MOD climate chief: Inaction will lead to a “more expensive, weaker military”

By Charlotte Owen-Burge | May 25, 2021

With British military activity responsible for approximately 50% of all UK government emissions, it plays a fundamental role in helping the country reach net zero by 2050 at the latest.

But for an Armed Forces that’s reliant on fossil fuels, a considerable test lies ahead. To meet this challenge, the UK Ministry of Defence announced its Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach, a roadmap that plots a path to zero emissions and confronts the impacts that climate change is having – and will have – on Armed Forces’ activities.

MOD Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy Lead, Lieutenant-General Richard Nugee CB CVO CBE, who steered the review, believes the military must take transformative action now that changes the way the military “fight, live and train”.

Charlotte Owen-Burge: In your opinion, why have nations not responded to the climate crisis with the same agility that COVID-19 provoked?

Climate change is, for many countries, difficult to see and feel and relies on a ‘transmitted message’ from experts and scientists. COVID-19 is very obvious, with a direct impact on almost all countries and people.

Climate change is important, but the time scales being talked about (2050, or even 2030) are seen as distant – important, but not urgent when urgent is something faced today, tomorrow. The solution is to make the important urgent, and this is beginning to happen.

There has been only recently an acceptance that climate change is a direct cause of some of the crises around the world. For too long it has been ‘contributory’ rather than direct causation, so it’s been easy to doubt.

What influence do you believe the Armed Forces’ actions on climate and nature will – or should – have on civil and commercial sectors?

There is an important message sent: if the Armed Forces take climate change seriously, it sends a message to everyone that this should be acted on, as the Armed Forces are not necessarily seen as at the forefront of environmental issues. A sense of ‘if they see the need, perhaps we all should’.

The Armed Forces, moreover, bring volume and mass to civil and commercial sectors and therefore have the ability to influence through their spending power and example, creating a catalyst for innovation and experimentation. In addition, the Armed Forces often have a strong influence on governments across the world and therefore if they act, governments are more likely to act.

F-35B’s from the Royal Air Force (bottom) and US Marine Corps (USMC): Credit: UK Ministry of Defence 2021.

In what ways could operational capability be enhanced as a result of the Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach?

Fitting vehicles with hybrid or electric engines reduces the signature from noise, emissions and heat, which means the vehicles can be far less easy for the enemy to find on the battlefield.

Becoming more self sufficient in deployable bases through renewable energy, recycling water and potentially growing food in vertical farms, all reduces the need for resupply patrols, or logistic supply lines, thereby freeing up those troops for other duties, reducing emissions and increasing resilience.

The determination to reduce emissions also offers the opportunity to expand thinking on uncrewed equipment types (drones, uncrewed land and sea vehicles). This will save lives, reduce size and weight (and therefore embedded carbon) and potentially increase volume. Also, increased use of synthetic training (simulation) allows the full capability of equipment to be tested out of sight of any adversaries.

Where does training fit into the strategy? Not just in training for operations, but in the mandatory training that service personnel conduct (such as MATTs)?

Ultimately, all members of the Armed Forces should be informed and educated about what they can do to reduce emissions and increase the preservation of the environment.

Training will need to adapt to the environment we are likely to be operating in and for the tasks we are asked to do, such as increased Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief, increased resilience building in countries particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Training will also need to adapt to the realities of climate change effects – increased disease levels, increased temperatures in parts of the training estate (Cyprus for example) and increased likelihood of parts of the training estate being affected by wildfires, floods and rising sea levels.

When it comes to procurement of kit and equipment, from bullets to battleships, how can a net zero objective be secured throughout the supply chain?

Through requirement setting for new equipment that makes it clear that reducing emissions are an essential part of the contract. Through encouraging, through commercial practice, the supply chains themselves to reduce their emission footprint. Through agile working with the supply chain to ensure that every opportunity for improved emissions can be embraced during the development and subsequent upgrades of all equipment.

Members of B Company 2 Battalion the Parachute Regiment conducting a live fire Company attack on Salisbury Plain

Members of B Company 2 Battalion the Parachute Regiment conducting a live fire Company attack on Salisbury Plain. Credit: UK Ministry of Defence 2020.

Where does accountability for this strategy start and end? For example, do you expect all sub-units to be holding daily briefings on climate change?

Climate change will lead to a change in culture, where every decision should be taken through a climate change lens. But accountability should be at every level of command, with targets set as appropriate. Ultimately, the targets set will be by Command and organization, with a reducing ‘allowance’ for carbon over time.

However, accountability will also be at the assurance stage of any new development, making sure that the full effects of the emissions of a contract are taken into account.

But with accountability must come the delegations and policies that will incentivize all elements of the command to find every opportunity to reduce emissions.

How will the Armed Forces ensure that this strategy is rigorously adopted over the next three decades?

Through clear target setting at the appropriate level within the Commands and organizations. Through clear target setting and incentivization throughout the supply chain. Through transparent accounting of the totality of emissions, rather than just relying on the Greening Government Commitments.

Given the urgency of the crisis, is being a fast follower enough? Is there a case for leading by example in as many areas as possible?

This has to be a balance between the use of taxpayer’s money appropriately and the use of the Defence Budget for the demands of defence, the justification for giving money to the Defence budget in the first place.

Defence should be innovative and exploring cutting edge technology, using its R&D budget, where the outcome will be largely or specifically of benefit for defence. However, the defence budget should not be used to subsidize some of the global investigations into the implications of the green energy revolution as it affects the housing, maritime, land vehicle and air industries directly; whole industries have far more funding available and will be more able to focus on this.

The green energy transition will affect every aspect of life – the UK MOD budget is insufficient to be the leading edge financier and experimentation hub for all areas, as diverse as how to heat our buildings or power our transport aircraft or our supply ships – there are others, with bigger fleets, whose whole purpose is dependent on finding a solution. In these circumstances we ought to be a fast follower, using our defence R&D budget to make sure we can optimize the defence use of novel technologies.

Operations Room on board HMS Albion during Exercise Joint Warrior. Credit: UK Ministry of Defence 2021.

What would you tell someone who doesn’t believe the climate and biodiversity crisis is an existential threat to humanity?

I would ask them to look at the science. Carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) act as a thermal blanket around the world. That blanket has holes in it at the moment, but is rapidly becoming more solid. At the rate we are going, with the emissions from the world, that blanket will become so solid that it will cause chain reactions we cannot predict accurately or control, with the net effect of the sea warming to unsustainable levels, killing off much of our sea based food sources, and rising sea levels. It will also lead to parts of the world, hot already, being too hot to sustain human life (no water, no ability to grow food), such as in the Sahel.

Biodiversity allows the production of food and the sequester of greenhouse gases in ways we do not fully understand yet. But by reducing the number of species, we are putting our subsistence directly at risk.

The last time CO2 levels were at the levels predicted for 2100 (55 million years ago), the estimates are that 80% of species became extinct, due primarily to lack of food or being too hot for survival. So we have precedence. The world will survive, but our way of life, humanity as we know it and the vast majority (if not all) of the world’s population will not.

And as the world becomes more desperate for food and water, the tensions caused may well result in increased conflict.

What does UK Defence look like in 2030?

Reduced demand and increased self-sufficiency in renewable energy, reducing emissions, on our estate, built and rural, and in our deployable forces through adoption of leading edge technology.

New equipment types designed with emission reduction (to zero if practical) fielded, with increased use of uncrewed vehicles and synthetic training also through adoption of leading edge technology.

Our estate significantly increasing its sequester potential, through revised farming practices, environmental husbandry of the land and increased biodiversity. Our built estate monitored and reducing emissions. An increased use of net zero buildings, building on the pilots already (in 2020) fielded.

An awareness across defence of the importance of minimizing our emissions footprint and all programmes and contracts actively pursuing a decarbonizing agenda. Our supply chain actively forced to comply with reducing their emissions when entering into contract with us.

More use of defence assets for resilience building globally, reacting to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief more frequently and more use of troops to support flooding etc at home.

RAF Chinooks during Exercise Decisive Manoeuvre. Credit: UK Ministry of Defence 2019.

Given a previous climate action plan was not actioned, what is the risk of that happening again?

There is always a risk that plans are not carried out, and any plan will be subject to modification as the situation changes – this plan does not specify more than ambition and milestones out to 2050, as the world will change too much to predict and plan against in the next 30 years. We are no longer following plans from 1990.

But this time there is a very significant difference. There is a global realization that this is an urgent problem that needs addressing. There are international calls for change, and NATO, as our primary alliance, is pushing forward with an ambitious climate change strategy that we will be part of. The country has signed up to a legally binding commitment to net zero by 2050 – as a large department of government it is not possible for defence to exempt itself, so we will have to comply.

As important, as the world around us is changing, both in terms of the green energy revolution and in terms of the climate conditions we will have to operate in, if we do not change, adapt and add our ability to reduce emissions, then we will be left behind technologically, operationally and socially – we will find it increasingly hard to recruit.

So, whilst it is possible the plan will be ignored, the consequences of doing so are increasingly recognized and it is understood that this will leave us a more expensive, weaker militarily and with less freedom of manoeuvre to operate around the world.

Lieutenant-General Richard Nugee CB CVO CBE was appointed Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy Lead for the Ministry of Defence in 2020. He was appointed MBE in June 1998, CBE in January 2012 and CVO in September 2016. He was awarded the US Legion of Merit for his services in Afghanistan in 2014.


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