visit in 2022, UNEP calls for increased support to assess the damage. The conflict has damaged significant infrastructure, leading to multiple pollution and public health risks, such as explosions in agro-industrial facilities or livestock waste. The cleanup will be colossal, with mixed debris, fires in protected areas, and pollution due to the massive use of weapons. 

Climate Justice: A global challenge 

Industrialized countries have historically been the main contributors to global GHG emissions10 due to their early industrialization. However, less economically developed countries often suffer disproportionately from the consequences of global warming. Armed conflicts in the South can be exacerbated by environmental factors, including droughts and water shortages, which are linked to climate change. This creates a vicious cycle of conflict, environmental impact and migration. 

How to mitigate impacts and promote climate justice? Northern nations can play an active role in reducing military-related GHG emissions, encouraging more sustainable disarmament practices, and providing post-conflict environmental assistance. They can further promote sustainable development in conflict-affected regions to contribute to environmental resilience and help prevent future conflicts over natural resources. 

We believe that the international community must adopt an equitable approach to the distribution of climate responsibilities. It must take into account the historical contributions and current vulnerabilities of countries and invest in conflict prevention and mediation. This will help to significantly reduce the risks of population displacement as well as the environmental disruption associated with conflicts. 

Actions to minimize the impacts of armed conflicts on the ecosystem  

Reducing Conflict-related Emissions: 

Industrialized countries have the responsibility to reduce GHG emissions linked to conflicts. This can be accomplished by transitioning to increasingly less militarized and more environmentally friendly security technologies, such as reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and developing more energy-efficient warfare tactics. In addition, Northern countries can invest in research and development of sustainable Low-Tech. The use of electric vehicles subject to compliance with “traceability” measures11» and the duty of care, could constitute an alternative. It is still necessary to rely on the absolute certainty of the availability of sustainable electricity supply infrastructure for military operations. 

Post-conflict environmental assistance: 

After the end of armed conflicts, affected areas are often left with serious environmental problems. Industrialized nations in the North can provide technical and financial assistance for environmental restoration in these regions, including decontamination of areas polluted by unexploded ordnance and restoration of damaged ecosystems. 

Promotion of Climate Justice and Sustainable Development: 

The notion of climate justice highlights the socio-economic and environmental disparities that exist between industrialized countries (often referred to as countries of the North) and developing countries (often referred to as countries of the South). These inequalities question the right to industrial development of developing countries, on the one hand, and the historical and current responsibilities in terms of greenhouse gas emissions falling to the most industrialized countries, on the other. 

Will the measures adopted during the COPs take into account the historical responsibilities of industrialized countries? These nations are under pressure to not only significantly reduce their emissions, but also to help countries in the South adapt to the impacts of climate change.12

Their right to develop while adapting to current climate challenges is a major concern for climate justice13

Climate justice advocates compensation for countries in the South for the sacrifices made in the name of preserving the environment. Are the countries of the North, aware of their historical responsibility, ready to financially support the countries of the South? Will they be globally recognized as “guardians of forests” and other crucial ecosystems? 

Climate justice remains at the heart of international climate negotiations. It is imperative to find a balance between the right to industrial development and the need to preserve our environment. COP28 and subsequent conferences will play an essential “eco-diplomacy” role in defining this balance.  


The climate crisis, complex and multidimensional, is among the most colossal challenges of our generation. If the observation is alarming, Belgium, in consultation with the European Union, has a pivotal role to play in reversing the trend. Previous efforts, although laudable, do not match the scope of current challenges, requiring a profound reassessment of our strategies. 

 This crisis interacts closely with other global problems, such as armed conflicts and North-South inequalities. It is therefore essential to recognize the historical role of the industrialized North, while ensuring that it becomes a constructive partner for the South. This includes providing appropriate aid, promoting sustainable exploitation of resources and advocating for global justice. 

 To shape a different future, Belgium could consider the following steps: 

Strengthened collaboration: Intensify interactions with international organizations and civil society organizations (CSOs), thus putting peace and solidarity at the heart of concerns. 

 Peace education: Develop a national curriculum that instills, from an early age, values of peace, tolerance, and mutual understanding. This curriculum would evolve over time and with societal needs. 

Innovation and Research: Focus on technological and social innovations that promote peace, while avoiding militarized solutions. Promote R&D funding focused on mediation, diplomacy and intercultural communication. 

Arms regulation: Take the lead in initiatives aimed at regulating, or even eliminating, certain types of weapons. Put forward verification and trust mechanisms to guarantee compliance with agreements. 

Support for civil society: Strengthen the capacities of non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and other entities working for peace and social justice. 

Faced with this situation, Belgium and Europe, by going beyond simple declarations, must translate their commitment into tangible actions. Solutions to these problems exist and require a holistic vision, considering all levels of action: local, regional and global. 

 Belgium, in synergy with the EU, is ideally positioned to catalyze these transformations. We have the wealth, skills, and influence to be at the forefront of this movement. However, the real driving force lies in the collective will of citizens. By actively supporting these initiatives and demanding bold action from policymakers, they can not only mitigate the impact of the climate crisis, but also forge a future of equity, sustainability and peace. 

Finally, this crisis is also an opportunity. An opportunity to rethink our relationship with the environment, to redefine our commitments to world peace and to build a more just, balanced and sustainable world for all. Only a joint effort, combining political will, citizen action from civil society and international cooperation, will allow us to hope for a harmonious future for our planet and its inhabitants. 

Bibliographic references: 
  1. War and peace ??? and ecology: the risks of sustainable militarization, Éditions Yves Michel, Paris 1014 
  1. IPCC. (2018). Global warming of 1.5°C. Special Report. 
  1. Le Billon, P. (2001). The Political Ecology of War: Natural Resources and Armed Conflicts. Political Geography, 20(5), 561-584. 
  1. Scheffran, J., et al. (2012). Climate Change and Violent Conflict. Science, 336(6083), 869-871. 
  1. United Nations. (2020). The Impact of War on the Environment. United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Report. 
  1. Victor, D.G., & Runge, C.F. (2007). Global Warming and Global Politics. In Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (pp. 124-138). Oxford University Press. 
  1. UNDP. (2021). Environmental Dimensions of Armed Conflict. United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Report. 

1Wallensteen, P. “Quality Peace: Peacebuilding, Victory and World Order.” Oxford University Press (2015).  

  1. 1 Anderson, B., & JM Shine. “Military technology and the environmental impact of war”. The Routledge Handbook of War and Society (2015). 
  1. Pugh, M. “Post-war reconstruction in Europe”. International Journal of Post-war Reconstruction and Development (2018). 
  1. International Committee of the Red Cross. “Guidelines for Military Manuals and Instructions on the Protection of the Environment in Times of Armed Conflict” 2001 
  1. Brock, L., & A. Dunay. “The environment and international security”. The European Institute for Security Studies (2018) 
  1. Duffield, M. “Global governance and the new wars: The merging of development and security”. Zed Books (2001). 

Patrick Balemba Batumike.


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