Ep73: Lt Gen Richard Nugee 'Waging War On Climate Change'

“And that's the message, we've got to start doing things. And we must accept that not all of it will work, we must accept that some of it will be a disaster.”: Lieutenant General Richard Nugee on re-taking the initiative on fighting climate change.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, who spent 35 years in the military and retired as Chief of Defence People. He also led the work on the Ministry of Defence's Climate Change and Sustainability Review.


Michael and Richard begin by discussing Richard’s long career in the military and how he came to work on climate change.


They then get into specifics around the military’s carbon footprint and why climate change is an important issue for the military.


Finally, Richard explains how the mindset he learned in the military can be applied more broadly to action on climate change.


This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity. 


Michael Liebreich: You officially retired in May after 35 years, could you talk us through your career?


Richard Nugee: I signed on when I was 16 back in the 1970s and the army sent me to university. I had an operational career and went on 10 operational tours, I spent nearly two years in Afghanistan. I also got involved in the people side of defence. I finished my career as Chief of Defence People which is effectively the global HR director for all the armed forces plus civilian staff, around 200,000 people. As I was finishing I thought, “what's the one thing that I'm really interested in and that the military is not taking seriously?”. That was climate change and sustainability. I'd been at the top of defence on the executive board for four years and the words climate change hadn't passed the executive board once during that period. I did a study, which took about a year, to really look at why defence should be interested in climate change. I produced my report for the Secretary of State in December 2020 and the government responded in March 2021.


ML: Why should the military care about climate change?


RN: I believe that the moral argument for action on climate change has not won the day over the last 20 years. You've got businesses and the military which pay lip service to it but there's almost no military that is really seriously taking it into account. The narrative has been that if you go green then you become less capable. I think there are three fundamental reasons why climate change is important to the military. Firstly, our purpose is to protect the citizens of this nation, and to protect the citizens of our wider allies. Climate change is leading to a potentially more conflicted world, where geopolitical relationships are changing and populations are going to migrate. There is real potential for conflicts, as people become more desperate for food and water. It should be part of our duty, as a professional force, to help prevent conflict. Secondly, the world is changing, and we need to change with it, we need to be able to adapt to and operate in a different environment. That makes a difference to how we build our equipment in the future. For example, scientists say that by about 2040, the surface sea temperature in the Gulf will be 38-40 degrees. We rely on seawater to cool our engines and if that seawater is acting as a thermal blanket, those engines aren't going to work. Thirdly, yes we are large emitters but more importantly, the world is changing away from fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. If we've still got internal combustion engines in all our vehicles and we have no intent of moving away from that, then they will become a specialist and extremely expensive option. There was one company who said, “If in 2040, you asked for an internal combustion engine, we'll give you two choices, we'll give you one, which is 2020 technology, because that's the last time we really developed the internal combustion engine or we'll give you 2040 technology, but we'll only be doing it for you so it'll be exquisitely expensive”. So, there's a financial piece there as well. I think we can get to net zero by 2050. But it's ‘net zero’, it's not ‘zero’, we’ll still have aircraft carriers in 2050. We might be able to carbon capture some of the gases that come out of the funnels, but we're not going to change the engines on them.


ML: How big is the carbon footprint of the military compared with other large organisations and how are emissions distributed amongst the three forces?


RN: We're probably somewhere between 3% and 4% of the country's emissions, so we are a reasonable amount of the footprint of the country. We hold 2% of the UK landmass, either directly owned or are responsible for and so we have the wherewithal to sequester our own carbon to a very large extent. The Air Force represents about 50% of our emissions and 77% of their emissions are jet fuel. The Royal Air Force flies fast jets which are extraordinarily fuel inefficient. The Navy is about 30% of our emissions and 50% of that is their ships and they also run massive industrial ports for their ships. The army is ridiculously small, in terms of emission. But what's big about the army is that they have a lot of land. 60% of their emissions come from the buildings and from their built estate and even from their rural estates, because we haven't optimised them for carbon sequestration. Each force has to have a slightly different solution but overall I think we can get to net zero if we do the right things by each one.


ML: What would net-zero look like for the military?


RN: The strategy that I pushed for defence said “start with your estate” because we know that solar panels can work really well. We can insulate our buildings, we can make sure that the estate reduces footprint and we can sell off buildings that are very poor in terms of carbon and let somebody else develop them. We can do far more in sequestering carbon by making sure that our peat bogs are properly looked after. An example is the Sennybridge training area in the Brecon Beacons. For 30 years, we've been draining the impact area meaning that there is lots of water now going into rivers near the Brecon Beacons causing flooding issues. If you fire shells there it'll catch fire in the summer releasing a large amount of carbon. If we stopped draining it then you'd get a wetter area, which civilians wouldn’t walk into, which wouldn't catch fire and would be reducing the runoff of water. It will also sequester more carbon. There's an example where we could use our training areas in a much more effective way. Then you talk about equipment which is where most of our emissions come from. I'll take three examples of things which are happening. First is hybrid Army vehicles. They put a huge, great battery base in these vehicles so they’re heavier vehicles as a result. But what's happening is they have better off-road capability. They've had better manoeuvrability because they have an electric drive on each wheel. They have better stealth, partly because obviously there's no noise, there's no emissions in terms of heat, or in terms of gases that can be seen through thermal imaging. With the Royal Air Force we can go for small electric training aircraft. Then there's sustainable aviation fuel, which can reduce our emissions. For the Navy we have a limited number of mine hunters at the moment, and they're plastic tubs, they're called the Tupperware Navy by people who want to be rude about them. Obviously, you don't want metal, because that'll set off a mine. You're putting a ship with a number of personnel somewhere between 20 and 40 personnel into danger looking for mines? Well, why don't you do that through remote control, and have much smaller remote control ships. This is exactly what we're looking at. And we've tried them with the French, remote controlled, much smaller, and now suitable for electric engines. So, what you end up with is a mothership, which you use to generate and to recharge. And because they're smaller, you can have many more of them.


ML: It does seem that we're dealing with climate change, we are making progress. But we're doing it in a very slow and haphazard way as a society. What lessons are there from the military?


RN: Let's take a very well-known example from 40 years ago, the Battle of Goose Green where the parachute regiment was pinned down by the Argentinians. All three approaches to the Argentine base, Goose Green, were pinned down. And they were finding it really difficult to make progress, however hard and brave the soldiers were. One of my commanders had been a young Lieutenant at that battle, and he said, “every time we popped our heads up off the ground, we were shot at, it was impossible to go anywhere”. The unlocking moment of that battle was the commanding officer realising that they were stuck. He got up and charged, but was killed, and got the VC. The point was that the moment he went down, the message went round the regiment, the commanding officer was down, we all now just charge and they took the position. In other words, they changed the balance of the initiative. So why is that relevant to climate change? If you just wring your hands and say, “Oh, it's all so difficult, we don't know what to do” then we will never get anywhere. The lack of doing something leads to despair, and despair leads to a lack of hope and lack of hope just means you do nothing. So we need to try all sorts of things, we need to be much more accepting that some things will fail. You can plan as much as you like, it doesn't matter. At the end of the day, as soon as you go into a position, as soon as you take a position and start to do something, it won't work out as you want. And that's the message, we've got to start doing things. And we must accept that not all of it will work, we must accept that some of it will be a disaster.