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"We can significantly improve our approach to climate change and sustainability"

What does climate change mean for the armed forces? What tasks have to be tackled, what priorities have to be set, what role should the military play in the future? In the context of the UK’s strategic realignment with the “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, the UK Ministry of Defence published the “Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach” in March 2021. Lt Gen Richard Nugee, the author of the strategy document, has answered questions from the editorial staff. 

Lt Gen Nugee, the British Ministry of Defence has recently published its Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach. Can you briefly situate it in the larger context of the Integrated Review? What specifically led you to develop this strategy?

The Integrated Review states that Climate Change is the UKʼs number one international priority and describes it as a “threat to humanity”, a significant change from even recent previous reviews of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. The UK is putting Climate Change at the heart of its policies, in line with the legally binding national commitment to reach net zero by 2050. Defence has, in the past, not really recognised the very significant role that it can play both in the reduction of national emissions, as well as supporting others around the world to be able to cope with the effects of climate change. I developed this strategy to show the relevance of climate change to Defence, and to show that there is great opportunity for making Defence more effective and efficient as well as show there is a need to reduce emissions.

The document envisages a three epoch-approach – from now to 2025, from 2025 to 2035 and from 2035 to 2050. In only four years, you want to lay the foundations for a comprehensive transformation of the defence sector. How do you want to achieve the goals set, and who is going to coordinate and watch over the implementation?

Any powerful change needs to lay proper foundations, and the next few years we will do so, by changing our processes and procedures, and by demonstrating through actions that we can significantly improve our approach to climate change and sustainability throughout the department. We have a delegated model, so each area and Command will be responsible for their own approach, and we have set up a central directorate to oversee the response across defence, and to link in with other government departments and other nations. We will set carbon targets for each part of defence, and then hold them to those targets – this will take a little time to get right.

Until recently, sustainability did not count among core military values. Now the document stresses the importance of reducing the military’s carbon and environmental footprint – from fostering biodiversity on military sites to promoting energy-efficient solutions, e.g. “aircraft powered by algae, alcohol and household waste”. Everything shall be looked at through a “climate lens”. How much of a mind shift is needed to get that done, and how shall this change of attitude be brought about?

We must change our procurement, commercial, assurance, audit and financial regimes and processes to make sure that we scrutinise every act to ask how this decision or contract affects climate change. The UK government is introducing a new policy that for any government contract over £5 million, the contractor will have to show a route and plan to net zero. We must also look to our land estate to pursue every opportunity to sequester carbon and increase biodiversity. To change our culture we must have support from the top of Defence, which we have, we must change our processes, which we are doing, we must show visible progress, which we are doing on the estate as a first priority, and we must tell our people what we are doing. We have created the Defence Green Network and are using every opportunity to talk about this important subject. Just recently, for example, the Chief of the Air Staff declared whilst in the US that the RAF would reach net zero by 2040, and the Chief of the General Staff (Army) stated in an article in a national newspaper that “we have a responsibility to more than play our role in terms of a sensible and sustainable environment agenda.” There is an important caveat: we must not compromise our capability or effectiveness as a defence force, as the requirement to defend the nation must remain our purpose.

With the Strategic Approach, the UK claims global leadership in the field, from horizon-scanning to climate-proof and energy-efficient armed forces, and wants to engage in partnerships on an international level. What could that look like? Who do you have in mind with regard to those partnerships? Are there already successful initiatives and cooperations on which to build?

I think there is great potential for new alliances and relationships to be built. The scientists tell us that there will be more need for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief as storms and the weather become more violent. This offers an opportunity for greater collaboration both geographically and in terms of equipment and skills. Similarly, those areas that will be most affected by climate change, wherever they are in the world, will need support – we, along with other allies, can offer assistance potentially, and through this we can build new relationships and partnerships. Further, the military, through its extensive networks of defence attaches, can build deeper relationships with many countries across the world that perhaps we find it less easy to build diplomatic partnerships with; already our attaches are telling us that this subject, so global in nature, is opening new areas and lines of communication with their hosts. 

Speaking of adaptation and resilience, the document explicitly refers to a 2 to 4 degrees scenario. Is it time to get real about climate change? What could be the most important consequences for military training and deployment in such a world, and how will they change the conditions for international missions operated by the UN, NATO or any other coalition?

The UK Committee on Climate Change, an independent Committee set up by Parliament to ensure that we reach net zero as a country, has stressed the need to prepare for eventualities that they are trying to avoid but which may not be. The shift in behaviour required to reach net zero by 2050 is profound, and there are increasing calls to make that behavioural shift by 2030 or we will miss the Paris Accords and their promise for a world of plus 1.5 degrees. So looking at 2 and 4 degrees is prudent. The bold statement in my report that “if you don't deal with it today you will not be able to deal with it tomorrow” is an acknowledgement that how we act in the next 10 years will have an extraordinary impact on the decades after. Scientists are telling us that we may already have reached over half the known tipping points that make adverse climatic conditions irreversible, and so we need to act now to stop any further being reached. Unfortunately, the urgent always trumps the important, and so we need to recognise and acknowledge that, even if it doesn't always feel like it, climate change is already urgent.

Defence has a clear purpose, to protect the nation’s citizens from harm. While this is usually translated as protection against traditional threats, as acknowledged by the Integrated Review climate change is a threat to our citizens. So, in order to protect its citizens, the nation’s defence forces must both adapt to the future climatic conditions, such as increasing surface sea temperatures and the melting of the summer arctic ice in 15-20 years, and at the same time must adapt its training and its exercises to be able to cope with hotter, more unpredictable climatic conditions. 

It is not enough though just to be able to adapt. As significant sources of emissions, defence forces must look to reduce their own emissions through the use of novel technologies. I see this as an opportunity. Traditionally militaries have looked to harness new technologies that have been developed, such as cyber or the digital revolution. This is no different; we should be embracing the potential military advantage from new energy technologies, however difficult it is now to see which technologies to focus on. And here lies huge potential for collaboration – indeed it is essential to make sure that allies all use similar energy systems. NATOʼs single fuels policy will be more difficult to achieve as the large number of new technologies become available, but that makes such policies even more important to maintain.

A hotter, more unpredictable world as a result of the effects of climate change holds all the ingredients for increased tension and greater conflict throughout the affected regions. And yet in order to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals there is a requirement to reduce the incidence of conflict. Therefore, in my opinion, the role of allies and coalitions as well as formal alliances become more important to try and prevent tension and resulting conflict in the most harshly affected areas. This potentially means more advisory and supporting deployments to help build resilience for those who are struggling to cope with the effects of climate change. I see this as a potential role that the military can play a key part in, as part of an approach that encompasses Defence, Diplomacy and Development – the 3D of climate change.

Lt Gen Nugee, thank you very much for the interview!

Questions by Rüdiger Frank and Kristina Tonn.

Lt Gen Richard Nugee

Lt Gen Richard Nugee was commissioned into the British Army in 1986. He completed operational tours of Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Cyprus and Afghanistan. He also specialised in personnel (HR) roles culminating in Chief of Defence People (equivalent to Global HR Director for Defence). He spent his final year in the Army writing a Review of Defence's approach to Climate Change and Sustainability, and since has been appointed as the Non Executive Director for Climate Change for Defence.

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All articles in this issue

Out of the Greenhouse – Jointly and globally, the climate change security risk can still be prevented
Michael Czogalla
Climate Change as a Risk Amplifier – On the links between climate change and conflict
Michael Brzoska
If You Want Peace, Protect the Climate!
Andreas Lienkamp
Climate Justice and Climate Conflicts as a Security Policy Challenge in the 21st Century
Angela Kallhoff, Thomas Schulte-Umberg
Why We Need a Green and More Comprehensive International Security and Defence Policy
François Bausch
More Tasks, More Resources, More Inclusion – Requirements for humanitarian assistance in times of increasing climate risks
Oliver Müller


Richard Nugee
Christophe Hodder