A new report reveals that the Ministry of Defence has made no real progress on reducing the carbon footprint of its military bases in the UK
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The Ministry of Defence has made no significant progress towards reducing the carbon footprint of its UK military bases despite figures in its latest annual report showing that it is on course to meet all of its targets, according to new analysis.
In recent years, the MoD has tried to position itself as a leader in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Its 2021 climate change strategy highlighted the importance of combating climate change and made commitments to “play a leading role in supporting wider UK objectives for climate change... act as a partner in the UK’s green industrial transition” and lead by example to “build international coalitions for greener and more sustainable militaries”.
But a new report by the Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Conflict and Environment Observatory claims that the targets set for reducing greenhouse gases on the MoD’s UK estate are so “weak and undemanding” that they would be met even if the MoD took “no action at all”. This is due to the reductions being necessary to hit the targets happening anyway due to action taken in other parts of the economy.
The report's lead author, Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, writes: “Reducing our dependency on fossil fuels wherever possible will prove both the right thing to do and the necessary thing to do, to contribute to the Government’s legal obligation to net zero by 2050, and to take advantage of new and emerging energy technologies.”
Although there no genuinely sustainable aircraft fuels currently in mass production, the RAF has even pledged to become net zero by 2040.
But the MoD’s greenhouse gas emissions remain the most under-reported of all the Government departments, with millions tonnes of defence emissions still not included in the UK’s calculations for reaching net zero by 2050.
Doug Weir, research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, is encouraged that there are individuals in the MoD wanting to push the transition but he told Byline Times that they will also need to reassure colleagues that doing so will not impact on the department's capabilities.
"While many militaries now accept the need for emission cuts, cultures of secrecy and environmental exceptionalism, institutional inertia and denials over the scale of the challenge faced are a recipe for military-grade greenwash," he said. "Transparent reporting and honesty are vital first steps in reducing the outsized contribution that militaries make to the climate crisis."
UK military bases represent around one-third of the MoD’s total emissions.
Using the 2017/18 financial year as a baseline, its two main targets are, by 2025, to reduce indirect emissions from energy and electricity bought to power, heat and cool buildings by 30%; and to reduce 10% of direct emissions, such as running boilers and vehicles. The targets do not include service family accommodation or military equipment such as warships, combat aircraft and tanks.
Scientists for Global Responsibility is an independent UK-based network of scientists, engineers, IT professionals and architects working to promote the ethical practice and use of science, design and technology. Its executive director, and author of the new research, Dr Stuart Parkinson, told Byline Times that the MoD "has so far only set near-term targets for reducing a limited fraction of its carbon emissions".
“Our analysis shows that even these targets are very weak and can be met with little or no effort," he said. "If the UK military is serious about doing its share of national climate action, it must up its game considerably."
Dr Parkinson has calculated that 22% of the reported 29% reduction in indirect emissions on military bases was a result of decarbonising the national grid, which has seen a 40% fall in greenhouse gas emissions per unit over the past four years – rather than measures implemented by the MoD.
He also noted that the MoD’s modest 2% annual reduction in direct emissions was at the lower end of the range stated in the Government’s latest energy strategy paper, which recommended a decrease of between 1.75% and 4.25% across the UK.
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A MoD spokesperson said: “Since 2010, we have reduced overall carbon emissions from the defence estate and domestic business travel by more than 50%, and extensive work is ongoing to identify opportunities to reduce emissions further.
“The MOD estate emissions cover all activities on the defence estate including industrial processes, energy generation and communications and defence radar, as well as heating and lighting buildings. The pace at which defence can decarbonise is therefore linked to military capability, consumption and needs.”
Although Dr Parkinson’s research did not cover the period before 2016/17, he told Byline Times that the 50% decrease in CO2 emissions since 2010 is often quoted by the MoD but was largely achieved from decarbonising the national grid and from a 20% cut in military personnel which allowed sell-off of large areas of the defence estate.
He said that these two factors were responsible for “nearly all the reductions over this period” with only a few percentage reductions coming from MoD energy efficiency or onsite renewable energy projects.
The MoD cites initiatives like the Net Carbon Accommodation Programme (NetCAP) and Project Prometheus as evidence of its commitment to tackle climate change.
According to the Army, its four solar farms promoted under the banner of Project Prometheus will reduce the equivalent of around 2,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year. Three of the solar farms are fully operational with the fourth and final instillation on track for completion later this year.
NetCAP was set up in 2020 with the remit to build 70 net zero accommodation blocks across the defence training estate. Fifty-six units have been constructed to date, with the remaining 14 due for completion by mid-2023. Each building is fitted with air-source heat pumps, rooftop solar panels and smart energy control systems, resulting in reported energy performance certificate ratings as low as -10.
While Dr Parkinson acknowledges that NetCAP and Project Prometheus will help to reduce emissions, he believes that the MoD needs to move much faster and on a much larger scale if it is to become a leading actor in UK climate action. He emphasises the need for tighter, more ambitious, targets by the department.
Perhaps the starkest warning comes from the MoD itself.
In 2021, Lieutenant General Nugee – who led the review of the MoD’s climate change policy in 2020/21 – acknowledged that rising seas, extreme weather and creeping desertification would “almost certainly lead to more conflict”.
"More conflict in itself will damage the planet – those involved in conflict will not be able to focus on the climate, and instead will be creating more emissions whilst in conflict, therefore making it far less likely that we will reach any of the climate change Paris [Agreement] goals,” he said.
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