Environment – NATO's stake

  • Last updated: 09 Oct. 2020 12:49

NATO recognises that it faces many environmental challenges. In particular, the Alliance is working to reduce the environmental effects of military activities and to respond to security challenges emanating from the environment.

The Alliance first recognised the natural environmental challenges facing the international community in 1969, when it established the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society (CCMS). Until its merger with the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme in 2006, the CCMS provided a unique forum for NATO and its partner countries to share knowledge and experience on social, health and environmental matters, both in the civilian and military sectors.

Over the years, Allied countries have established several NATO expert working groups to address environmental challenges from various angles.

NATO's current activities related to the natural environment include:

  • protecting the environment from damaging effects of military operations;
  • promoting environmentally friendly management practices in training areas and during operations;
  • adapting military assets to a hostile physical environment;
  • preparing for and responding to natural and man-made disasters;
  • addressing the impact of climate change;
  • educating military officers on all aspects of environmental challenges;
  • supporting partner countries in building local capabilities;
  • enhancing energy efficiency and fossil fuel independence; and
  • building environmentally friendly infrastructures.

All these activities fall under two broad categories:

  • Environmental protection:  Protecting the physical and natural environment from the harmful and detrimental impact of military activities.
  • Environmental security:  Addressing security challenges emanating from the physical and natural environment.
  • Environmental protection

    Military activities often have an adverse effect on the environments in which they occur. Hence, part of NATO's responsibility is to protect the physical and natural environments where operations and training take place.

    Accordingly, NATO member countries have adopted rules and regulations to protect the environment. NATO's measures range from safeguarding hazardous materials (including fuels and oils), treating waste water, reducing fossil fuel consumption and managing waste to putting environmental management systems in place during NATO-led activities. In line with these objectives, NATO has been facilitating the integration of environmental protection measures into all NATO-led military activities.

    Policy and standards

    NATO started to develop its environmental protection policy in the late 1970s, resulting in a number of guidelines and standards. At this time, NATO's 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 and partner countries, as well as among different NATO bodies and international organisations that 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 STEEEP aims to integrate environmental protection and energy efficiency regulations into technical requirements and specifications for armaments, equipment and materials on ships, and for the ship to shore interface in the Allied and partner nations' naval forces.

    Decades of activities by expert groups paved the way for the overarching policy document MC 469 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. Further, it recognises the need for "a harmonisation of environmental principles and policies for all NATO-led military activities". It also instructs NATO commanders to apply "best practicable and feasible environmental protection measures", thus aiming at reducing the environmental impact caused by military activity. MC 469 has been complemented with several other NATO Environmental Protection Standardization Agreements (STANAGs) and Allied Joint Environmental Protection Publications (AJEPP), 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.


    In order to ensure compliance with such standards, forces must receive appropriate environmental protection training. While such training is primarily a national responsibility, it is NATO's ambition to provide common environmental protection and energy efficiency education to Allies' forces. It is necessary to embed environmental protection awareness into the daily routine 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. Moreover, NATO School Oberammergau and the Military Engineering Centre of Excellence (MILENG COE) provide environmental protection courses and instruction as part of their curriculum.

    Research and Development

    NATO's Science and Technology Organization (STO) promotes and conducts scientific research on military-specific technical challenges, some of which are related to environmental issues. To this end, STO technical/scientific sub-committees, composed of experts from NATO and nations, look for "greener solutions" by conducting studies and research resulting in scientific reports. STO's activities include noise reduction and "greener ammunition". 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 on how marine mammals can be 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" (MC-0547). STO's collaborative network is supported by the Collaboration Support Office, located in Paris, France. More information can be found at www.sto.nato.int, www.cso.nato.intand www.cmre.nato.int.

    Within the context of NATO's Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme, environmental protection experts across NATO and partner nations have been active in the development of policy and technical solutions to the reduction of the environmental and energy footprint on NATO-led activities.  One such advanced research workshop consisted of the development of a NATO Camp Closure Handbook and a Sustainable Camp Model.  The model enables operational planners to better understand the impact of operations on water, waste and energy consumption and provides technical solutions aimed at a reduction in the environmental and energy footprint of operations.

    Collaborative approach

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

  • Environmental security

    Based on a broad definition of security that recognises the importance of political, economic, social and environmental factors, NATO is addressing security challenges emanating from the environment. This includes extreme weather conditions, depletion of natural resources, pollution and so on – factors that can ultimately lead to disasters, regional tensions and violence.

    The Alliance is looking closely at how to best address environmental risks to security in general as well as those that directly impact military activities. For example, environmental factors can affect energy supplies to both populations and military operations, making energy security a major topic of concern. Helping 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 is yet another area of work.

    NATO is currently conducting these initiatives via its Science for Peace and Security (SPS) programme, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) and Partnership for Peace Trust Fund projects. It is considering enhancing its efforts in this area, with a focus on civil emergencies, energy efficiency and renewable power, and on consulting with relevant international organisations and experts on NATO’s stake in climate change.

    Building international cooperation

    Since 1969, NATO’s SPS Programme has supported cooperative activities that tackle environmental security issues, including those that are related to defence, in NATO countries. Since the SPS Programme opened up to partner countries in the 1990s, partners 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.

    In order to better coordinate its activities, NATO joined five other international agencies under the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative1 to address environmental issues that threaten security in four vulnerable regions. The regions are Southeast Europe, Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asia. 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. The NATO SPS Programme mainly supported capability building through projects that helped NATO partner countries with equipment, travel, training and stipends. (For more information visit www. envsec.rec.org)

    Boosting emergency response

    The Alliance is also actively engaged in coordinating civil emergency planning and response to environmental disasters. It does this principally through its Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EARDCC), which was launched following the earthquake disaster in Turkey and Greece at the end of the 1990s.

    With the aim to increase the understanding of the potential military role in disaster relief, NATO organised consultations and scenario building exercises involving military and civilian experts, supported in part by the SPS Programme.

    Helping partners reduce environmental hazards through disarmament

    Through NATO’s SPS Programme and Trust Fund projects, the Alliance helps partner countries reduce their aging weapon stockpiles, clean up deteriorating rocket fuel, clear land contaminated by unexploded remnants of war and safely store ammunition. While the central aim is to help post-Soviet countries disarm and reform their militaries, these projects also reduce the risks posed by these dangerous materials to the environment and the people in surrounding areas.

    Energy security – critical energy infrastructure protection

    With increasingly unpredictable natural disasters, such as earthquakes, severe floods and storms, that cause disruptions to infrastructure, environmental factors have a growing potential to affect energy security – a challenge NATO is becoming increasingly aware of. Most NATO members and partners rely on energy supplies from abroad, sent through pipelines and cables that cross many borders. Allies and partners, therefore, need to work together to develop ways of reducing the threat of disruptions, including those caused by environmental events.

    Allies agreed to consult on the most immediate risks in the field of energy security, share information, advance international and regional cooperation, develop consequence management, and help protect critical infrastructure. (For more please visit the topic page “Energy security”.)

    Projects that focus on the link between energy infrastructure and environmental security have been supported by the SPS Programme since early 2000. An example is the multi-year project “Chernobyl Dust Model” to help Ukraine to develop a realistic 3D model of the radioactive dust that is leaking from the damaged sarcophage at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power site. This will not only increase the safety of the workers of the New Safety Confinement, but also helps international experts understand the challenges of measurements and monitoring of contaminated areas.

    Energy efficiency in the military (Smart Energy) and innovative technology

    Recognising the increasing need of fuel in operations, causing security issues for fuel convoys and armed forces, NATO started in 2011 a Smart Energy initiative bringing together NATO stakeholders and national experts from the public and private sector. NATO Heads of State and Government declared in Wales in 2014 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, including ‘smart’ grids that exploit renewable energy and energy storage technologies, front line operations can maintain the required levels of effectiveness for longer periods without the need to rely on conventional fuels. In addition, such systems as well as hydrogen fuel cells can provide additional benefits such as stealth from reduced noise and heat signatures, and contribute to the blueprint for military systems, platforms and capability generation.

    NATO also continues to explore opportunities for the use of relevant technologies in capability development, such as how artificial intelligence could be used to manage energy in military systems and platforms, or how advanced engineering can assist with power and propulsion in the most energy-efficient way.

    For more information on “Smart Energy” and NATO’s work on incorporating innovative technologies and approaches within military capability, please visit the NATO LibGuide on Smart Energy.

    The next stage: a coherent environmental security agenda for NATO?

    With the effects of a changing climate becoming ever more visible, expectations regarding NATO’s efforts to address its implications are also growing. Climate change is widely recognised as a threat multiplier to security challenges as a result of the impact of second and third order consequences, including famine and drought leading to loss of land and livelihood, healthcare and demographic challenges. In turn, it can exacerbate existing tensions and create conflicts within and between states. This is important to understand as it will affect where the military is likely to operate in future, under what conditions, and the type of missions to which Allies will be deployed: whether these are conflict resolution and peace building, or humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

    Climate change affects the current and future operating environment, and the military will need to ensure that equipment capabilities are able to maintain operational effectiveness in increasing harsh conditions and with increasing frequency. For instance, increases to ambient temperatures have a detrimental impact on available helicopter torque. This not only places a challenge on engineer and technology development, but needs to be factored into operational planning scenarios. 

    Hence, as outlined by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a ‘NATO 2030’ speech in September 2020, NATO needs to adapt its armed forces to a security environment altered by the effects of climate change. Going beyond mere adaptation, however, NATO should also seek to cut emissions of military forces. Important work has already been done in this regard (see “Smart Energy” above), demonstrating how a more sustainable and resilient military need not come at the expense of military effectiveness. Indeed, the use of more sustainable technologies can enhance mission endurance and operational effectiveness. To this end, Secretary General Stoltenberg suggested to “consider voluntary targets for Allies to progressively cut those emissions”. In taking forward these and other proposals, Allies may build on the 2014 Green Defence Framework.

    1. The ENVSEC Initiative was established in 2003 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC). NATO became an associate member in 2004, through its Public Diplomacy Division.