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Sustainability: Enhancing Defence Capability



One of the most talked-about points at this year’s Defence Disrupted conference in London has been around climate change and how it is changing our approach to defence priorities, both domestic and foreign. The reality is that climate change is not just an environmental crisis but a security one too. Whilst energy, water and food security have increasingly been recognised as potential future sources of conflict, today climate change is increasingly impacting our lives: extreme temperatures, unusual weather patterns, and increased flooding are creating new and unfamiliar reasons for conflict. They are driving food shortages, mass migration, endangering local economies and driving illegal activity.

And the Defence sector has a broader role to play than just protecting our national security interests. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is itself responsible for more than half of Public Sector emissions in the UK. Globally, the world’s militaries combined, including the supply chain, are estimated to create 6% of all global emissions, according to Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR). After two years of global turmoil, the post-pandemic world has lurched into a new geopolitical crisis in Ukraine, and the rising cost of living is being driven by food shortages. Both have put immense pressure on personal and public finances, and are evidenced by food and fuel security issues arising at our very own doorsteps.


Whilst climate change is being recognised as a security issue, a defence sector that is properly organised for climate change and has access to technological tools to track changes and make forecasts is one that will be better able to defend its citizens. Rather than just the risks, we should also seize the opportunities for using sustainability to enhance our military capabilities and protect our sovereignty and that of our allies. UK is the first major economy to pass laws to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, however, to achieve such ambitious targets, the defence needs to adapt and address climate change.


Challenges remain, however, advances have been made in some areas of Defence, for example:


  • Net-zero build standards, e.g., developing energy-efficient estates and setting out carbon targets across Defence organisations

  • Monitoring carbon emissions and offsetting on all Defence sites

  • Diversity fuel types for defence (up to 50%)

  • Moving towards electrifying the entire fleet by 2030


But we need to go further and faster. Electrification and hybrid power systems provide baseline benefits, but we need to go further in investing in fuels of the future such as hydrogen or ammonia. We need to completely reassess net-zero standards and calculate emissions from materials to operations (including supply chain) and decommissioning. Integral to this approach is prioritising industries that have a larger carbon footprint and electrification alone is not the solution, e.g., steel production and the maritime industry.


Defence Disrupted

Our CTO Dr Puneet Chhabra was invited to a closed round table to discuss how climate change intersects with the military and defence sector and the challenges they face. The roundtable was attended by policymakers from the MoD, Defra, and NATO including innovative startups, scientists and investors.


Acua Ocean CTO Dr Puneet Chhabra said:


“Opportunities should be explored where we combine the work of climate scientists, data scientists, engineers and the military. ACUA finds itself at the convergence of one of many megatrends, the IoT, robotics, hydrogen technology and AI. We are fostering innovation within the maritime sectors supporting the defence to achieve their net-zero emission targets.”

Some of the key insights from the meeting and the key drivers of sustainability within Defence were:


What were the key takeaways from the event and the roundtable in particular?

The Defence Disrupted panel covered topics ranging from climate change, technology validation, regulations and individual responsibility towards sustainability within the defence.


There are signs that the defence sector has been looking inwards to evaluate existing processes, e.g., net-zero build standards and committing to the electrification of the entire fleet. But, more needs to be done, especially around procurement and traditional centralised command and control to a more distributed multi-domain energy-efficient approach. We can see three main drivers of sustainability within defence:


  1. Regulations - can be a huge motivator but there is always room to interpret the rules differently. They are also hugely influenced by the current state of affairs. For example, regulators have now given a go-ahead to Shell’s Jackdaw gas field to boost domestic energy output following the war in Ukraine whereas in the past environmental concerns were raised for the same site. Few corporations or the MOD are currently willing to “bet” on one particular future fuel. Without policy guidance and infrastructure investment, we risk years of uncertainty and speculation.

  2. Corporate Goals and Philosophy - they are ever-present in our employee handbooks and annual reports but there’s always room to ignore or “spin” them.

  3. Business Case - a strong business case for sustainability is hard to ignore, e.g., can service personnel be more efficient in their primary role when adopting or trialling new innovations?


What is driving the green energy transition?

The recent war in Ukraine has turned the EU’s energy policy on its head. Diversifying our energy sources also requires a broader adoption of hydrogen as a fuel for the future. But there are challenges when it comes to production. Green hydrogen (through renewables) accounts for just 0.03% of global production. The EU and UK are now looking to partner with nations that receive plenty of sun year-round and or have already invested heavily within the renewable energy sector (e.g., offshore wind) to produce and transport green hydrogen. Since the start of the war, Germany has reduced its dependence on Russian oil by more than 23%. This shift in global focus opens opportunities for new investment in stable economies in emerging markets like sub-Saharan Africa. A policy of investing in countries, long targeted by China could deliver both energy supply and geopolitical advantages.