in Features

Driving defence decarbonisation

Posted 7 September 2023

Richard Gutsell, Programme Director, Atkins, stresses the need for more enduring partnerships to ensure defence can actually achieve its aim of delivering true decarbonisation.

Image courtesy Atkins

The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) faces a challenging journey as it continues its decarbonisation drive to reach the Climate Change Act’s Net Zero carbon 2050 targets. Despite significant reductions from its 2010 baseline, MoD produced over 700kt of Carbon Dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2020/21, representing 53.7% of total UK government emissions. With a complex portfolio of equipment and an aging estate, and against a background of increased threats, defence leaders cannot avoid difficult decisions.

Key amongst these challenges are Defence’s operational and capability imperatives. It must maintain and grow the capabilities that enable it to deliver its deterrent, disaster relief, peacekeeping, and intervention functions, ensuring it retains a competitive edge – and it must do this against a backdrop of constrained Defence budgets. Net Zero requires investment: to make a strong business case for funding, decarbonisation initiatives should not only contribute to emissions’ reduction but also improve capability, operational efficiency, and resilience. MoD and the defence supply chain that supports it, will need to work in partnership to smooth the path to Net Zero to reach their decarbonisation destination.

Driving innovation and capability
Lack of action is not an option: aside from the environmental imperative, as the UK’s allies all chart their course towards Net Zero, our equipment and support must integrate with theirs. For the Defence sector however, the challenge of Net Zero also offers opportunity: to innovate, and to drive improvements in competitive advantage, operational efficiency, and resilience that will benefit our national security.

While the MoD has previously described its desire to be a ‘fast follower’ in its climate change strategic approach, it has the potential to be a leader – coordinating collaboration between government and industry, while using its command and insight functions to horizon-scan and identify the appropriate Net Zero technologies on which to focus. Working with commercial organisations will enable it to foster innovation, and to learn the lessons being gained from both public and private decarbonisation activities. Many of the principles and approaches to reducing emissions across the defence estate can draw upon learning from public and private estates – good quality, robust, and reliable data is key.

It is data that should form the foundation of organisations’ Net Zero strategic plans – understanding where they are and where they need to be helps identify the challenges to overcome and, from there, the potential solutions. Can the estate be optimised, with some lesser-needed buildings ramped down operationally? Could some of MoD’s extensive land holdings be used for carbon capture to offset emissions?

Short-term wins, long-term gains
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so decarbonisation must be considered holistically across the organisation. Buildings, for example, should not be thought of in isolation. They must be examined at different granularities of scale – at portfolio level, at site level, at building level. Targeting sites with a high decarbonisation ‘return on investment’ can help fund investment into other initiatives, by delivering savings that release money for other interventions. If budgets are aligned rather than siloed, these savings can be used for other decarbonisation activities. Shorter-term, rapid return on investment interventions – such as solar PV panels, LED lighting retrofit and building management system (BMS) upgrade/optimisation – can be used to provide tangible results that help get buy-in for longer-term business cases from funders and key stakeholders.

These solutions must form part of a longer-term strategic road map, managed by a well set up programme management office. This road map will need to consider how any digital divide, between the organisation’s current technologies and novel, Net Zero technologies can be bridged. The commercial sector has much to offer Defence in this sphere: bringing the lessons learnt through developing technologies such as digital twin, smart buildings and many more, to help the defence estate drive efficiencies and reduce emissions.

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) have a key role to play in decarbonisation as they can move at pace to bring innovation to market. Accessing these innovations could accelerate defence transition to low carbon. Industry partners should partner with both SMEs (whose business models may struggle with the prolonged timescales of defence procurement) and with MoD, to open the door to testing and rapid scaling. SMEs can help balance defence investment in established technologies, with that needed to test and evaluate developing technologies such as large-scale battery storage and sustainable, renewable energy sources. These partners can also support defence to consider whole life assessments of equipment and systems – from concept through to decommissioning.

Reducing emissions through physical interventions, however, will only go so far – creating a culture across defence that supports and champions environmental sustainability is crucial, to unlock some of the harder to decarbonise emissions associated with behaviour. Organisational environmental sustainability values should be lead from the top – ‘selling the benefits’, as Chief of Defence Logistics and Support, Lieutenant General Richard Wardlaw, did at a recent Dstl conference.

Discussing MoD’s recently published Sustainable Support Strategy, Lt Gen Wardlaw highlighted the opportunity for defence “to enhance military capability with emissions’ reduction as a consequence not as a force driver”. Employees should be encouraged and rewarded for acting in a more sustainable way with behavioural science interventions, targeting specific behaviours and questioning beliefs, driving change from the bottom up.

To reach Net Zero, a questioning approach is essential and industry partnerships bring this to defence. Asking what the benefits of each activity are and what their value is to the Net Zero programme, allows defence to adapt and pivot if needed. Yet with just seven years to reach the government’s COP26 commitment of a 68% fall in territorial emissions from 1990 levels, the rate of emissions reduction outside the power sector needs to almost quadruple – we are falling behind.

Partnerships must be made at pace, to deliver the urgent action needed achieve the 2050 deadline. Through drawing on the lessons learned by others, defence can reach its decarbonisation destination, turning challenges into opportunities along the way.





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