‘Greening’ the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces (Part Two): some suggestions

Dr Jasper Humphries, Director of Programmes, The Marjan Centre for the Study of Conflict and the Environment, King’s College London

The Armed Forces in the United Kingdom should not be surprised or complain if the public started taking a closer interest in their ‘green’ profile. This is especially so in regard to everyday elements such as their fuel and energy usage and food, as well as other carbon-footprint elements and training area usage. Beyond this, discussions become more technical and subjective, such as the impact of depleted-uranium ammunition, the ‘AI versus the Stone Age’ debate – or more officially, drones versus aircraft-carriers – and that between nuclear weapons (and power) versus environmental trade-offs.

All the Armed Forces operational support and training area administration is overseen by the MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO). This has indicated that it wishes ‘to become expert at providing rounded advice and sustainable options that result in environmentally conscious infrastructure decisions’. The DIO also aims to achieve net zero-carbon emissions by 2050, to manage climate-change impacts and to introduce a Sustainability Management System across the whole Defence infrastructure ‘ecosystem’.

Here the paradox contained within General Richard Nugee’s (the Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy Lead for the Ministry of Defence) is clear (see Part One of this article). In his official review of the Armed Forces ‘green’ profile, the ‘Nugee Paradox’ was apparent in that he evidently had to balance the importance of practical ‘green’ sustainability in the Armed Forces while being mindful of military strategic contingencies.

And there is devil in the detail. Essentially, it all boils down to the MoD’s version of its responsibilities and calculated carbon emissions versus the environmental lobby’s version. The latter accuses the MoD of ‘creative’ carbon accounting by producing figures that vastly underestimate the true picture. The lobby’s core argument is that the MoD does not factor in the carbon ‘long-tail’ belonging not only to the lengthy MoD supply-chain (both at home and abroad) or similarly that of the closely allied arms industry. It is also seen to ignore the large number of operational locations globally where the British Armed Forces are present, either overtly or covertly.

Taking a wide perspective, the military’s engagement with ‘green’ sustainability can be divided into two sections, inward and outward. The former focuses on fuel and food supplies and other home-based initiatives while the latter contains elements of these issues but in a overseas context along with overseas political/military initiatives ranging from training programmes to Defence support missions. A third section – separated by time and place from the other two – would be quantifying the environmental-economic cost of any conflict engaged in, not only from the combat perspective but also in terms of preparatory and post-conflict concerns, as outlined by Machlis and Hanson in their seminal paper ‘Warfare Ecology’.

In lieu of not having any prior knowledge or hints about what is in General Nugee’s yet-to-be-released report, below is short list of suggestions related to the comments above:

1: ‘An army marches on its stomach’. Given that it is estimated that the British people will themselves need to slash their meat and dairy consumption by one-fifth within nine years to be on target to meet the government’s 2050 net-zero targets, surely it is time to introduce a full-throated vegan/vegetarian option into the military diet that would also be applicable overseas. Additionally, buying ‘local’ when abroad (in, say, Africa) would save money and engender goodwill.

2: The ‘Musk-do’ approach. Following in the footsteps of Elon Musk and others developing electric vehicles and batteries, the MoD could initiate a ‘green’ revolution of their own regarding transportation and energy use/provision. This could apply not only to vehicles, aircraft and ships but also to heating systems in buildings. Here a commitment to the ‘hydrogen economy’ might also reap substantial benefits, given that fossil-fuels comprise four-fifths of the world’s energy supply, are the main source of carbon-emissions and have driven ‘resource wars’.  A commitment to non-fossil-fuels would, moreover, also stimulate and assist civilian developments in the UK looking for ‘critical mass’, such as the Rasa hydrogen car/truck project in Wales.

3: On ‘the sunny side’. Given the MoD’s comparatively large land holding in the UK, officially 600,000 acres, there is plenty of scope for setting up large-scale solar and wind farms. This would also have the benefit of mitigating the MoD’s power ‘take’ from the National Grid, possibly even becoming a net contributor.

4: ‘Seeing the woods – and the trees’. Given that the UK government has a commitment to tree-planting and that the MoD has a large land holding, rolling out a planting programme across this holding would help to rebalance the national carbon economy and could accrue carbon-credits. The planting could be carried out by both the Armed Forces as well as by volunteers; building on the proposal by a Cambridge University policy institute to initiate a national Conservation Corps.

5: ‘Power surge’. With the global population projected to increase by two billion over the next few decades, at the 2015 Paris Climate Accord meeting 22 countries and the EU pledged to double their research-and-development funding for clean energy. With many areas of the world unable to access power, self-contained ‘mini-hubs’ and ‘mini-grids’ relying on solar, wind or even hydrogen, would make a huge difference. These hub/grids could be supplied as part of UK overseas aid but in some cases they would require protection which would provide a role for British military personnel as either supervisors or as guards and as part of ongoing overseas relationship-building. Additionally, these hubs/grids could also be rolled out at UK-based establishments.

6: ‘The bear necessities’: Ten years ago, the prominent British fashion designer, Stella McCartney, and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) failed in their attempt to make the British Army’s Guards regiments replace, for their traditional headdress, the use of Canadian black-bear skins with synthetic material. Times have now moved on, however, and there is mounting cross-party political pressure to review the fur trade in the United Kingdom. The traditional beaver-skin busby for the King’s Troop Royal Artillery has already been replaced by black nylon faux fur and the Swedish and Italian armies have also dropped fur. Is it time to again review the Guards’ use of bear skins? Maybe substituting with another natural product – how about hemp with a faux-bearskin imprint?

One thought on “‘Greening’ the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces (Part Two): some suggestions

  1. Will the Nugee paradox drive the development of an improved ‘full climate cost’ formula as part of its answer, in order to adjust defense economics? If such a formula were much better than existing carbon offset, there might be an appetite for it in many fields beyond defense.


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