A Defence Perspective on The Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk

4th July 2021


Among the eight “Highest Priorities” identified by the Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk published on 16th June 2021 was “multiple risks to the UK from climate change impacts overseas”. This will have come as no surprise to the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The MOD’s own think-tank – the Development, Concepts & Doctrine Centre (DCDC) – has published Global Strategic Trends about every five years for two decades. These widely-regarded reports have consistently highlighted the challenges to security arising from climate change, including from water shortages and desertification. The MOD has perhaps been less far-sighted in mitigating its own contribution to climate change – Defence currently accounts for 50% of the UK central government’s C02 emissions. But in its Ministry of Defence Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach, published on 30th March 2021, it commits to a “strategic ambition” to have “reduced its emissions… contributing to achievement of net zero emissions by 2050.” And, as if to underline that this is not just words, the day after the publication of the CCRA3 report, the MOD’s Climate Change & Sustainability Lead, Lt Gen Richard Nugee, officially opened on 17th June three new “net zero carbon smart buildings” with an EPC rating of -5 at Nesscliff Training Camp in Shropshire – part of a programme of 40 such carbon-efficient accommodation blocks across the Defence estate.

The way that the MOD, prompted by Richard Nugee, has seized this agenda – and been recognised for its leadership by key allies – is impressive. But is it enough? One of the more striking and sobering findings of the CCRA3 report is that “the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened” – in a nutshell, despite previous urgings of governments to act, the problem is getting bigger faster than the steps taken to mitigate it. Like many organisations, UK Defence has to balance competing requirements – both its own published documents and external defence commentators highlight the need to preserve military operational capabilities in an increasingly unsettled security environment.  Internationally, NATO has recognised in its NATO Climate Change and Security Action Plan published in June that “the Alliance has a role to play in a comprehensive response to climate change.”  But commentators worry that NATO is taking on too much and risks losing its focus on collective defence against military threats.

My view – a somewhat heretical one for a former MOD senior official – is that Defence is going to have to change its priorities quite significantly. My military colleagues were very familiar with the concept of collapsing timelines in military campaigns and operations. We face the same phenomenon with climate change – its impacts are visibly accelerating.

Net zero by 2050 will soon seem too far off – and an increasing number of organisations are already setting earlier targets. Our societies will start to feel tangibly threatened and alarmed by the impacts of climate change within years rather than decades. Societal pressure on all parts of government to minimise emissions will grow – and Defence will have to respond. As the CCRA3 report advises, acting earlier is better – even if that means challenging the conventional wisdom about Defence investment priorities. Ministries of Defence constantly have to adjust their expenditure plans as there’s never enough money to meet all requirements (even after significant budget increases) – and generally they have prioritised maintaining the Armed Force’s operational capability against military threats. That will have to change, with sustainability becoming the higher priority. And as member states’ Armed Forces respond to such domestic pressure, NATO’s role in relation to standardisation and interoperability will become more important – while the language of the Action Plan is cautious, acting earlier would be better at the international level too.

Some observers will be wary about “securitising” the response to climate change, pointing to a rather mixed score card in other fields. But I believe that Defence and the Armed Forces, with their track record of innovation and organising at pace to meet complex crises, can play a significant role in accelerating the UK’s adaptation to climate change. This contribution can include investing in new, more fuel-efficient and lower emissions power sources and new, lighter materials – I do not believe that Defence should content itself with being a “fast follower” of new developments in the commercial sector – as well as actively adapting the (sizeable) Defence estate to sequester C02 from the environment. Defence also has the tradition and the discipline of taking a systems-based approach to challenges. Such an approach will be essential to reduce the risk of adaptation measures having unforeseen and possibly negative consequences – although, here as elsewhere, the best should not be the enemy of the good. The Clean Growth Leadership Network, representing the sections of society and the skill-sets – academics, scientists, engineers, policy-makers, business leaders – necessary to implement systems-based solutions to the climate and clean growth challenge, will bring a distinctive and constructive voice to the debate

This article was selected from the CGLN news network.
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