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Perseverance amidst crisis: NATO’s ambitious climate change and security agenda after Madrid

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At a time when war rages at NATO’s doorstep, and collective defence coupled with rising defence spending is at the centre of everyone’s attention, managing to get 30 capitals to agree to an ambitious programme on climate security deserves applause. NATO, as well as assessing the effects of climate change on its own security, will play a significant role in ensuring that its members work towards reducing their military emissions, all while maintaining operational effectiveness in a changing climate.

From words to action

NATO Public Forum – the official side event of the NATO Summit – kicked off with NATO’s very first High-Level Dialogue on Climate and Security. During the event, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the King of Spain Felipe VI, Canada’s Defence Minister Anita Anand, and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, among others, weighed in on the security implications of climate change and why it matters for the Alliance. Under NATO’s leadership, the Dialogue is set to take place annually, enabling NATO Allies and partners to discuss and devise collaborative approaches to climate-related security issues together with civil society, academia, and industry representatives.

At the Summit, NATO released its first Climate Change & Security Impact Assessment, which forms part of the awareness pillar of NATO’s Climate Change and Security Action Plan, agreed at the Brussels Summit in June 2021. The document offers an analysis of climate-related impacts on NATO’s:

  • Strategic environment,
  • Assets and installations,
  • Missions and multi-domain operations, and
  • Resilience and civil preparedness.

For NATO to maintain its operational effectiveness in a changing climate, the Assessment calls for a fundamental transformation of NATO’s approach to security and defence and the need “to adapt our equipment, training, facilities, operations, technologies and partnerships.” The Impact Assessment is intended to trigger an enormous mainstreaming exercise – a full understanding and integration of climate change considerations across NATO’s work.

In concert with the Impact Assessment, NATO also delivered its first Progress Report, which presents an overview of the progress that has been made since the Heads of States and Government came together in Brussels last year.

When it comes to operational benefits of green military solutions, “seeing is believing”. To enable the sharing of best practices and lessons learned, NATO has compiled a Compendium of Best Practices, which outlines examples of different awareness, adaptation, and mitigation measures that have been put into practice and identifies which models can be replicated across the Alliance. This Compendium, published in July 2022, will continue to be updated to reflect ongoing progress.

During her remarks, Canada’s defence minister Anita Anand announced that Montreal will host the planned NATO-accredited Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security (CASCOE), which is expected to become operational in the course of 2023. CASCOE will serve as another platform where Allies can exchange expertise and best practice and work together to build the required capabilities to contribute to NATO’s goal of reducing its environmental footprint.

NATO’s emissions reduction pledges

Despite being a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, militaries so far have not yet been specifically targeted in order to achieve economy-wide emissions targets. At the Madrid Summit, the Secretary General reaffirmed NATO’s commitment to reducing military greenhouse gas emissions and announced concrete targets for NATO as an organisation: at least 45 percent reduction by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050, which is in line with the Paris Agreement. According to Richard Brewin, who leads on climate change and security in NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division (ESCD), 2019 will serve as the baseline year against which NATO’s military emissions reductions will be measured. “The 45% emissions reduction target by 2030 was developed using the Science Based Target initiative and it applies to NATO assets and installations,” Brewin added. Allies are responsible for their own policy decisions regarding their own GHG emissions.

To help Allies measure their emissions from military activities and installations, NATO developed a GHG emissions mapping and analytical methodology that has been shared with all capitals. Because of its classification level, the methodology has not been made public.

Shortly after the Summit, critical voices from the NGO community emerged expressing their disappointment with NATO’s “tepid climate action” and “rejection of transparent accounting”, claiming that NATO’s decision “sends the wrong message on global military emissions”. Some went so far as to blame NATO for “greenwashing”. Such statements show a fundamental lack of understanding and appreciation of what NATO is, how the Alliance functions, what falls under its mandate, and what it has been doing in the climate-security space for years.

First, NATO does not have the power to legislate and cannot impose binding emissions reduction targets on Allied militaries, which is a national competency. Second, NATO – as an Alliance of 30 countries – works by consensus. As a consensus based organisation, the extent to which the methodology and the data are made available to the public would need to be discussed and agreed by all Allies, unanimously. “Allies have agreed that the methodology can be used for the NATO Enterprise, which is taking work forward to deliver it,” stressed Brewin.

Third, NATO aims to be the leading international organisation when it comes to understanding and adaptating to the impact of climate change on security. As to mitigation, NATO recognises there are organisations that are better placed to serve as first responders to climate change, particularly those who can set limits on CO2 emissions. Regardless, NATO provided its members with tools to map and measure their military emissions and it strives to lead by example by reducing emissions of its own assets and installations. The Alliance is moving in a positive direction and should be applauded rather than criticised. No doubt more work needs to be done but given the string of recent climate disasters, complacency is not an option.

Climate change in NATO’s new Strategic Concept

Climate change is front and centre in the newly approved Strategic Concept – the second most important document after the Washington Treaty. When comparing the current version to past ones, major transformations have taken place. While the previous Strategic Concept, adopted in 2010, made only a single mention of climate change, the newly adopted document has dedicated two paragraphs to the impact of climate change on security, clearly recognising its implications for NATO’s ability to successfully fulfil its three core tasks of deterrence and defence, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security.

Paragraph 19 describes climate change as a “defining challenge of our times” and a “crisis and threat multiplier” impacting Allied infrastructure, assets and bases, and the way Allied armed forces operate, including more frequent provision of disaster relief. Paragraph 46 confirms that the Alliance will strive to lead with regard to understanding and adaptation. As to mitigation, NATO will contribute by reducing its own GHG emissions, including by leveraging green technologies. In addition, the document recognises Allied supply-chain vulnerabilities and pays attention to enhanced energy security and stable and reliable energy supply, suppliers, and sources (paragraph 26).

Technology innovation for a greener defence

New technologies form an important piece of the mitigation puzzle. The importance of investing in technological innovation resonated throughout the entire Public Forum. NATO is betting on green technologies not just to offset its carbon footprint but also to leverage their massive transformative potential on the battlefield. “There is a technological revolution happening right now, a green energy revolution [...] that can be of huge benefit for our militaries,” Stoltenberg said during the Public Forum. “Already today, the best new cars are electric cars. And I believe that in the future, the most advanced military vehicles, and the most resilient armed forces, will be those that don’t rely on fossil fuels,” he added. Stoltenberg, therefore, encouraged Allies to “support research, development and price emissions” in order to make development of green technologies more profitable.

In addition, the Summit Hall featured a technology display which included a climate change pillar explaining NATO’s climate change and security agenda to passing delegations.

While militaries drove technological developments in the past, it is the private sector that drives much of the (green) innovation today. At the Summit, NATO launched an Innovation Fund, which will invest an initial EUR 1 billion (US $1.1 billion) to help early-stage start-ups grow and to support NATO’s technology needs, including in the areas of novel materials, energy, and propulsion. The Innovation Fund, together with NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), will strive to bridge the gap between innovators and the military and link start-ups across the Alliance. This will enable Allied militaries to deploy the best of new technology for the benefit of improving transatlantic security.

Engagement with youth on climate

NATO recognises that future-oriented decisions made today will heavily affect young people’s lives and that long-term policies/planning will have the best chance of success if they are co-developed by different generations owning their (future) implementation. In the words of Jens Stoltenberg, “young people have the greatest stake in [NATO’s] future”.

This is why NATO continues to encourage youth involvement in its activities, including at the Madrid Summit. Members of the NATO 2030 Young Leaders Group, who contributed to the NATO 2030 Reflection Process, were present in Madrid and invited to share their thoughts on the climate-security and climate-gender nexus on stage.

In an effort to reach out beyond traditional interlocutors, NATO kick-started collaboration with nine young content creators from across the Alliance this year, as part of the ongoing “Protect the Future” campaign. All young influencers travelled to Madrid to help tell the fundamental story of the Alliance – and decisions that were taken in Madrid – through their social media channels. Among them is Sierra Quitiquit – professional skier, model and environmental activist – whose Instagram followers number 120 000. In addition to launching ‘Plastic Free Fridays’ NGO to reduce single-use plastics consumption, Quitiquit also serves as an Ambassador for the ‘Protect Our Winters’ NGO. “Because the military is so carbon-intensive, it is very hopeful to see the Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg making commitments towards reduction and net zero,” Sierra said. “I hope that NATO will take the next steps to collaborate with expert scientists, engineers, NGOs and the private sector to achieve these ambitious goals. The moment to act is now,” she added.


What the Summit delivered was transformative and far-sighted. At a time when fighting rages in Europe, and the focus has shifted back to collective defence, NATO showed it was going to stay the course, stick to its ambition to reduce military emissions – as announced at the Brussels Summit in June 2021 – and keep its focus on better understanding and addressing the effects of climate change, so as to make future conflicts less likely.

When it comes to emissions reductions, target setting falls under the competence of individual member states, which find themselves at different starting points on the road to net-zero. Some NATO members, especially those from Central and Eastern Europe, have always felt nervous about the speed of energy transition, even more so following Russia’s new gas halt and the looming energy crisis. The Madrid Summit showed that NATO is a valuable platform for Allies to build and strengthen consensus on climate-related action and that the organisation can bring every member of the Alliance along. The progress that has been made should be applauded, not disparaged.