Synthetic fuel flight signals start of UK military’s push to cut emissions

The Royal Air Force has set a Guinness world record for flying an aircraft for the first time using only synthetic fuel, signalling the start of a campaign by the UK’s armed forces to reduce their carbon emissions.

The 10-minute flight, which took place in an Ikarus C42 microlight aircraft this month, is just one element of multiple projects under way that include electric aircraft, hybrid drive vehicles and unmanned vessels to reduce the carbon footprint of the military and its activities.

The Ministry of Defence is responsible for 50 per cent of the central government’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its latest annual report, for 2019-2020, declared total greenhouse gas emissions of 2.6m tonnes for the period, although this excludes “scope 3” emissions, those emitted along the supply chain and in the use of its equipment.

Richard Nugee, a retired lieutenant-general in charge of the MoD’s climate change response, conceded that there was “still an awful lot to do”.

In March he set out a blueprint for the department on how the military can adapt to threats from climate change. The strategy outlined an incremental approach, with near-term actions that included identifying reduction targets focused on the military’s airfields, docks and barracks.

There are no short-term targets yet. The goal for 2026-2035 would be to “reduce emissions significantly” using “existing and emerging” technology to reduce carbon output. In the long term, from 2036-2050, the ministry would seek “novel technologies” to cut emissions further.

The strategy envisages setting carbon targets to help measure progress but Nugee admitted that “there is more to do in terms of reporting”. The MoD said that work was continuing on “revalidating our carbon footprint”.

“This is about full transparency. Otherwise, we have no idea what we are even up against,” said Ben Neimark, senior lecturer at Lancaster University and part of a group of social scientists calling for greater transparency from governments about armed forces’ emissions. Neimark estimated that total direct emissions from the MoD would be much higher than currently declared.

Most militaries are, like the UK, the government agency that produces the most greenhouse gases and are still in the early stages of reducing their emissions.

The MoD is “pulled in two directions”, according to Trevor Taylor, professorial research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank. “On the one hand, as part of government, it has to reduce its carbon footprint but it also has to adapt UK forces to cope with the different sorts of challenges arising from climate change such as greater migration.”

Money is another hurdle. The MoD still had “major financial challenges and has particular trouble in dealing with projects that cost more now but might save money later”, added Taylor.

One of the biggest challenges will be ensuring there is no drop in capability. Nugee said it was not “an either or”, and Air Marshal Andrew Turner, the RAF’s deputy commander for capability, said he wanted to reach his target of net zero by 2040 “ahead of time” without compromising performance.

“We couldn’t accept an impact on our capabilities. Our business is to be lethal, defensive, productive. There can be no compromise,” he told the Financial Times. 

The army is assessing the benefits of hybrid military vehicles; the hybrid Jackal reconnaissance vehicle has electric drives on its wheels, a battery and a diesel engine that tops up the battery. The vehicles, said Nugee, offered “better stealth, capability and no noise” and were better for the crew.

Nugee also revealed that designs for Britain’s new “trade yacht” to promote UK interests abroad, which had come under fire over its cost, included plans to make it possible that the engine could be removed. “This is going into the design to make sure we can take advantage of future technologies that don’t exist yet.”

One of the biggest challenges for the armed forces will be to reduce the use of fossil fuels across aviation, which accounts for almost two-thirds of all fuel. Test programmes, such as the recent record-breaking flight, are among several being pursued to look at alternative fuels.

Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the RAF’s goals were “ambitious — but not unachievable”. 

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