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Mobilizing to Reduce the Strain of Climate Change

In a year of unusual activity, an unusual phenomenon stood out: in April 2020, carbon dioxide emissions dropped by almost 2 billion tons to their lowest point since World War II, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Environmentalists hailed the moment, urging nations to commit to further reducing emissions to limit the impact of climate change. But it was short lived. In December 2020, the IEA said resurgence in economic activity due to pandemic recovery measures was pushing energy demands higher than pre-COVID-19 levels.

And this could pose major , which is already feeling the strain of emissions-induced climate change in the form of major weather events, migration, and drought. For the second year in a row, environmental experts and security practitioners raised the alarm on this threat in The World Climate and Security Report 2021—published by the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS).

The report warns of the compounding security threats posed by the convergence of climate change and other global risks—including COVID-19—and the strain they will place on critical infrastructure and security personnel around the world.

“Major and urgent global emissions reductions are necessary in order to avoid significant, severe, or catastrophic global security consequences in the future,” said IMCCS Secretary General Sherri Goodman. “We also need to climate-proof all elements of security—including infrastructure, institutions, and policies….The transition from concepts of climate security to implementation is critical and urgently needed.”

The IMCCS report found that climate security risks will continue to intensify across all regions, with disasters hitting so frequently that societies may not have the chance to recover before facing a new threat. Militaries will also be “overstretched,” especially as the “pace and intensity of extreme weather events increases” and countries rely more heavily on military forces to act as first responders.

Our passive systems become unreliable in intense weather.

This dynamic—along with the vast resources militaries have to purchase to maintain equipment and improve their own infrastructure—creates an opportunity to leverage defense and security forces to improve resiliency and reduce carbon emissions. The defense sector is the “single largest individual consumer of hydrocarbons in the world,” said Francois Bausch, Luxembourg’s Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Minister for Mobility and Public Works, in a panel discussion hosted by IMCCS after the report’s release. “As we increase our defense capabilities, those emissions will likely increase unless we produce carbon neutral technologies.”

“Given Europe’s bold decarbonization commitments, its security services are well placed to lead on climate security risks and resilience,” the IMCCs report authors wrote. “The implementation of the EU Climate Change and Defense Road Map in 2021 is one opportunity for militaries in Europe to better integrate climate change into their planning, including the development of foresight tools and early warning systems.”

Militaries are already doing this by making missions into conflict zones greener—using renewable energy instead of oil or diesel to power technology.

“Such efforts can directly and positively affect both the peace initiatives and the climate, as fuel transport is often targeted by adversaries,” the report explained. “Transitioning to renewable energy also reduces the carbon footprint of military operations, which directly contributes to an overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, is focused on becoming more climate aware and how climate change is impacting security—directly or indirectly, said NATO Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges David Van Weel.

NATO is looking at how to adapt security forces or “green our militaries” as part of a win-win strategy where becoming more energy efficient means using less fuel, saving money, and saving lives. The alliance is considering using artificial intelligence for tanker, transport, and aircraft planning tools to help reduce the use of fuel.

“There are logistical companies like Amazon that have sophisticated software that can help us in reducing the use of fuel when it comes down to planning,” Van Weel said. “And autonomy, such as drones…predominantly drones by commercial companies. NATO is tapping into practices of companies that can get the whole alliance to a higher level.”

France’s defense forces have already embraced this mind-set, pledging to spend nearly $600 million to decrease energy consumption on its military bases.

“The plan includes a 40 percent reduction of energy consumption on deployed military camps by 2030,” the IMCCS report explained. “The French Ministry of Armed Forces thus acknowledges the role of fossil fuel consumption in increasing risks for missions abroad, as well as its responsibility to reduce the carbon footprint of the defense forces in order to avoid additional pressure on fragile countries themselves.”

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is moving towards implementing electrified vehicles. Goodman said that the DOD leases approximately 165,000 vehicles each year, so a move towards adopting greener solutions for non-tactical vehicles would help reduce its carbon footprint.

Along with adopting greener solutions, militaries and security personnel also need to assess how climate change will impact the function of other types of technology, said Lieutenant General (Ret) Richard Nugee, the Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy Lead for the UK Ministry of Defence.

For instance, the melting of ice in the Arctic is changing the viscosity of the water that submarines often traverse—potentially impacting how submarines function.

Nugee also highlighted that military forces and security personnel rely on sensors that could be impacted by hazardous algae—like the major algae blooms seen along the coast of the United States—and more intense rainstorms.

“Surveillance and reconnaissance sensors and equipment can be damaged by the intensity of rain. If rain is delivered in shorter, more intense bursts, our sensors can’t see through that,” he said. “Our passive systems become unreliable in intense weather.”

In addition to addressing operational issues for technology, Nugee said the United Kingdom is also enhancing the resiliency of its defense sector supply chain. In September, the UK government will announce a policy that any contractor that wants to bid for a contract worth more than £5 million ($6.6 million) must have a plan to get to net zero carbon emissions.

“If you don’t change your own process as an industry and have a plan to get to net zero, well we’re going to force you to do so,” Nugee said. “If you want a contract with the government, you have to have a route to net zero.”

Megan Gates is editor-in-chief of Security Technology. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @mgngates.