Transitioning to an to environmental sustainable defence sector

New independent research highlights the views of current and former defence workers on transitioning the defence sector to environmental sustainability.

The research project entitled ’Decarbonising and diversifying defence in the US and the UK: A workers’ enquiry for a Just Transition’, led by the University of Glasgow, interviewed defence workers and union representatives.

The study focused on the US and UK, as the two largest global defence exporters on a rolling 10-year basis ( DFiT, 2020 ).

Although the workers had a range of views on transitioning defence, all expressed concerns about climate change and a desire to see decarbonisation of the sector.

Dr Karen Bell, the project lead, said: "This study suggests that defence sector workers are very concerned about the impact of their industry on climate change and on other environmental problems. There were a range of views of what to do about this, even including stopping producing weapons, but almost all wanted to be involved in the discussion about how to transition the sector to greater sustainability."

A male UK defence sector worker, one of the 58 defence workers involved in the in-depth interviews, stated: "I think there’s a lot more to it than just environmental benefits with decarbonisation. There is an increase in resilience of our supply chain if we can...wean ourselves off reliance on fossil fuels"

While many said they want to be involved in the development of strategies and planning on achieving sustainability in defence, most had not been consulted on this by their company or union. The workers had many ideas about how to more effectively decarbonise and some were frustrated with the slow pace of change and the ’quick-wins’ that were being overlooked.

Another UK defence worker said: "There is an awful lot we can do with minimal investment and, actually, it would incur long-term savings for the defence sector. For example, solar panels - the facilities that I work in don’t have a single solar panel"

Some of the defence sector employees were proud of, and excited by, the efforts of their company to decarbonise while others considered the activities inadequate to address the environmental issues related to defence products and operations.

Some workers even said, given the environmental impact of defence, they would prefer to be doing non-military work, perhaps related to solving environmental problems.

For instance, they said: "Do we really need any more weapons? ...I think we do need, given the current state of play with the world, I think we do need some kind of defence but, in the same token, are we producing too much?" (Female defence worker, UK).

"I would be happy to lose this job and find another. And, if it was in a renewable resource, research or job, that would be fantastic. ...I would feel better about my life if I did that. ... I feel that it’s important that I do my job properly in order to keep people safe.... Would I prefer to do something that was more relevant for the world? Absolutely!" (Female defence worker, US).

However, others believed that their military work is essential for protecting their fellow citizens and should not be compromised by the environmental agenda.

Most of the workers did not think their jobs were threatened by decarbonisation, although some were concerned about job insecurity arising from automation, outsourcing and offshoring.

Some were concerned that environmentalism is being used as an excuse for offshoring work to cut costs, as in the following comment: "...instead of dealing with the environmental issue, they’ll just send the work to another country that doesn’t have the same restrictions that we do" (Female defence worker, US).

Many of those interviewed believed that unions play an important role in ensuring the transition to sustainability will be fair.

The environmental issues associated with defence are increasingly causing concern among environmentalists, governments and the defence sector, itself. A number of reports suggest exceptionally high rates of GHG emissions, pollution and use of non-renewable resources from the defence sector (e.g. Parkinson, 2020 ).

Defence accounts for 50% (UK), and 80% (US), Government greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, so decarbonisation of this sector is vital to achieve the UK and US Governments’ net-zero ambitions ( Frazer-Nash, 2020 ).

The defence sector increasingly recognises that climate change can potentially accelerate insecurity and armed conflict (e.g. NATO, 2021 ). Defence organisations in the US, UK and beyond are now addressing sustainability in recent reports, statements, innovations and strategies (e.g. Honeywell, 2021 ; MoD, 2021 ; Rolls Royce, 2021 ; US Army, 2022 ).

The University of Glasgow Communications and Public Affairs Office:

The research team make a number of recommendations for defence companies, trade unions and governments including:

  • Defence companies should set up structures and programmes so as to include workers at all levels in decarbonisation and diversification planning and implementation
  • Companies should create contractual clauses for companies along their global supply chain to comply with, or improve upon, US and UK environmental and employment standards
  • Companies need to make their GHG emissions and other environmental impact data publicly available
  • Trade unions should create more opportunities for education and dialogue around decarbonization, diversification and Just Transition with rank-and-file defence sector workers
  • Trade unions should prioritise unionising the ’green’ sector and improving job security and pay in this sector so that these jobs begin to become more attractive to workers
  • Governments should enact legislation to include defence sector greenhouse gas emissions in national carbon accounting
  • Governments need to consider transitioning security policies and budget priorities to a ’human security’ approach, addressing the global and national poverty, inequality, health and environmental crises and investing in the jobs that would accompany this

The full research team included California State University, Cornell University, University of Bristol and the University of the West of England. Full and summary reports are available at HTTP://DECARBONISING-DEFE­NCE.CO.UK/