The MOD is a major source of the UK government’s carbon emissions. However, it could also be a major driver of the fight against climate change, using the same principles of military innovation and procurement that led to developments in medical treatment and the creation of GPS.
General Nugee is soon to release his report on the MOD and climate change, and he has already created the Defence Green Network to seek sustainability ideas from personnel. Several projects have been launched, such as reducing plastics and disposable coffee cups, but there is a risk that the MOD simply seeks to replicate common actions from other organisations rather than taking the lead itself.
This is the wrong way for the military to address the problem.
Instead, they should view carbon emissions as a weapon system and respond accordingly, analysing the threat, developing a strategy to combat that threat, and then implementing it with maximum energy and aggression.
Such a response should focus on developing new technologies to address the threat, much like the MOD has always done in wartime; those new technologies can then be passed over into civilian life and expanded, much like military technology has done for centuries.
While an obvious area of development is electric tanks and planes, some other ideas for what the MOD could do are below:
1) Develop small-scale nuclear power for electricity generation. Large scale nuclear power stations face massive building costs and huge challenges disposing of nuclear waste. However, smaller nuclear power plants could provide vital baseload power, alongside battery technology, to overcome the limitations of intermittent renewable energy. The MOD’s decades of nuclear experience place them in a strong position to develop and pilot small scale nuclear power, while also providing the security needed through their military infrastructure.
2) Develop carbon capture and conversion technology to create zero-emission fuels. Jet aircraft are likely to run on fossil fuels for decades, so they need clean fuel. A Canadian company has already developed a machine that converts the carbon in air into aviation fuel. The MOD should invest in, and deploy, that technology, innovating to reduce costs and enabling it to be scaled up. If combined with small-scale nuclear power, such machines could provide the MOD with zero-emission fuel for its entire vehicle fleet, enabling the achievement of net zero without undermining equipment capability. In the short-term it is likely to lead to higher fuel costs, but the long-term benefit of the technology justifies such investment, possibly including from the UK’s new green bank to reduce pressure on an already tight MOD budget.
3) Develop geothermal deep-drilling technology to enable the use of geothermal power almost anywhere in the world. By developing deep-drilling capabilities, the earth’s internal heat could be used to provide hot-water heating to MOD bases and also to generate steam to drive electric turbine generators. Civilian research in this area is already under way, but it is another area the MOD should seek to invest into to drive the technology forward and enhance its own capability.
4) Develop deployable ‘steam-solar’ power. Morocco has developed a large ‘steam-solar’ power plant, using mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto water to create steam to drive turbines. The MOD should seek to develop smaller, deployable systems to be used in bases around the world, particularly in theatres of war, to provide free power to support operations. It would reduce dependency on diesel generators and the logistical supply chain required for them, and also drive battery development to be able to store power when the sun does not shine. Furthermore, since the system is super-heating water, it should also be designed to provide potable water, to reduce dependency on bottled water. Such a system would not only help the MOD, but also has widespread application for remote grids in hot countries, and reduces the need for the rare-earth minerals used in solar panels, which is a limitation on the widespread deployment of those panels.
5) Change how MOD buildings are constructed. The MOD should adopt new building techniques and materials on all their bases, using and testing the latest innovations to drive their widespread adoption. For example, when constructing new mess accommodation, instead of the standard ‘university-style’ concrete accommodation buildings, they could be constructed from wood, using the techniques Norway has adopted to build wooden skyscrapers, for example. This would reduce emissions from concrete, improve energy efficiency, and contribute to net-zero by locking in emissions from the timber used. All toilets should use rainwater for flushing to reduce water usage as well. The MOD should also be testing the ballistic capabilities of such new materials; if they are effective, they could provide an alternative to concrete barriers, providing eco-friendly defence without sacrificing effectiveness.
6) Instead of selling-off MOD real estate where bases are closed, a commercial team should be created to monetise MOD land, all maximising sustainability and usability. For example, a former Army base could be converted into a hotel and spa, with the grounds rewilded to provide a tourist attraction. The hotel would generate revenue, justifying keeping the land, rewilding would help offset some of the MOD’s emissions and offer opportunities for scientific study, and the land would still be owned by the MOD, so could be reconverted in future if the need arose. Similarly, a former RAF base could be converted into an office and warehouse facility, designed to be low-energy and eco-friendly, which would be rented out to businesses. It generates revenue and provides a space for innovation in design, but could also be converted back into a military installation quickly if needed.
These are just a few ideas for what the MOD could do. The key is the principle – that the MOD should lead, not follow. The military has for centuries led innovation, including medical advances and GPS; they should do the same on climate change, helping to develop and deliver game-changing technologies to defeat the global threat of climate change.