Authors: Michele Mignona, Iris Raith, Frederik Steinhauser - Defense & Procurement Team
As climate change intensifies, militaries around the world are gradually recognizing the need to climate-proof their forces. That is crucial given that climate change has a clear impact on militaries – and vice versa. Transitioning armed forces to be more sustainable and climate-resilient brings important benefits but also poses challenges. This piece explores the advantages of armed forces pursuing climate neutrality. It will also discuss the difficulties like technology constraints that militaries face in greening defences. Next, the approaches of the US, Russian and Chinese militaries will be considered regarding their adaptation efforts to climate change. Finally, the role of organisations like NATO and the EU in driving climate action in militaries will be analyzed. Their target-setting, funding initiatives and interoperability mechanisms influence allied armed forces to mitigate emissions while maintaining operational readiness.
Advantages of going climate-neutral
Transitioning armed forces to be more sustainable and climate-resilient brings significant strategic and operational benefits. One major advantage is increased energy efficiency and cost savings. By reducing reliance on fossil fuels and shifting to renewable energy sources, militaries can significantly cut costs, especially for fuel-intensive operations. For instance, the US military's use of Advanced Medium Mobile Power Systems (AMMPS) in Afghanistan cut fuel consumption by 21%. Moreover, local renewable energy production also reduces the vulnerable supply lines required for transporting diesel and other fuels to forward locations. This increases the self-sufficiency of missions, decreasing dependence on external actors, which may jeopardize a mission’s efficacy.
Furthermore, investing in technologies and infrastructure resilient to climate impacts allows militaries to maintain readiness as operational environments change. Adaptive planning, training and capabilities preserve the armed forces' effectiveness as extreme weather affects theatres of operation. For example, NATO's Cold Response exercises in Norway help prepare troops to operate in Arctic conditions. Additionally, transitioning away from fossil fuels will reduce the major environmental footprint of militaries as institutional polluters. For instance, the UK aims to cut military emissions by 70% through measures like biofuel use. This contributes to global climate change mitigation efforts.
Proactively climate-proofing defences keeps militaries ahead as innovators and standard-setters in a climate-altered world. It also promotes their strategic position compared to adversaries, slower to adapt.
Disadvantages & Challenges
Major global military powers have adopted a diverse energy portfolio, encompassing oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydropower, biofuels, wind, and solar energy. This diversification not only bolsters energy security strategies but also serves as a bedrock for system resilience. Shifting towards a greater reliance on electricity entails an increased dependency on minerals crucial for the functioning of electrical systems. These minerals, predominantly sourced from regions like China and countries where Beijing holds substantial economic and infrastructural sway, present a new set of challenges. This dynamic sets the stage for geopolitical competition among nations vying for access to these pivotal resources, where China has a strategic advantage. Transitioning from a diversified energy mix to one focused primarily on electricity will introduce challenges for a country’s military, like potential cyberattacks and threats to the supply chains.
A key challenge for the military in implementing environmental policies is maintaining long-term commitment and funding, especially in light of pressures to increase military capacity and shifting priorities. The insecurities and challenges within geopolitics, coupled with escalating threats from adversaries, compel nations to prioritize military preparedness. This often leads to reluctant transitions towards climate-neutral armies, as they lack prior experience in this domain.
For instance, Russia’s war in Ukraine has prompted questions about whether the West needs to rebuild its military-industrial capacity in preparation for a large-scale war. Following the Russian invasion, European nations announced increases of nearly €200 billion to their defence budgets. The pressure to spend quickly threatens to entrench further Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels for defence at a moment when policymakers are aiming to shift to climate-neutral forces.
Furthermore, policymakers are concerned about countries or adversaries lacking the necessary financial resources or the willingness to pursue complete decarbonization of their militaries. A recent study conducted by a British officer concluded that, given current capabilities and modes of combat, an electrified land force might struggle to achieve the same levels of firepower, protection, and mobility as a force relying on fossil fuels.
The big powers: how China, Russia and the US militaries are adapting
Given the transnational nature of climate change, governments from all over the world have a shared responsibility to address it; however, it is questionable whether the interests of the world's three military superpowers, China, Russia, and the United States, are aligned. They differ in their approaches to addressing climate change and even more so in their views on how it affects the armed forces.
China's leadership avoids tying climate change to military might despite acknowledging its possible security consequences due to its links to the fossil fuel industry of the country, Sino-US rivalry and the consequent “conspiracy attitude” among some Chinese policymakers, and strategic secrecy regarding its military. Overall, there is little information available publicly on China's consideration of climate change, even though it very likely might have a significant impact on its military infrastructure.
Russia acknowledges climate change's security implications but opts for a national approach over international securitization, preferring to wait for the issue to materialize rather than preventing it. Moscow sees economic opportunities with climate change and minimizes the role of the armed forces, except in the Arctic, where defrosting reveals important natural resources.
The US takes the most proactive approach to climate change security, with integrated strategies, risk assessment, Arctic geopolitical competition, and disaster relief efforts, defining this issue as a priority. Clearly, it is common belief that this should not come at the cost of operational effectiveness. However, political divisions affect climate security actions.
NATO & the EU: Towards Climate Security Leadership
Remarkably, organisations such as NATO and the EU are important actors concerning climate security. NATO is intensifying its focus on environmental security, aiming to obtain a pivotal role in adapting to climate change security. It addresses risks to military operations, disaster relief, energy efficiency, and climate mitigation. Annual assessments, adaptation measures, emissions analysis, and collaboration with partners are also central to NATO's 2023 Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment.
The EU is a pioneer when it comes to green policies. However, the military sector has been largely omitted in light of the EU pacifist policies. Nonetheless, things are rapidly changing. In this context, incorporating the military sector into the European Green Deal policies would reduce emissions, enhance strategic autonomy, modernize operations, spur innovation, and boost the EU's credibility in combating climate change.
As climate change intensifies, militaries must innovate to cut emissions while maintaining readiness. Though approaches differ, organizations like NATO and the EU are driving climate action through target-setting and funding initiatives. With visionary leadership, armed forces can spearhead transformative change towards climate-resilient, sustainable societies.