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What is the carbon footprint of war?  

A somewhat academic question, one might suggest. After all, it is doubtful the protagonists are overly concerned with the impact they are having on the natural world around them. However, there is a large amount of academic interest in the results of a study conducted recently.

A new study in The Holocene by Julia Pongratz of the Carnegie Institution for Science has looked into how humanity’s wars can change the environment. It seems that it all comes down to a trade-off between people and trees. Or in other words, when a large-scale conflict erupts and decimates the population, forests have the chance to re-grow, expand and absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they previously could, thus mitigating the greenhouse effect.

The method Pongratz used to look at the effects of wars on the environment was to reconstruct global land cover from 800 AD to the present and model the carbon cycle alongside in order to test how land usage influenced climate change. One stark example she found was that during the Mongol invasions in Asia from 1200 – 1380 AD, which historians estimate killed at least 15 million people, new tree growth in previously deforested areas inhaled nearly 700 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. To put this into perspective, this is equivalent to the world total annual gasoline demand today.

Pongratz points out that shorter conflicts didn’t have the same effect on climate change as the natural world doesn’t have time to re-establish itself before the war ends and the human population once again reasserts its dominance. Despite these temporary interruptions however, the overall recent history of the human race has resulted in far too many people and few too few trees for any kind of balance to be able to be achieved.

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Comments (3)

Grace The Googler on 28th January 2011

Typical Greens that they are more pro-tree than people. Lots of people being killed maybe “Good for the environment” but was wrong anyway.

Alastair White on 28th January 2011

I have been thinking about this question occasionally since I visited El Salvador before, during, and after the civil war (c. 1980-91), and observed that a lot of trees grew in areas that were contested and where the population left (several times the number who were killed). I think the most important effect was probably that the same number did not return but migrated permanently – and some of the trees continue to grow, partly because the economy has changed. But many about a million left El Salvador for the USA, where they will be consuming much more energy! The only moral is that it’s a bit ridiculous to try to isolate one effect of war.

Ian Dixon on 7th January 2012

Interesting. Given the repeated demands in the UK for culling badgers, foxes, deer etc perhaps we should all prey to the Big man in the sky to cull the human race?

Alternatively the human race could simply use its oft acclaimed intelligence, abandon debt centred, constant growth economies in favour of sustainable agricuture and development. Small chance there as the corporations that run the world could not care a monkeys about anything other than short term profit.
I am a landlord. If I had tenants like the human race – trashing my property – notices to quit would issue like confetti!
Ian dixon