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Military Warned To Urgently Adapt To Climate Change Threats

Climate change will present many new challenges to military forces around the world (Alamy)

7 min read

The Ministry of Defence must adapt its strategic resilience to cope with changing demands from climate change, a new defence committee report has warned.

The “Defence and Climate Change” report, published by the Defence Committee on Friday, sets out a range of recommendations for the MOD after climate change-related issues were ranked as the top six of the 32 most severe risks to the planet over the next ten years by the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023.

Advocating for greater investment and research to enable the MOD to achieve government net-zero targets, the report also said it is crucial to ensure equipment and training are sufficient for the military to operate in changing climate conditions. 

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Committee and MP for Bournemouth East, told PoliticsHome the MOD needs to “urgently” review how it conducts operations in more extreme temperatures and how it might respond to the geopolitical impact of climate change across the world. 

“We're all familiar with the fact that the ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, crop failures are likely to grow, more of the world is going to become uninhabitable,” Ellwood said.

“It's actually starting to bite now, July was seen to be the hottest month ever, the last eight years were the hottest on record… it's happening in front of our eyes.

“And what the MOD I don't think is focusing enough on is strategic resilience, the ability to build a function in an ever demanding environment.”

Tobias Ellwood MP

While the government’s Integrated Review Refresh – published in May this year to update the government’s security and defence policy priorities – did mention climate change a number of times, Ellwood claimed it was “really lacking in detail”.

The new committee report recommended that military equipment will need to be adapted to operate effectively under more extreme temperature ranges, as well to help reduce emissions.

For example, some Royal Navy ships cannot operate in hotter waters around the Caribbean, as their engines cannot keep cool above a certain temperature. As temperatures are expected to rise over the coming decades, this could present challenges for military operations unless vessels are modified. 

The need to adapt also extends to training: Royal Marines already undertake training to cope with extreme hot or cold weather, but Ellwood said this needs to be expanded to other military personnel.

“It can't just be one element of our armed forces,” he insisted. 

“It is something that all our armed forces are going to have to train and acclimatise to. How we conduct operations in ever demanding environments, how we actually fight wars, how we keep peace, all these sorts of things will have to be reviewed.”

Climate change is not only expected to affect the conditions the military has to operate under, but also the nature of the work they carry out. 

In the Arctic, where ice caps continue to melt, Russia has started to take advantage of the expansion of open seas by claiming some of the territory as its own. According to Ellwood, this is just one example where global warming will place greater pressures on the UK military. 

Navy ship in Arctic
Melting ice caps are likely to put more pressure on the British Navy to prevent Russian sea territory expansion (Alamy)

“Our army personnel is down to the smallest level for a couple of 100 years and yet we’re still placing more demands,” he said.

The report referred to the fact that the United Nations’ Food Programme is conducting operations in 20 areas of conflict across the world, of which 14 are overlaid with climate impacts.

"So there's going to be an ever greater demand on our personnel to do all these sorts of things," the defence committee chair added.

Ellwood, who is a former British Army officer, stressed that any attempts to mitigate the military’s carbon impact or adapt its operations should be achieved without scaling down military capability. 

“That would be very, very dangerous and short-sighted,” he said.

“If we end up reducing our overall operational capability and effectiveness, then we ultimately open ourselves up to greater threats. The world is getting more dangerous, not less.

“We’ve got China ever more assertive and aggressive, authoritarianism across the world is on the rise compared with democracies… so this will place ever greater challenges on us as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to help support and defend the international rules based order.

“We need to set an example to say that we need to spend more on our military because our economy depends on access to international waters.”

The committee chair argued that the current spending of around 2 per cent of GDP on defence is “simply not enough”, and that he hopes the report will “give the MOD the necessary arguments to convince the Treasury to say we need to invest further and advance our defence posture to meet the climate change challenge that's coming over the hill”.

“I'm hoping that this will expose the importance of dealing with these huge challenges, which I think [the MOD] are conscious of, but they haven't really factored into their long term strategic thinking yet,” he continued.

Another recommendation in the report is that the MOD should return to publishing a standalone annual review of its sustainability performance for the first time since 2018, and that the UK should set an “international gold standard” in robust reporting of defence emissions. 

The report also advised that the MOD should appoint a dedicated climate change director responsible for coordinating carbon reductions across the whole of Defence.

“To have an individual who is tasked with this mission makes the whole project a lot easier to understand, appreciate and assess,” Ellwood explained. 

“So absolutely we believe there needs to be someone at that director level that shows the MOD is taking this seriously.”

"The world is getting more dangerous, not less."

There is evidence that some MOD operations appear to act against government initiatives to achieve net zero by 2050. 

Diesel and petrol cars are set to be banned by 2030, yet the MOD is investing in more than 1,000 new upgraded tanks, armoured personnel, vehicles that will be operational in the next decade and in use for the following 30 to 40 years.

While the MOD does have its own targets to reduce carbon emissions, the report argues its targets are not ambitious enough and should be scaled up. 

  “It appears that the Ministry can meet its targets entirely by taking advantage of the decarbonisation of the National Grid,” the report said. 

“Targets are hardly stretching if they can be met without any effort, especially for a department that produces half of all central government emissions.”

Ellwood told PoliticsHome that further initiative is needed to improve the energy efficiency of land and property owned by the MOD, which holds around 1.4 per cent of total UK land.

For example, RAF Marham has its own bio generator which produces clean energy, and Ellwood suggested more could be done to implement solar panels across military sites. 

“I think there are clever ways that we could utilise some of the positives that the MOD has.

“RAF Marham is a great example to see that actually what the MOD is doing, that there are pockets of excellence that perhaps need to be more widely shared.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: "The UK has decarbonised faster than any other G7 country and we are working towards our net zero ambition whilst maintaining military capability.

“This includes through initiatives such as sustainable aviation fuel, the electrification of vehicles and piloting of solar farms.

“We will consider the report’s recommendations, several of which align with work already being undertaken across Defence and we will respond in due course.”

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