Climate change and UK defence: a wakeup call for the world
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Climate change and UK defence: a wakeup call for the world

By Norbert Neumann 11 Aug 2021

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report says that some of the changes observable in the climate are irreversible. We examine how the UK Ministry of Defence tackles climate change.

Climate change and UK defence: a wakeup call for the world
Several changes observed in the climate are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years. Credit: Shutterstock

A report released yesterday by the IPCC Working group 1 assesses the extent of changes to the climate due to human activity.

It states that several changes observed in the climate are: “unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.”

The report, called Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, also recognises that substantial and continued reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and other harmful gases would limit climate change.

A Changing Climate, a report commissioned by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) internal think tank the Development, Concept and Doctrine Centre from non-profit research institute RAND Europe and published last October explores the implications of climate change for UK defence and security.

But in light of the IPCC’s findings, the spotlight is on the effects the MOD – one of the largest single contributors to greenhouse gas emissions within the UK central government – has on the climate.

In the MOD’s Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach report published in March 2021, minister for defence procurement Jeremy Quin acknowledges the dangers climate change afflicts on the world. “In defence, we appreciate its [climate change] impact and how we must all work together to address it.

“Climate change will affect the way we protect, operate and fight – from the warming of our oceans through to the increased requirement for humanitarian and disaster relief. We know the way we conduct defence and the tasks we are called on to carry out will be forced to change as we adapt to new environmental conditions.”

In a 2020 report, the Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) and Declassified UK (DUK) found that the footprint of British military spending is 11 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to over six million cars.

The bodies say the MOD is being “highly selective” in the information it publishes yearly about its impact on the environment. The MOD, the report claims, only publishes some part of the direct carbon emission and completely omits the impacts of the arms industry, including the building of equipment and extraction of raw material.

Similarly, the Conflict and Environment Observatory says: “A lack of transparency makes it hard to calculate the true scale of military emissions but it’s clear they are significant.”

Using figures from industrial and academic sources, the SGR-DUK report provides estimates for the carbon emissions of the British arms industry, indirect emissions within the UK, and the total carbon footprint including all lifecycle emissions.

The same report also dismisses that the MOD could reduce military carbon emissions in the future, considering government plans to “markedly increase military spending.”

To an Army Technology enquiry, an MOD spokesperson responded: “We annually publish carbon emissions and sustainability data for the defence estate, domestic business travel and military fuel usage.”

MOD’s commitments to sustainability

MOD climate change and sustainability review lead Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee says: “The integrated Operating Concept will likely look at solutions markedly less dependent on fossil fuels. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels wherever possible will prove the right thing to do and the necessary thing to do, to contribute to the Government’s legal obligation to net-zero by 2050, and to take advantage of new and emerging technologies.”

This summer, Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) has set a goal of becoming the first military service in the world to register and certify a zero-carbon aircraft. According to a document published by the Defence Security Accelerator, the RAF could have its first carbon-free platform in the air by around 2027.

The new aircraft will replace the 90 piston-powered Grob 115 (or Tutor T1) aircraft, which currently provides elementary flight training for the British military. The project will be part of a larger Programme known as Project TELUM, an end-to-end solution aiming to modernise elementary flight training, including synthetic and virtual training.

Jet engine thrust emission climate change
The MOD is one of the largest single contributors to greenhouse gas emissions within the UK central government. Credit: Shutterstock

The sustainability strategic approach report also says: “Using algae, alcohol and household waste to power aircraft revised aviation fuel standards published in November 2020 enable up to 50% ‘drop ins’ from sustainable fuel sources for all military aircraft: from F-35 fighter jets to Wildcat helicopters.

Aviation is responsible for two-thirds of the UK defence’s fuel consumption, so any reduction could prove to be significant in reducing its emission footprint.

To support the UK Government’s commitment to meeting NetZero Carbon Emissions by 2050, the British Army also announced the launch of defence’s first photovoltaic solar farm at the Defence School of Transport (DST), Leconfield.

The solar system is the first of four pilot sites delivered as part of Project PROMETHEUS. Once completed, the four pilot sites will reduce emissions by 2,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year and are expected to supply the DST with one-third of its electricity needs.

British Army director basing and infrastructure and sustainability champion Major General David Southall said: “The army remains wholly committed to playing its part in meeting the UK’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. To deliver this, we are working hard to reduce energy demand as well as increase ‘green’ supply across our estate.”

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson added: “We know what must be done to limit global warming – consign coal to history and shift to clean energy sources, protect nature and provide climate finance for countries on the frontline.”