16 August 2023

Implementing NATO’s climate security agenda: Challenges ahead

This article was published in NATO Review and written by Katarina Kertysova. Kertysova is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Research Center and a Research Associate at the Climate Change & (In)Security Project.


Russia’s full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine is not the only challenge NATO has to grapple with today. The week preceding the NATO Summit in Vilnius marked the planet’s hottest week in recorded history. Last summer’s gruelling heat claimed 20,000 excess deaths in Western Europe alone, threatened critical military and civilian infrastructure and caused additional military deployments in response to immense forest fires across Europe.

The Mediterranean heatwaves and wildfires, coupled with the onset of the climate phenomenon known as “El Niño” – which will likely set new temperature records and lead to increased drought and rainfall in different parts of the world – are sounding the alarm that 2023 may be even worse. It does not come as a surprise that, according to a recent NATO poll, as many as 32% of Allied citizens consider climate change to be the greatest concern to their security – ahead of the risk of war, terrorism, political instability or cyber attacks.

While NATO has been paying attention to environmental challenges for over 50 years now – mostly through a wide range of scientific research activities – it was not until recently that Allies agreed to take concrete action. At the 2021 Brussels Summit, NATO set itself the goal of becoming “the leading international organisation when it comes to understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security” and underpinned this ambition with the Climate Change and Security Action Plan. The Action Plan identifies NATO’s role in the field of climate change and security along four lines of effort: enhancing Allied awareness of the security implications of climate change, promoting climate adaptation across all areas of NATO’s work, mitigating its effects by reducing military emissions, and enhancing outreach to other actors that are active in the climate security space. In regards to mitigation, NATO set concrete targets: at least 45% GHG reduction by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050. While the scale and ambition of NATO’s climate change and security agenda is unprecedented, challenges to its successful implementation remain. Some of them will be easier to overcome than others. This article draws together, reviews, and builds on existing research in an effort to provide a comprehensive and easily accessible compilation of the various issues that NATO must consider on its road to net zero, highlighting eight key challenges.

Prioritisation, focus and political will

As an Alliance of 31 sovereign countries (soon to be 32, following Sweden’s accession), NATO works by consensus. With respect to addressing climate change, Allies find themselves at different starting points. While some NATO members want NATO to demonstrate leadership on climate action, others (especially some Allies from Central and Eastern Europe) have expressed trepidation about the speed of energy transition – even outside the defence sector. With war raging on NATO’s doorstep, meeting higher emissions-reduction standards has not been treated with the same degree of urgency as providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself, all while strengthening Allied collective defence against the threat that Russia poses. This difference in outlook between member states could present challenges to the speed and scope of NATO’s efforts to address climate-related security challenges. Keeping the momentum and preventing diversion will be key. To ensure that climate security remains at the top of NATO’s agenda, sustained focus and leadership – from senior NATO staff as well as member states – is essential.

Skepticism, biases and climate illiteracy among defence personnel

Perceptions of the urgency of climate action vary considerably among military personnel, civil servants and ministers, as well as by country. Although general awareness of and support for climate adaptation are on the rise, some military personnel still maintain the view that the armed forces should operate unconstrained by environmental targets. The prevailing perception that there is a trade-off between going green and maintaining a capable force, coupled with fears that pressures to decarbonise defence might result in a loss of operational effectiveness, constitutes another inhibitor for achieving organisational change.

Risk aversion hinders progress just as much. Embracing innovation is fundamental to acquiring, adopting and scaling energy-saving technologies. However, in contrast to the private sector, where failure is accepted as a necessary part of the innovation process, government departments and agencies generally fear being perceived – or depicted by the media – as wasting public money if efforts to innovate fail. This “budgetary protectionism” prevents defence departments from embracing cleaner solutions. According to one NATO official, the ability to embrace technology at the speed of relevance requires a whole different mindset.

Military training and education programs, as well as targeted workshops and presentations on the benefits of sustainability initiatives, are powerful tools to enhance knowledge, attitude change and the adoption of positive environmental behaviours. NATO already strives to integrate the climate dimension throughout the entire spectrum of civilian and military training and education, and serves as a platform where Allies can exchange best practices and lessons learned on the operational benefits of green military solutions. It can also leverage its public diplomacy and outreach tools to this end. A case in point is NATO’s 2022 Senior Communicators Conference, which included discussions on energy security and climate change with the aim of helping Allies improve their national communication strategies about the need to maintain focus on clean energy and changing climate even in times of war. Additionally, environmental communication research and experiments show that climate skeptics are more likely to express concern about the effects of climate change when framed as a national security issue and communicated by military service members – both past and current.

Interoperability challenges

Almost all of the energy used by Allied armed forces today is procured from private entities and delivered along civil and commercial pipelines, infrastructure and storage sites. As entire societies/civilian stakeholders move away from fossil fuels, the military has to be wary not to remain the only sector that continues to rely on diesel and gas. Continuing to run refineries and supporting fuel infrastructure for one sector alone could become prohibitively expensive, if not impossible, and it would require a bigger share of national resources. Hence, NATO recognises the importance of Allied militaries keeping pace with the green energy transition that is underway in the civilian sector.

Concerns have also been raised about the compatibility of fuels for military use. NATO forces currently operate under a single fuel policy, which is designed to simplify the logistic effort and enhance equipment interoperability. In the words of Rear Admiral Paul Beattie of the Royal Navy, “digital interoperability has always been difficult, but we never had to worry about interoperability when it came to fuels. That was a given. We all had the same – it was a NATO standard.” While some NATO members are already investing in green technologies and adjusting their fuel standards, others continue to operate legacy equipment. If Allies pursue military emissions reduction goals and integrate cleaner military solutions at different speeds and ambition levels, their ability to operate jointly could be compromised.

Through standard setting and best practice exchange, NATO is ideally positioned to help avoid divergences and ensure that Allies advance jointly. At the Vilnius Summit, NATO members agreed to develop an implementation plan for the “Military Energy Transition by Design” – an initiative which was first announced by the Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Madrid Summit in 2022. Recognising the risk of divergence, this initiative will seek to ensure that a military transition away from fossil fuels does not impede the interoperability of Allied military forces, nor does it negatively affect operational effectiveness.

Decisions vs procurement timelines

When compared to the civilian sector, the lifespan of military equipment can be longer and its adaptation more challenging. Military equipment and platforms that are in the final design stage today will not be entering the armed forces until the 2030s, and they will still be in service in the 2080s when globally available diesel is unlikely to be cheap. To prevent a carbon lock-in and stranded assets down the line, NATO recognises the importance of ensuring that fuel and energy efficiency standards are factored into the capability design stage today. Capability upgrades for existing combat and engineering systems, as well as fuels, are equally needed in the short-term – especially at the mid-life stage, since it is unclear what technologies and systems will be available in 10-15 years.

New energy-saving technologies – just like any other military equipment – have long lead-times, which is why Allied armed forces will remain large consumers of fossil fuels for a considerable time to come. As the rest of the world continues to decarbonise, militaries will likely represent an increasing share of global emissions.

Technical operational challenges

Some technological fixes come with their own sets of challenges. For example, lithium-ion batteries have long charging times, degrade faster in hot weather, and diminish in capacity and performance at cold temperatures. In a contested environment, battery recharging is tied to the logistical fuel chain and needs to be planned out carefully. When it comes to mobility, battery weight constitutes another prohibitive factor.

Hydrogen production, which some consider promising for large-scale use in the military, is currently expensive, energy-intensive and lacks available infrastructure. When it comes to biofuels, the feedstock is limited and there is already considerable competition over this resource within the civilian sector (particularly the food industry). Scaling up biofuel production could lead to land-use change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. Some perceive this potential loss of carbon sink as worse than the burning of fossil fuels. Nuclear power – while technically feasible – remains a limited option for most armed forces due to safety reasons, high operating costs, and infrastructure and storage challenges. On the whole, while Allied militaries already rely on many energy-saving techniques on fixed and even forward operating bases, many new “green” technologies remain insufficiently mature for combat use. And as Allied militaries shift towards renewables, there will be a greater reliance on smart and connected systems, which are prone to cyberattacks.

Green innovation driven by private endeavours

NATO will need the private sector’s help to meet its decarbonisation goals. While militaries drove technological advancements in the past, it is the private sector that spearheads the development of innovative dual-use solutions that could potentially benefit Allied armed forces today, including in the area of sustainability. With the exception of big defence contractors, private companies have been traditionally cautious about engaging or sharing data with the defence sector. This is particularly true for early stage start-ups and scale ups. The bureaucratic procedures and long procurement timelines have been a discouraging factor, too.

The mindsets are believed to have shifted following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which triggered many private stakeholders to leverage their resources, capabilities and expertise for the benefit of national security. The war has also brought into question the potentially problematic implications of foreign venture capital in start-ups across the Alliance – especially from countries that challenge NATO’s interest and security, notably China. The NATO Innovation Fund (NIF), together with NATO’s Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), are intended to bridge the gap between innovators and the military, as well as to unlock additional financing that early-stage start-ups, innovators and academia are in need of.

New strategic dependencies on unreliable suppliers

In their efforts to transition away from fossil fuels, Allies need to be wary of not replacing one dependency for another – notably on critical raw minerals, which are essential to building and maintaining “clean” technologies, such as solar panels and fuel cells, as well as modern weapons systems. China currently dominates the global market in both rare earths mining and processing, providing as much as 98% of Europe’s supply. While the majority of NATO members were able to find alternatives for, and shift away from, Russian energy sources relatively fast, decoupling from China is far more difficult. Members of the Alliance need to strengthen the resilience of their supply chains, improve awareness about where the greatest weaknesses lie, diversify their import portfolios, and adopt a “6 Rs” approach to supply chain vulnerability mitigation: to rethink, reduce, replace, redesign, recycle and redistribute raw materials. NATO could lead the way in producing vulnerability assessments for raw materials and supply chains, encourage NATO members and partners to factor these findings into their procurement decisions, as well as to develop common responses and standards for tackling economic coercion.

Staffing and Resourcing

Given that NATO’s efforts to respond to climate-related security risks are relatively recent, the prioritisation of climate change has to be paired with proper staffing and resourcing. Since 2021, when NATO’s Climate Change and Security Action Plan came into being, NATO HQ hired several new staff members and important progress has been made to increase relevant knowledge and capacity across the organisation. NATO’s Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) – an executive body of the Science and Technology Organization (STO) – is on the lookout for climate scientists, too. The forthcoming Climate Change and Security Centre of Excellence (CASCOE), which will be hosted by Canada and become operational in the fall of 2023, is expected to comprise 35 permanent staff members (both civilian and military). While NATO cannot oblige individual Allies to increase resourcing and recruitment in the climate-security space at the national level, the fact that as many as 11 sponsoring nations (in addition to Canada) signed the Memorandum of Understanding to operationalize CASCOE in Vilnius, and committed to seconding national experts to the Centre, is telling.

The Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme, which funds collaborative scientific activities among NATO members and partners, is increasingly steering its attention and funding towards environmental security. Already in 2022, 17 percent of the approved activities focused on research and knowledge exchanges in the area of climate and security. In 2023, projects focusing on environmental and energy security were given higher priority for funding. Finally, both the NATO Innovation Fund (NIF) and NATO’s Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) have a green component. DIANA became operational and launched its first call for proposals in June 2023, with energy resilience constituting one of the three priority areas of focus. All this demonstrates that Allies, irrespective of competing views and priorities, continue to take environmental risks to their military activities very seriously.

The Way Ahead

The implementation of NATO’s climate security agenda has been facing multiple challenges, from new strategic dependencies, through technical and interoperability risks, to financial and capacity constraints. As the Alliance increasingly takes on issues of the day, it has to make sure that its role in climate security is clearly defined (both internally and to the broader public), that it has the resources to deliver and the political will behind it. Sustaining the momentum to carry this work forward amid the ongoing war and competing priorities will be key. While a cultural change within the defence sector will be required, promoting greater climate change literacy is crucial across all sectors of society, not just defence.

Despite existing challenges, NATO – at the organisational level – has made a lot of headway since it adopted the Climate Change and Security Action Plan in 2021. The Vilnius Summit marked an important milestone in NATO’s journey towards becoming the leading international organisation when it comes to understanding and adapting to the impacts of climate change on security. Three major reports were released, each addressing a separate pillar of NATO’s Climate Change and Security Action Plan. As for mitigation, which is considered as the most ambitious element of NATO’s climate security agenda, the development of a uniform methodology for calculating and analysing military GHG emissions of the NATO Enterprise, which was published at the Vilnius Summit this year, is an important step to helping NATO reach its emission reduction targets.

With the energy transition in full swing (accelerated by the ongoing war and the global energy crisis) efforts surrounding military emissions assessment, best practice exchange, and the development of NATO’s Energy Transition by Design demonstrate that NATO is thinking about the future of force design amid climate change and net zero objectives, that it seeks to help avoid divergences and ensure that Allies advance jointly. The military decarbonisation and the resilience of each individual Ally – and thus the resilience of the Alliance as a whole – are entwined now more than ever.

Photo credit: Clemens Vasters/ Flickr