Military fuel use and climate

2010-01-10

in Bombs and rockets, Economics, Politics, Science, Security, The environment

One of the organizations taking possible future fossil fuel scarcity most seriously is the American military. The Air Force is investigating how to make jet fuel from coal or natural gas. Meanwhile, the other branches of the military are looking for ways to reduce their fuel bills and vulnerability to fuel shortages. There is plenty of reason to do so, given that American forces are using about one million gallons of fuel per day each in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the cost per gallon in the most remote locations can run as high as US$400. The average cost for a gallon of fuel at a forward operating base is about US$15.

Some efforts being made include insulating tents, installing ‘smart grids’ on military bases, increasing usage of renewable forms of power, and investigating ways to use wastes for energy. As with other attempts to reduce fossil fuel dependence, there is no guarantee that these efforts will prove to be beneficial overall from a climatic perspective. If the Air Force manages to produce biofuels that are suitable for use in aircraft, have a decent energy return on investment, and do not compete with food crops, they may develop products and processes with considerable civilian applicability, and potential to mitigate greenhouse emissions. If, instead, they just perfect the oil German and Japanese trick of turning coal into liquid fuel, they may end up making the problem much worse. The very last thing humanity needs is another excuse to burn coal, when we really ought to be working out strategies to leave all that planet-warming carbon safely underground.

Of course, militaries are fundamentally hugely wasteful and destructive things. If we do manage to make a global transition to zero-carbon forms of energy, it seems probable that the world’s various armed forces will be the most resistant to accepting any restrictions on their emissions or fuel use. Much will depend on whether we can find energy sources that are actually cheaper and better than fossil fuels, or whether we manage to content ourselves with inferior options that don’t generate the same sort of climatic risks. In the first case, militaries may largely shift to low-carbon technologies on their own accord. In the latter case, prodding them into environmental responsibility may prove extremely difficult, especially if ongoing climate change has helped to make the world a less geopolitically stable place.

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