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Three takeaways on Climate Security from Vilnius: enhance inter-operability, energy security and cooperation

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In parallel to the summit, NATO Public Forum organised a High-Level Dialogue on Climate titled “The Urgency of Now: Collaborating for Climate Action”.

The dialogue emphasised how climate change and looming extreme weather events have prompted NATO to accelerate its efforts in responding to climate security threats and pushing for environmental protection. NATO seeks to do this by supporting civilian disaster emergency response missions, by identifying climate risks to its own infrastructure and operations, mitigating its own effect on the environment through emissions reductions, and promoting innovative technologies that enhance its own energy efficiency. 

The panellists discussed NATO’s challenges and responses to climate security. The panellists included Thórdís Gylfadóttir (Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs), David van Weel (NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Emerging Security Challenges), Sherri Goodman (Secretary-General, International Military Council on Climate and Security), and Brig. Gen. Luca Baione (Member of the Executive Council, World Meteorological Organization). The discussion revolved around a delicate balancing act as NATO’s militaries need to adapt to an increasingly challenging environment and reduce fossil fuel dependencies without compromising their interoperability, operational effectiveness and competitiveness. Here are three key takeaways:

Takeaway 1: Enhance inter-operability through adaptation

Extreme weather events and a rapidly changing climate cause operational stress as equipment, installations and operations are affected. As Sherri Goodman stated, ‘’climate extremes are now the new normal’’. Naval bases are at risk of recurrent flooding and helicopters face difficulty taking-off in high temperatures, in this context David van Weel underscored the need for the adaption of not only military operations but also equipment, materials and clothing.

To achieve its objectives, NATO is reliant on its interoperability, the ability to act together coherently, effectively, and efficiently. Sherri Goodman emphasised the need for NATO to bolster predictive capabilities by examining innovative methods of construction materials and exploring the integration of nature-based solutions with energy technologies. NATO seeks to be at the forefront of addressing challenges related to interoperability and actively pursues an energy transition for the military by design. Therefore, it is crucial to determine the energy sources that will power NATO’s military aircrafts, ships, land vehicles and barracks. As militaries are currently completely dependent upon civilian infrastructure, the energy transition is likely to improve their interoperability if implemented in a coherent way. Rather than creating incongruous incompatible systems, NATO should standardise energy sources among allies, thereby enhancing its operational effectiveness.

Takeaway 2: Decarbonise defence while increasing energy security and efficiency

Natural disasters can damage or disrupt energy infrastructure (e.g.: pipelines, cables), posing a risk to NATO’s energy security because most members depend on energy supplies from third-party countries. Considering that environmental factors can impact energy supplies of not only civilian populations but also military operations, energy security – and thus autonomy – is a major topic of concern.

Besides the risks of energy insecurity, there is a pressing need to decarbonise defence as militaries are large carbon emitters. According to David van Weel, if NATO intends to enhance its deterrence capabilities it will continue to use existing equipment that emits carbon. Yet, NATO can renovate existing equipment to increase efficiency and reduce fuel consumption and costs.

Since interoperability can be improved by standardising energy sources, diversification of energy sources can help to enhance mission endurance and operational effectiveness. NATO member states such as Poland are currently developing hydrogen propulsion tanks, while the Netherlands is developing infantry fighting vehicles powered by electricity. Renewable energy systems provide additional benefits such as reduced noise and heat signatures. However, new technological innovations require critical raw materials. A high risk exists of creating new dependencies due to the rapidly increasing demand for materials needed for the transition. Sourcing from only a handful of countries can create overdependence. This was also pointed out by Thórdís Gylfadóttir who cautioned that these alternatives have significant environmental impacts. To mitigate energy insecurity risks associated with fossil fuels, NATO should be mindful of the geopolitical implications and avoid creating new critical dependencies. Therefore, NATO member states should thoroughly assess their existing supply chains.

Takeaway 3: Bridge the gap between research and the military

Brig. Gen. Luca Baione argued that while ‘’everybody knows about the impact of military activity on climate change, no one considers the impact of climate change on military activities’’. He further stressed that within the framework of the World Meteorological Organization there is little understanding of how climate change affects armed forces. He advocated for increased cooperation between research organizations and armed forces to bridge the gap between research and the practice. Thórdís Gylfadóttir also underlined the importance of technology and innovation, and in particular the need for a facilitative environment for pilot projects.

Hence, great challenges await in converting scientific evidence into operational language. The Climate Change and Security Centre of Excellence (CCASCOE) will attempt to tackle this issue by bringing together researchers to discuss the implementation of policies. On July 12, the operational MoU of the Climate Change and Security Centre of Excellence has been signed during the NATO summit.

NATO’s High-Level Dialogue on Climate provided an insightful discussion on how to increase NATO’s interoperability while ensuring energy security and energy efficiency. To facilitate these transition processes, both the research and military community should closely cooperate.