How climate change and net zero commitments will impact the future of war

A new project will assess the impact that achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will have on the UK’s armed forces.

Dr Duncan Depledge, of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, has been awarded an ESRC New Investigator Grant to lead research into how climate change and net zero commitments will impact upon the future character of military operations, and ultimately, war.

The project, Net Zero Militaries (NETZMIL): Retaining Operational Effectiveness in a Low Carbon World, will see Dr Depledge work with the UK defence sector to assess how operational effectiveness can be maintained as the country’s armed forces are committed to supporting national targets to reach ‘Net Zero’.

The project will generate a fresh evidence base for future UK defence policy, strategy, and doctrine.

“Defence is recognised to be the single largest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons in the world,” said Dr Depledge.

“However, calculating the exact contribution of the world’s militaries is exceedingly difficult.

“Some estimate that the carbon ‘bootprint’ of the world’s armed forces and the industries that equip them contributes around 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions.”

In the UK, the defence sector accounts for approximately 50% of the Government’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Although militaries have typically been exempted from climate change and net zero targets, defence ministries have started to acknowledge that as the world shifts away from fossil fuels, there is a necessity to operate with far smaller carbon ‘bootprints’.

At the COP26 summit in 2021, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg summarised the challenge:

“There is no way to reach net zero without also including emissions from the military…there is an energy revolution taking place out there in civil society…and this is about keeping up the pace, being part of that transformation.”

The NETZMIL project will conduct an examination of the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) 2021 commitment to contribute to the national transition to Net Zero.

It will also explore the implications that this will have for military operations. These include training and exercising, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, tackling criminal activity, such as drug and weapons smuggling, as well as high-intensity warfare.

Dr Depledge said: “This is a timely project. There is increasing recognition that the defence sector must contribute to and will be impacted by the global energy transition.

“However, the urgency with which the Net Zero transition must be implemented has left little time for defence ministries to assess the military implications of doing so.

“At a minimum, the requirement to retain operational effectiveness whilst adapting to these new circumstances will impact choices about when, where, how and for what ends, militaries are used. This project aims to inform those decisions”.

The academic significance of NETZMIL will be realised through the opening-up of a critically important, new direction for research and policy engagement on the issue of how militaries – and war – could change as the world responds to the global climate crisis.

The project will also generate insights and lessons for the wider international community – especially in a NATO context. It will conclude in 2025, with findings published in a range of reports and academic articles.