Environment, climate change and security

  • Last updated: 03 Dec. 2021 15:29

The earth’s rapidly changing climate and an increase in weather extremes have led NATO to accelerate its efforts in environmental security and environmental protection. For decades, NATO has been dealing with environmental security issues that can lead to humanitarian disasters, regional tensions and violence. NATO provides disaster relief support; focuses on environmental risks to military activities and security in general, including environmental factors that affect energy supplies; and is looking for ways to improve energy efficiency in the military through innovative technologies.

Ein gewaltiger Haboob fegt über das Camp Castor in Gao/Mali bei der Mission MINUSMA, am 09.06.2019.

Source: German Armed Forces/Patrik Bransmöller

  • NATO recognises that it faces many environmental challenges, particularly due to the risks posed by climate change, and has been acting on these challenges for many years.
  • NATO engages in civil preparedness and emergency response to environmental disasters such as floods, forest fires and earthquakes.
  • It also focuses on enhancing energy efficiency and reducing the environmental footprint of armed forces.
  • In 1969, NATO first recognised environmental challenges by establishing the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society (CCMS), which managed studies and fellowships that focused on issues like air and noise pollution, advanced health care and the disposal of hazardous wastes.
  • In 2006, NATO’s Science Committee merged with the CCMS to form the Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme to develop initiatives on emerging security challenges, including environmental security issues like water management and the prevention of natural catastrophes, and energy security.
  • NATO’s Science and Technology Organization (STO) also promotes and conducts scientific research related to environmental issues.
  • In 2021, NATO adopted an ambitious Climate Change and Security Action Plan to mainstream climate change considerations into NATO’s political and military agenda.
  • Environmental security

    NATO has been addressing security challenges related to the environment for many years. This includes extreme weather conditions, sea level rise, flood risk, depletion of natural resources, land degradation, geological hazards, and pollution – factors that can ultimately lead to humanitarian disasters, regional tensions and violence.

    The Alliance seeks to address environmental risks to military activities and to security in general. For example, environmental factors can affect energy supplies to both civilian populations and military operations, making energy security a major topic of concern.

    NATO has also helped partner countries clean up ageing and dangerous stockpiles of weapons, ammunition and unexploded remnants of war that pose a risk to people and the environment.

    NATO is currently conducting these initiatives via its Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) and Trust Fund projects.

    Building international cooperation

    Since 1969, NATO’s SPS Programme has supported cooperative activities that tackle environmental security issues, including those related to defence. Since NATO began working with partner countries in the 1990s through its scientific activities, partners have listed environmental security as a top priority, requesting NATO’s support for cooperative activities to address those issues that threaten the security of their country and beyond.

    To improve coordination of its activities, NATO joined other international agencies to address environmental issues that threaten security in four vulnerable regions: Southeast Europe, Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asia. These agencies include (the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)) under the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative. As a first step, ENVSEC facilitated regional meetings with relevant stakeholders (experts, non-governmental organisations’ authorities, governmental authorities and international donors) to consult and agree on regional maps highlighting priority issues that are a threat to security. As a second step, ENVSEC raised funds to address the identified issues.

    Trust Funds were set up by individual NATO member states and partners in order to provide resources to help partner countries implement practical projects in the areas of demilitarisation, defence transformation or capacity building. Many Trust Funds assist countries with the safe destruction of surplus and obsolete landmines, weapons and munitions, and build capacity in areas such as demining and munitions stockpile management. The Trust Funds were first launched in 2000 the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, which promoted bilateral cooperation with non-member countries in certain regions, but over the years, the Trust Fund mechanism has been opened to all NATO partners. Trust Fund projects seek to ensure adherence to the highest environmental standards, and recycling of materials is an essential part of many projects.

    Boosting emergency response

    The Alliance is also actively engaged in coordinating civil preparedness and civil emergency response to disasters. It does this primarily through its Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), which was launched in response to the earthquake disaster in Turkey and Greece at the end of the 1990s. Prior to the EADRCC, NATO had a disaster assistance scheme in place to assist member countries. It was developed in 1953, following the deadly floods that hit northern Europe, and the Netherlands in particular.

    NATO organises consultations and scenario-building exercises involving military and civilian experts, supported in part by the SPS Programme, with the aim of increasing the understanding of the potential role of the military in disaster relief.

    Energy security – critical energy infrastructure protection

    Natural disasters, including those that are linked to climate change, can damage or disrupt infrastructure and pose risks to energy security. These environmental factors are pertinent to NATO, particularly because most NATO members and partners rely on energy supplies from abroad sent via pipelines and cables that cross many borders.

    Allies agreed to consult on the immediate risks in the field of energy security, share information, advance international and regional cooperation, develop consequence management and help protect critical infrastructure. Since the early 2000s, the SPS Programme has supported projects that focus on the link between energy infrastructure and environmental security.

    Energy efficiency and innovative technology in the military

    Recognising the vital need to provide safe and reliable sources of energy for operations, the supply of which can cause severe security challenges for fuel convoys and armed forces, NATO started a Smart Energy initiative in 2011 that brought together NATO stakeholders and national experts from the public and private sectors. At the Wales Summit in 2014, NATO Leaders declared that NATO will “[...] continue to work towards significantly improving the energy efficiency of our military forces, and in this regard we note the Green Defence Framework.”

    Diversification of energy sources can also enhance mission endurance and operational effectiveness. By using a variety of energy sources and integrating innovative technologies into military platforms and systems, including ‘smart’ grids that exploit renewable energy and energy storage technologies, military operations can maintain the required levels of effectiveness for longer periods without the need to rely on conventional fuels and while reducing their environmental footprint. Such systems, as well as hydrogen fuel cells, can provide additional benefits like reduced noise and heat signatures.

    Policies and standards

    NATO started to develop its environmental protection policy in the late 1970s, resulting in a number of guidelines and standards. At present, NATO's environmental policy states that NATO-led forces "must strive to respect environmental principles and policies under all conditions".

    Currently, two dedicated NATO groups are addressing environmental protection while promoting cooperation and standardization among NATO member and partner countries, as well as among different NATO bodies and international organisations, which regularly attend as observers:

    • The Environmental Protection Working Group (EPWG) (under the Military Committee Joint Standardization Board, which reports to the Military Committee)
    • The Specialist Team on Energy Efficiency and Environmental Protection (STEEEP) (under the Maritime Capability Group "Ship Design and Maritime Mobility", which reports through the NATO Naval Armaments Group to the Conference of National Armaments Directors).

    The EPWG aims to reduce possible harmful impacts of military activities on the environment by developing NATO policies, standardization documents, guidelines and best practices in the planning and implementation of operations and exercises.

    The goal of the STEEEP is to integrate environmental protection and energy efficiency regulations into technical requirements and specifications for armaments, equipment and materials on ships, and the ship to shore interface in Allied and partner countries’ naval forces.

    Decades of activities by expert groups paved the way for the overarching policy document on "NATO Military Principles and Policies for Environmental Protection", agreed by the NATO Military Committee in 2003 and updated in 2011. This document describes the responsibilities of military commanders for environmental protection during the preparation and execution of military activities. It also recognises the need for "a harmonisation of environmental principles and policies for all NATO-led military activities". It instructs NATO commanders to apply "best practicable and feasible environmental protection measures", in an aim to reduce the environmental impacts caused by military activity. The document is complemented with several other NATO Environmental Protection Standardization Agreements (STANAGs) and Allied Joint Environmental Protection Publications (AJEPP), which are all focused on protecting the environment during NATO-led military activities. These include a Joint NATO Doctrine for Environmental Protection during NATO-led Military Activities; Environmental Protection Best Practices and Standards for Military Camps in NATO-led Military Activities; and Best Environmental Protection Practices for Sustainability of Military Training Areas.

    Training and exercises

    To ensure compliance with NATO standards, forces must receive appropriate environmental protection training. While this training is primarily a national responsibility, NATO is determined to provide common environmental protection and energy efficiency education to Allied forces. The aim is to embed environmental protection awareness into the daily routines of military personnel and increase their personal responsibility in this field. To advance this objective, NATO has designated staff officers for the implementation of environmental protection at strategic, operational and tactical levels. The NATO School Oberammergau and the Military Engineering Centre of Excellence also provide environmental protection courses as part of their curriculum.

    NATO has also used exercises to demonstrate the viability of energy-efficient military equipment. In various logistics exercises, NATO displayed how the integration of renewable energy like wind and solar, combined with energy storage, reduced the amount of diesel consumption in forward deployed military camps. This successful combination of fossil fuels and renewables demonstrated that energy efficiency and a smaller environmental footprint do not have to come at the expense of operational effectiveness.

    Research and development

    NATO's Science and Technology Organization (STO) promotes and conducts scientific research on military-specific technical challenges, including those related to environmental issues. To this end, STO technical/scientific sub-committees, composed of experts from NATO and its member countries, look for "greener solutions" by conducting studies and research resulting in scientific reports.

    The STO's Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE), located in La Spezia, Italy, conducts research to quantify the impact of the environment on operations, and vice versa. One extensive CMRE study resulted in a better understanding of how marine mammals are affected by sonar systems. Based on the results, NATO developed the Code of Conduct for the Use of Active Sonar to Ensure the Protection of Marine Mammals within the Framework of Alliance Maritime Activities. Another project involved climate monitoring in the High North with a special focus on how climate change is transforming the Arctic Ocean.

    Within the context of NATO's SPS Programme, environmental protection experts across NATO member and partner countries have been active in the development of policy and technical solutions for the reduction of the environmental and energy footprint of NATO-led activities. This includes monitoring energy consumption in military camps to identify opportunities to improve energy efficiency, therefore the overall effectiveness of an operation.

    Collaborative approach

    NATO's environmental community has been active in their cooperative efforts with other international organisations, including the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU). This collaborative approach also includes discussions with industry, academia and governmental agencies.

  • Responding to climate change

    With the alarming acceleration of global warming and weather extremes across the globe, environmental issues have become more severe and the phenomenon of climate change has become a defining issue of our time. Climate change causes complications for fresh water management and water scarcity, as well as health issues, biodiversity loss and demographic challenges. Other consequences like famine, drought and marine environmental degradation lead to loss of land and livelihood, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, and poor and vulnerable populations.

    Climate change is also a threat multiplier that affects NATO security, operations and missions both in the Euro-Atlantic area and in the Alliance’s broader neighbourhood. It makes it harder for militaries to carry out their tasks. It also shapes the geopolitical environment, leading to instability and geostrategic competition and creating conditions that can be exploited by state and non-state actors that threaten or challenge the Alliance. Increasing surface temperatures, thawing permafrost, desertification, loss of sea ice and glaciers, and the opening up of shipping lanes may cause volatility in the security environment. As such, the High North is one of the epicentres of climate change.

    Climate change affects the current and future operating environment, and the military will need to ensure its operational effectiveness in increasingly harsh conditions. Greater temperature extremes, sea level rise, significant changes in precipitation patterns and extreme weather events test the resilience of militaries and infrastructure. For example, increases in ambient temperatures coupled with changing air density (pressure altitude) can have a detrimental impact on fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft performance and air transport capability. Similarly, preventing the overheating of military aircraft, especially the sensitive electronic and airbase installations, requires an increased logistical effort and higher energy consumption. Many transport routes are located on coastal roads, which are particularly vulnerable to weather extremes. These are not only challenges to engineering and technology development, but must also be factored into operational planning scenarios. 

    In March 2021, NATO Foreign Ministers endorsed NATO’s Climate Change and Security Agenda. At the NATO Summit in Brussels on 14 June 2021, NATO Leaders agreed a Climate Change and Security Action Plan, with the aim of making NATO the leading international organisation when it comes to understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security. It provides a 360-degree approach, encompassing measures to increase Allied awareness of the impact of climate change on security. It outlines clear adaptation and mitigation measures, and enhanced outreach, while ensuring a credible deterrence and defence posture.

    Regarding enhanced awareness, NATO will conduct an annual Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment. This Assessment will analyse the impact of climate change on NATO’s strategic environment and NATO’s assets, installations, missions and operations. NATO will also integrate climate change considerations into security risk and resilience assessments and civil advice on the security situation in regions of key interest. In addition, NATO will leverage its science and technology programmes and communities to support research on the impact of climate change on security, including gender perspectives in the context of NATO’s Women, Peace and Security policy.

    Regarding adaptation, NATO will incorporate climate change considerations into its work on resilience, civil preparedness, defence planning, capability delivery, assets and installations, standards, innovation, training, exercises and disaster response. NATO will also address the need to adapt its capabilities to the changing climate more prominently in its procurement practices and its partnership with industry. It will also assess how climate change might impact its deterrence and defence posture, including readiness, enablement, reinforcement and military mobility.

    To contribute to the mitigation of climate change, the Alliance will develop a NATO mapping and analytical methodology of greenhouse gas emissions from military activities and installations. This methodology will help Allies’ own emission assessment programmes and could contribute to formulating voluntary goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the military. Furthermore, data on energy demand and consumption in the military could inform Allies’ investment decisions, help define the role of emerging and disruptive technologies and innovative energy-efficient and sustainable technologies, as well as inform operational planning. In developing the methodology, NATO will draw on the best practices of Allies, and may also leverage expertise from partner countries and other international organisations, including the EU. NATO will also study the feasibility of scaling up innovative low-carbon technologies through its own procurement practices.

    As part of enhancing its outreach, NATO will strengthen exchanges with partner countries, as well as with international and regional organisations that are active on climate change and security issues, including the EU, the UN, and others, where appropriate. NATO will increase dialogue with civil society, academia and industry on climate change and security issues, to support its work and contribute to the global response to climate change.

  • Evolution

    Building on the disaster relief scheme it had created in the early 1950s, NATO first recognised environmental challenges by establishing the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society (CCMS) in 1969. The CCMS managed studies and fellowships that focused on issues like air and noise pollution, advanced health care and the disposal of hazardous wastes.

    In the late 1970s, NATO began to develop its environmental protection policy, which resulted in a number of guidelines and standards that have adapted to the changing environment over the years.

    NATO began engaging in civil preparedness and emergency response to environmental disasters in the 1990s. In the same decade, it began working with partner countries, responding to requests for cooperative activities in many key priority areas, including environmental security. Towards the end of the 1990s, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) was launched.

    In 2003, the NATO Military Committee agreed the overarching policy document on “NATO Military Principles and Policies for Environmental Protection”. It was updated in 2011.

    In 2006, the Science Committee merged with the CCMS to form the Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme to develop initiatives on specific key priorities including environmental security.

    In the 2010 Strategic Concept, NATO acknowledged climate change as a security challenge for the first time.

    In 2012, NATO’s Science and Technology Organization (STO) was formed in order to promote and conduct scientific research in several areas, including environmental issues.

    At the Wales Summit in 2014, NATO Leaders declared that NATO will “continue to work towards significantly improving the energy efficiency of our military forces”, and adopted the Green Defence Framework, which contained numerous suggestions to this end.

    At the 2019 Leaders Meeting in London, NATO committed to a forward-looking reflection process that resulted in the NATO 2030 initiative, which underlines the impact of climate change on security as a major focus for the Alliance.

    In March 2021, NATO Foreign Ministers endorsed the Climate Change and Security Agenda, which provides a 360-degree approach, encompassing measures to increase Allied awareness of the impact of climate change on security.

    At the NATO Summit in Brussels on 14 June 2021, NATO Leaders agreed a Climate Change and Security Action Plan, with the aim of making NATO the leading international organisation when it comes to understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security.

    In November 2021, during a high-level roundtable at a side event of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), in Glasgow, United Kingdom, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg explained the main focus of the new NATO Climate Change and Security Action Plan, especially the key points of awareness, mitigation and adaptation.