What does the Military have to do with Net Zero?

Template indicating the ‘useful bits’ you need from a tree to build a 1500’s Basque sailing ship. (my pic)

Quite a lot as it happens. But first, consider this… Fleet Oaks. Fleet Oaks is the name given to oak trees that are planted with the sole purpose of providing the building material (wood, specifically oak) required for naval ships.

Growing oak trees isn’t a quick enterprise. My interest was triggered by a recent Tweet from @animyer who shared… “After their defeat and loss at Copenhagen in 1807, the Danes responded by planting 90,000 oak trees toward the Navy’s rebirth. The Danish Nature Agency, successor to the royal forester, informed the Defense Ministry in 2007 that their trees were ready.”

It’s fair to say that the statement generated a lot of interest (35.8K likes, 894 quote tweets and 6.4K retweets) and a long thread of illuminating comments. I’m no military historian but here are some points I’ve drawn out of the conversation.

  • Planting oaks to build future ships wasn’t a new concept the Danes invented in 1807. There are plenty of examples of the military planting forests of oaks, and some that still maintain them. For example the US Navy has foresters who manage a plantation of white oaks, specifically to maintain the USS Constitution. Details here; Why the US Navy Manages Its Own Private Forest
  • The practice of planting and managing trees to specifically build ships goes back to at least the 1500’s (possibly driven by demand and supply). I wrote about it in this post, Planting Oak Trees to Build Future Ships. This post talks about the practice of bending and shaping oak trees in the Basque Country. The idea is they will produce the structures suitable for future ships. The picture of the template shows this.
  • The law of unintended consequences. The practice of planting and maintaining oak forests will have an impact on things like; land use, biodiversity, carbon capture and other environmentally beneficial things. Did an action by the military in 1807 to resolve an immediate problem, have impacts that are proving to be extremely relevant in 2021?

Why are the Military interested in Net Zero? Back to the point of this post. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence it would be, ‘they are part of the problem, but also part of the solution…’

Two things stick in my mind from a generation ago (probably 25+ years), when I was working in the environment sector. We were thinking about the impact of global warming and climate change. My first memory from this time relates to scenario planning and predictions that climate change could lead to future wars. Wars brought about by water shortages and mass migrations. The second memory relates to some Military emergency scenario exercises I took part. They were desk based (at the Army Barracks in Brecon) and they left a lasting impression on me. The Military were really serious about scenario planning and thinking about how they would respond to whatever was ‘coming over the horizon’.

Climate change threatens peace. The graphic above is taken from the Ministry of Defence publication, Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach (March 2021).

It’s quite stark to see what had been talked about 25+ years ago now featuring prominently a MoD document. Forming a large part of why the Military thinks it needs to address the issue. Climate change is as much of a threat to ‘peace’ as aggressor armies or enemy states. I never really thought I’d see the day when the Military and climate change were so closely linked.

The military have a checkered history when it comes to the environment and climate change. To quote from the report, “the scale of what Defence is called upon to do, makes us a carbon emitter” (among other things I’d argue). The fact that they are responsible for 50% of the emissions from Central Government isn’t ducked. What is encouraging though is the desire to do something serious about it. I did have a chat with one of the report’s Co-Authors and to be honest I was staggered by the level of ambition.

It is immense, and covers everything from using procurement to ‘stimulate the supply chain’ to do their bit around the circular economy, through to the use of MoD land to generate renewable energy and capture carbon. Apparently the MoD are the second biggest land owners in the UK, so there’s plenty of space for trees and other things. Maybe not Fleet Oaks though, unless the Navy is taking Net Zero to the extreme and going back to wooden sailing ships. Do read the report.

When things go horribly wrong… and they do. In a recent conversation about stimulating the circular economy in Public Services we touched upon the role of the Military. The fact that when things ‘go horribly wrong’ the Military are the people society calls upon wasn’t lost upon us. This isn’t just for natural disasters (home and abroad) and pandemics (building field hospitals, running test centers/ giving vaccinations etc). It’s also for the ‘mundane’ stuff like driving HGV trucks to get food into the supermarkets and fuel into the petrol stations.

Whatever is coming next, the Military will probably be there. When everything else has broken down (including civic order).

Combine that with the fact that they do strategic planning and scan the horizon for breakfast (probably before most of us have had our breakfast). We should probably pay attention to what they are thinking, planning and work out how we might fit in. Oh, and doing things as well. The other big thing I have noticed about military types is that they tend to be ‘action orientated’ (they get stuff done).

Planting forests of Fleet Oaks in 1807 might not have produced the military gains hoped for, but it might actually be contributing to ‘keeping the peace’ 200 years later. Who knows what else they are capable of?

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. The Military are generally quite good at scenario planning and horizon scanning (it’s what they do).
  2. Climate change threatens peace. If the military are saying it in such bold language, it’s worth a look at what they say and what they are going to do about it.
  3. When it all goes horribly wrong… because it will. It’s worth building relationships with the Military now, because it might just pay off in unexpected ways when we ‘bump into’ each other in the future.

*Picture Source: Climate change threatens peace. Page 6 Ministry of Defence. Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ministry-of-defence-climate-change-and-sustainability-strategic-approach

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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