The MOD’s climate change and sustainability approach – the top five insights

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) climate change and sustainability reports are seminal documents for the UK Armed Forces. These reports recognise that of the many threats facing the UK – from the shift to soft power, emerging technologies, the fight for information advantage, and the need for adaptiveness – climate change and its consequences are amongst the most pressing. Weather-related events and change will generate increased levels of conflict, change the way the MOD protects, operates and fights, and increase the need for humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

The 39-page ‘Strategic Approach’ document sets out the MOD’s plan for Net Zero by 2050. It was published by Government in March 2021 and summarises where Defence must be by 2025 (including 37 actions), 2035 and 2050. It sets out radical new approaches for the MOD, such as the adoption of agile adaptive concepts, fast following and ‘think big, start small, scale fast’ principles.

The 113-page ‘Climate Change and Sustainability Report’ includes greater detail. This document is less well publicised outside MOD, but nevertheless provides good additional detail for the steps being pursued. It details the climate science, relevance to Defence, status in 2020 and proposed foundations for the MOD’s strategic approach. Appendices reference key research findings and relevant forums.

For Defence to make significant in-roads on the climate challenge, inspire generations of military personnel and civil servants, and build a reputation for climate consciousness that meets the ambition in these documents the MOD must respond to five themes:

1. The MOD’s approach is ambitious and far reaching but does not address all of the guidance in the 113 page report. MOD should demonstrate sustainability leadership by regular updates to their strategic approach as government policy matures, budgets are settled, collaborations deepen, and new innovations become realisable. MOD also needs to annually publish peer-reviewed progress reports on outcomes achieved against plans.

2. It is essential for success by 2025 that MOD sets good foundations early. The early actions that MOD are delivering in 2021/22 are challenging and should not distract from the need for funds and expert resources to make real change happen and to make it stick. For instance, the sustainable behaviour improvements programme must address diverse blockers to change and engage many different communities effectively in order to incentivise understanding and action on climate change and sustainability. There are similar lessons to be applied across most of the 37 actions listed for 20/21 – setting good foundations early will make the long term difference.

3. The MOD intends to be better at being a ‘fast follower’. This means MOD must take the time to properly adopt and embrace processes to enable rapid take-up of new developments from the private sector and from within defence. This will mean that defence can embrace and install new technologies and new ways of working as early as is practicable.

4. Defence’s portfolios of high profile existing programmes need to become the totem flag bearers to set the environment for MOD’s sustainability achievements. They need to be able to visibly contribute to the highest impact (and most difficult) actions to deliver by 2025 across sustainable culture & behaviour, climate security & international, commercial, and procurement & industry. This includes high profile existing programmes allocating 10% of their time and resources to delivering authentic social value benefits (including sustainability) – as per UK Government policy for tendering.

5. There need to be new processes for better collaboration and integration with defence industry, so that contractors can align better together without unnecessary duplication and inefficient competitions. Many contractors offer very good approaches that can help MOD with their sustainability and climate change challenges. Better collaboration and integration should build on the lessons from the vaccine and COVID response programmes where private sector and cross-Government organisations were integrated successfully to achieve more, faster using integration partnering and open working.

MOD must deliver flag-bearer outcomes to inspire further action. While the MOD’s strategic approach sets out activity to 2050, it’s the delivery of near-term objectives that will determine the success of the long-term. Too often, we see Defence programmes move to the right, for instance by declaring in-year underspends (or not allocating funds) and failing to deliver on their early objectives thus setting the scene for longer term under-performance. To inspire action and galvanise teams on this enterprise level change, it’s vital that the admittedly complex near-term priorities act as flag-bearers for the future.

To meet the climate change and sustainability ambitions, the MOD needs to invest across the five themes of sustainability leadership, delivery of good foundation outcomes by 2025, fast-following innovation processes, sustainability actions within high profile portfolios and collaboration integration. Addressing these themes in 22/23 will better enable Defence to deliver solutions for the biggest challenge of our generation, and in so doing retain competitive advantage and be the most capable force possible.

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