Why Is Climate Change 'Firmly A Defence Problem'?

A new report has outlined how defence can reach sustainability targets and the impact climate change could have on operations.

UK defence will "take a lead" in responding to emerging geopolitical and conflict-related threats worsened by climate change, according to a new report from the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

The Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach highlights the planned role of defence in meeting the UK's ambitions for long-term change and tackling issues accelerated by a deteriorating planet.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are set to become the Government's number one international priority, with the MOD contributing to goals to lower emissions.

Currently, defence accounts for half of all the Government's carbon emissions.

Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin said: "The threat posed by climate change is one that affects us all and for defence, it will deeply impact the tasks our Armed Forces are called upon to undertake.

"As a global military leader we must evolve and set an example on how to protect peace and stability while embracing sustainability and reducing our carbon emissions."

A three-stage plan hopes to see defence through to 2050, by which time it plans to have helped the UK meet its net-zero carbon emissions target.

From now until 2025, the MOD will focus on existing projects, primarily estate sustainability, while also working with suppliers in search of emission-reducing solutions and the ways these can be realised through contract conditions.

Between 2026 and 2035, defence plans to build on the progress above, maximise its ability to respond to threats that are a by-product of climate change and understand how emerging technologies can bolster these efforts.

In the final 15-year period, defence aims to be "doing everything it can to harness novel technologies which further build resilience and further reduce emissions".

Six Peugeot e-208 electric vehicles have arrived at RAF Leeming 241120 CREDIT RAF.jpeg_.jpg
Last year, RAF Leeming welcomed a fleet of electric vehicles to the base (Picture: RAF).

Overall military capability will not be sacrificed, according to the document, although the MOD says it is committed to ensuring equipment "can be modified for upgrade as new energy options become viable and cost-effective".

Bases will be optimised for sustainability, with hopes electric vehicles will add stealth whilst also reducing emissions.

A 'climate lens' will inform force development, using data on a variety of changing landscapes.

The report states that defence has an enhanced interest in responding to a changing climate as its people will often be placed at the centre of it.

It says humanitarian aid missions like those in the Caribbean in recent years are expected to increase, while simulation training could benefit those deploying to a unique climate.

Medical processes may also have to adapt to new injury and illness risks emerging if boots are to remain on a changing ground.

Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, who led the report, said the climate is changing fast, alongside the "character of warfare".

"Both issues are changing the way our military fight, live and train in unfamiliar ways," he said.

"Linking these issues together, they both demand that we adapt to the new circumstances that we face and take transformative action now.

Ministry of Defence building
The Ministry of Defence has published its road map to becoming more resilient and sustainable (Picture: PA).

"We need to change mindsets and the way we operate in peace, in war and in persistent competition," he added.

He describes the strategy as "firmly a defence problem", saying "climate change is a significant challenge".

He added: "Without adequate assessment of its effects, we leave ourselves exposed. We cannot let our capabilities become less effective against vulnerabilities we cannot see clearly.

"We have to afford to keep up with the pace of change. The threats of our modern world, made worse by rising seas, extreme weather and creeping desertification, will almost certainly lead to more conflict."

Lt Gen Nugee said the Integrated Operating Concept, a new approach to warfighting aimed at fundamentally changing the way the military operates, will "likely look at solutions markedly less dependent on fossil fuels".

Speaking to Forces News, he explained how the military could soon begin "deploying in slightly different ways", thanks to new initiatives.

"We'll be more self-sufficient in our deployment, we're looking at perhaps as much as 40% of our energy in the next 10 years coming from renewables on our deployed bases," he said.

Lieutenant General Richard Nugee spoke to Forces News about the report and what climate change could mean for future military operations.

Last June, the Committee on Climate Change urged the MOD to "take the lead" on cutting carbon emissions, recommending that all MOD buildings and vehicle fleets would become zero-carbon, while the potential for alternative fuels to be used in land vehicles, ships and aircraft would be assessed.

"I think we'll have fewer people in our equipment. In some ships – minesweepers – we'll have no people, in some aircraft, we call them drones today, no people. We'll have some armoured vehicles with no people," Lt Gen Nugee explained. 

"I think we'll see green energy or renewable energy solutions in a lot of our vehicles and a lot of our equipment, we'll be using different fuels, I'm absolutely convinced of that," he said, adding that the Army "won't see a removal of infantry".

In February, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared climate change to be a grave threat to global peace and security, a point reiterated by Lt Gen Nugee.

He said: "The Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach is about embracing essential elements of this modernisation which defence cannot afford to ignore. The imperative could not be clearer: defence must and will act now."

Cover image: HMS Forth passes a penguin in South Georgia (Picture: Royal Navy).