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Jet fuel, bombs and concrete: The 60 million tonnes of carbon generated by Israel’s war on Gaza

Palestinians walk through the destruction in the wake of an Israeli air and ground offensive in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip in May.
Palestinians walk through the destruction in the wake of an Israeli air and ground offensive in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip in May. Copyright Enas Rami/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Enas Rami/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Harriet Reuter Hapgood
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Nearly two million Gazans are displaced and made more vulnerable to the climate crisis by a war exacerbating it.

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Rebuilding Gaza after Israel’s bombardment will come at an environmental cost of 60 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, according to a new study.

Israel’s unprecedented assault on Gaza since the Hamas attack of 7 October, which killed approximately 1,200 Israelis, has caused widescale death, displacement and destruction of infrastructure within the Palestinian territory. 

The first four months of conflict have caused $18.5 billion (€17.1 bn) damage to Gaza’s infrastructure according to the World Bank and UN, destroyed up to 66 per cent of buildings and half of the territory’s trees, and killed more than 36,000 Palestinians.

Now, with 23 million tonnes of rubble left in Israel’s wake, which could take years to clear, a new study is highlighting the additional toll the war is taking on the climate crisis. Research published on Social Science Research Network (yet to be peer-reviewed) suggests emissions from the first 120 days of the war exceed the annual emissions of 26 countries and territories, with Israel responsible for 90 per cent of these.

The remaining 10 per cent of emissions come from Hamas’ fuel and rockets, Gaza electricity production, and lorry transport to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid.

Densely populated and in a region where temperatures are rising 20 per cent faster than the world as a whole, Gaza is already highly vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. With 85 per cent of the population displaced by war, Gaza sits at the intersection of conflict and climate.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on residential building in Rafah, Gaza Strip, in May.
Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on residential building in Rafah, Gaza Strip, in May.Ismael Abu Dayyah/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.

How have climate experts calculated the CO2 cost of the Israel-Gaza conflict?

Researchers from the US and the UK analysed CO2 emissions across three categories: construction prior to this conflict, such as Hamas’s tunnel network and Israel’s Iron Wall defence; activities in the first 120 days of the war; and reconstruction of Gaza’s infrastructure and buildings.

While the war itself is estimated to have generated between 420,265 and 652,552 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) so far - equivalent to burning more than 1.5 million barrels of oil - this figure soars to more than 61 million tonnes when pre- and post-war construction and reconstruction are included.

This is more than the annual emissions of 135 individual nations - but there is currently no legal obligation for militaries to report or be held accountable for their emissions.

The military emissions reporting gap

Despite a lack of comprehensive data, experts estimate that militaries account for 5.5 per cent of total annual global carbon emissions - more than civilian aviation (three per cent) and civilian shipping (two per cent) combined.

But under the Paris Agreement, military emissions reports to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are voluntary. In fact, according to The Military Emissions Gap organisation, only four countries supply data to the UNFCCC. 

There is no specific data on military fuel combustion emissions in Israel’s annual National Greenhouse Gas (GHG) inventory submission to the UNFCCC, but the study estimates Israel’s fuel-generated emissions during the war to be between 261,800 and 372,480 tonnes of CO2e - about that of the annual emissions of the Solomon Islands, where rising sea levels are drowning the land.

Carbon emissions from bombs dropped on Gaza by the Israeli Defence Force between October 2023 and February 2024 are equivalent to the carbon emitted by powering almost 10,000 homes for a year.

“Militaries are exempt from reporting,” explains study co-author and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, Dr Benjamin Neimark. “It’s like we are all living in a world where tailpipe emissions from an F-35 are carbon-free and don’t count.”

Militaries are exempt from reporting. It’s like we are all living in a world where tailpipe emissions from an F-35 are carbon-free and don’t count.
Dr Benjamin Neimark
Senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and co-author of the research

What is the carbon cost of rebuilding Gaza?

The largest carbon emission output cited in the analysis comes from the future reconstruction of Gaza: estimated to be between 46.8 million and 60 million tonnes CO2e  - higher than the annual emissions of more than 135 countries.

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Israel’s ongoing offensive has damaged or destroyed Gazan infrastructure such as roads, water and wastewater treatment plants, the country’s sole power plant, sewer networks and water wells, together with an estimated 200,000 buildings, including hospitals, apartments and schools.

Prior to this conflict, around 25 per cent of Gaza’s electricity came from solar panels. With most of this solar capacity damaged or destroyed, Gaza is now reliant on diesel-powered generators for electricity - generating 58,000 tonnes CO2e2e.

The study’s upper carbon estimate across all pre- and post-war activities is comparable to burning 31,000 kilotonnes of coal, enough to power 15.8 power plants for a year. 

Palestinians walk through the destruction left by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip near Shifa Hospital in Gaza City in April.
Palestinians walk through the destruction left by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip near Shifa Hospital in Gaza City in April.Mohammed Hajjar/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.

There was a carbon cost even before the latest conflict

The analysis also examined the carbon footprint of war-related infrastructure built prior to the latest conflict: in Gaza, Hamas’ 500km network of concrete and steel underground tunnels, used for weapons storage and transportation, to train fighters and hold the Israeli hostages.

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And in Israel, the 65km, six-metre-tall Iron Wall defence of metal fences, concrete barriers, razor wire and cameras, which was breached by Hamas on 7 October - the assault that initiated this latest conflict.

Together, these fortifications account for between 448,832 and 790,387 tonnes CO2e - more than the annual emissions of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean territory devastated by hurricanes made more likely by the climate crisis. 

“War and militarism are a critical challenge to achieving climate justice, but are still considered a niche concern in the wider universe of priorities for decarbonisation,” says Dr Patrick Bigger, research director at Climate and Community Project and co-author of the study. “By quantifying these emissions we hope that climate advocates can gain a better appreciation for the importance of contending with war, militarism and genocide.”

War and militarism are a critical challenge to achieving climate justice, but are still considered a niche concern in the wider universe of priorities for decarbonisation. By quantifying these emissions we hope that climate advocates can gain a better appreciation for the importance of contending with war, militarism and genocide.
Dr Patrick Bigger
Research director at Climate and Community Project and co-author of the study

The climate crisis intersects with conflict and humanitarian disaster

The authors conclude that their work is intended to draw attention to climate impacts of war, but not to divert attention from the humanitarian crisis engendered by the conflict. But carbon cost, environmental consequences and humanitarian disaster are all interlinked.

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The International Committee of the Red Cross says that Gaza, on the front lines of the climate crisis, is “where the effects of climate change exacerbate serious humanitarian needs resulting from an unresolved conflict”.

Israel’s assault has increased air, water and soil pollution in Gaza, inflicted irreversible damage to the natural environment, and released hazardous waste.

The study suggests that the carbon toll of Israel’s bombardment can be classified as ecocide - damage done to the environment deliberately or by negligence - a war crime under the Rome Statute and in contradiction to the Geneva Convention, which forbids methods that cause “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”.

“We’d like to see a stringent, traceable and accountable mechanism for reporting set up to account for military emissions towards the development of making meaningful cuts,” says Dr Neimark. “We can begin to hold militaries and their governments legally accountable for climate crimes and associated environmental damage.”

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The Israeli government has not yet responded to requests for comments on the research.

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