climate change politics

The carbon footprint of the Ministry of Defence

A few weeks ago I wrote about why the British Army should declare a climate emergency. This week I heard from the National Audit Office, who have just published a progress report on carbon emissions from the Ministry of Defence (MOD). It confirms my view that the military could play a major role in Britain’s zero carbon plans, and that it is missing a trick at the moment.

First, we can look at progress so far. Every British government department has its own climate targets, called the Greening Government Commitments, which aim to reduce their in-house emissions by 40% from 2010. The MOD has managed a 42% reduction, and has therefore met its targets. It now has departmental emissions of 827,882 tonnes.

However, this doesn’t cover operations, which are considerably larger at 1.8 million tonnes. These emissions are falling much slower, which isn’t surprising if they’re outside the official target. These have fallen by 9% since 2015, and that clearly needs to accelerate.

The MOD has an important role to play because it accounts for a whole half of the government’s in-house emissions. If the government wants to lead by example on its net zero targets, it needs the military to do more.

Another reason the MOD matters is that it controls 1% of the UK’s land, including 169 sites of special scientific interest. The National Audit Office report suggests about half of these are managed ‘favourably’, which is better than the national average, but leaves room for improvement. Large land holdings also present opportunities for reforestation, restoration of wetlands and other habitats, or using land for renewable energy.

Speaking of which, energy is one of two glaring opportunities that stood out to me from the report. It points out that “the MoD’s energy mix has not changed significantly over the last 10 years, and the Department has made little progress in increasing the proportion of its energy drawn from renewable sources.” This is slack, in my opinion. Britain’s energy landscape has been transformed in the last decade. Local authorities and businesses have been able to reach 100% renewable energy. It really isn’t good enough for the military to make no progress at all when they have such extensive land resources at their disposal.

The second missed opportunity is low emission vehicles. The report mentions that the MOD will need to be running 1,700 low emissions vehicles by 2022 in order to meet government carbon targets. I’ve had a dig around for how many they have at the moment. A question in Parliament from 2018 found that they had 934 low emissions vehicles, 523 of which were electric vehicles. That seems like a fairly low number when you consider how many thousands of vehicles the department must run across the army, navy and air force, strategic command and multiple smaller agencies. In 2013 this fleet numbered 15,000 administrative (non-combat) vehicles.

There are some good examples that show what might be possible if the MOD caught a vision for this. The solar installations at the MOD’s Worthy Down defence college save £58,000 a year, showing how pursuing lower emissions can also cut costs. And perhaps the biggest investment so far is the solar farm on the old Lyneham airfield (pictured above), which is currently the largest solar farm in Britain. It provides enough electricity for the site and 10,000 homes, and is exactly what you’d want the MOD to be doing with its surplus land.

The National Audit Office update gives us a snapshot of what the MOD has done so far. I look forward to hearing more about the role it will play in Britain’s net zero ambitions.

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