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2021 Debate Insights

Fighting for survival: How the military can contribute to climate change efforts

Author: Sciences Po student Madeleine Le Page summarizes the debate session of the fourth edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Date: 12 November 2021


Fighting for survival: How the military can contribute to climate change efforts

Today’s national armies are among the greatest emitters of greenhouses gases and therefore heavily contribute to global warming. Although efforts to mitigate this environmental impact remain limited, new initiatives are beginning to emerge, notably with regards to the energy transition. Four Ministers (France, Senegal, Estonia, and Cyprus) and two representatives (Spain and Japan) of the Armed Forces gathered at the 2021 Paris Peace Forum to discuss concrete measures that have been or will be implemented by their respective armed forces to reduce their operations’ environmental footprint.

Daphné Benoit (Defence Correspondent, AFP), session moderator, introduced the topic by observing that pairing the concepts of “defence” and “going green” may initially be viewed as an oxymoron, given that “militaries around the world are typically the largest energy consumers among government agencies”. Nonetheless, she added that there is “growing awareness among the armed forces of the need to adapt to the changing environment and reduce the carbon footprint”.

Indeed, many countries have already begun taking tangible measures to reduce their militaries’ carbon emissions. Charalambos Petrides, Minister of Defence for the Republic of Cyprus, even underlined that “promoting sustainability in the armed forces is a win-win approach for the defence sector, seeing as the armed forces can reduce expenses in energy and benefit from a greater availability of resources to maintain their operational objectives”.

Yet, much remains to be done in an unstable world where climate and security are becoming increasingly intertwined. Global warming has become a security threat in itself, one which the armed forces are regularly required to address, namely in the form of humanitarian assistance following natural disasters. In this regard, Florence Parly, French Minister for the Armed Forces, noted that “when the planet runs out of energy, the army will be on the first line to guarantee our defence, and therefore we have to show an example”.

Minister Parly then proceeded to announce the adoption of a Joint Statement on Climate Change and the Armed Forces, proposed by France and supported by 25 countries, from all continents, which will offer concrete commitments and develop exchanges and partnerships. The project roadmap will be broken down into several aspects: anticipation, adaptation, emission reduction, raising awareness, and promoting cooperation. This starts with a better understanding of the impact of climate change on security and ends with a collective action to develop energy autonomy and better manage consumption.
However, difficulties arise when it comes to striking a balance between environmental protection and operational efficiency, as highlighted by Juan Francisco Martinez Nunez, Spanish Undersecretary of Defence for Policy: “The contribution of the military to this approach is challenging, as armed forces around the world need to first understand, then adapt, and that is not an easy task, since the measures taken need to be balanced against military effectiveness and mission accomplishment to ensure defence”.

He nonetheless proved that the obstacle is not insurmountable, as mitigation measures have already been taken in Spain, with for instance 30% of military energy consumption already coming from renewable sources. Similarly, Kalle Laanet, Minister of Defence of Estonia, emphasized that his government was increasing the funds put towards cooperation with the defence industry to research and develop technological innovations. These so far have included electric cars, infrastructures equipped with solar panels, and hydrogen-run support vehicles. In turn, Minister Petrides highlighted practical efforts in Cyprus, ranging from the adoption of the verified environmental management system in certain military camps, to projects for the introduction of renewable energies in the armed forces.

Sidiki Kaba, Senegal’s Minister of the Armed Forces, also mentioned several initiatives undertaken by his government. These were more specifically focused on the fight against deforestation, with for example the Senegalese military’s efforts to eradicate timber trafficking, or the Great Green Wall project of planting a wall of trees traversing the African continent. However, he noted that “we need to ensure that through this energy transition, Africa does not become the victim (…), this part of the world should also participate in the global cause”.

The high levels of cooperation this approach entails also apply to the military responses to climate disasters, as developed by Yasushi Noguchi, Director General for International Affairs at the Japanese Ministry of Defence. Japan’s significant exposure to extreme weather events has conferred its military intricate knowledge and experience in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Japanese armed forces are thus already sharing their expertise with a number of South-East Asian countries to help enhance their capabilities against catastrophes. Director General Noguchi therefore concluded his speech with a call to extend such cross-government efforts: “I would like to emphasize that climate change cannot be solved by only one country, we need cooperation, and we would like to further enhance our international cooperation together with like-minded countries”.
Increased cooperation and technological innovation in the military sphere will thus undeniably be necessary to combat climate change. Efforts need to be multiplied, and as Minister Laanet stated in his final plea, we must “act similarly in fighting climate as we are defending our countries, nations, democratic values, and people to preserve and protect the environment, so that our armies will have something beautiful to protect on the battlefield”.


Contribution by Madeleine Le Page