Commentary: Militaries, the surprising allies – when men in green fight for a greener world
Bold plans underway augur well for Singapore’s carbon footprint and its defence quotient, says Mike Yeo.
MELBOURNE: Which organisations would you look to as allies in the fight against climate change?
Climate activist groups, foundations and even a smattering of corporates involved in sustainability might come to mind.
But here’s some real food for thought: How about militaries?
The ongoing fight against COVID-19 has made it seem like a lifetime ago that Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen unveiled a slew of green measures that the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will be adopting to do its bit for climate change in Parliament in March.
But these bold plans augur well for a green future for these men in green. The initiatives announced range from simple waste-reduction measures including recycling food waste into energy to larger, ambitious plans that seek to replace the SAF’s 400 administrative vehicles with hybrid and eventually electric models to reduce carbon emissions.
The Republic of Singapore Navy is also looking at hybrid propulsion for its future ships, which according to Dr Ng has the added bonus of improved energy efficiency in addition to reducing their carbon footprint.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is also doing its bit, with a newly-built hangar at Changi East Air Base for its Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport set to be the first net-positive energy aircraft hangar in Singapore.
According to MINDEF, solar panels on the roof of the new hangar can generate up to 1.225 MWh of electricity per year, or 30 per cent more electricity than it consumes. The additional energy generated will then be directed to other buildings the air base to be used.
Other features of the hangar include the use of sustainable materials in its construction, a rainwater harvesting system, the use of natural ventilation and energy-efficient LED lighting.
The hangar, which was designed by the Defence Science and Technology Agency, has won the Building and Construction Authority’s Green Mark Platinum (Positive Energy) award for its green features.
The hangar will be one of several such “green” buildings MINDEF has already in service, with more on the way. The new hangar at Changi East follows an earlier hangar at Paya Lebar, which won the Green Mark Gold Plus award in 2015.
This is the second highest tier of the award. One of the criteria for winning includes a requirement to achieve at least 25 per cent savings in utilities compared to a “non-green” equivalent.
JUST DOING THEIR PART FOR SINGAPORE
These initiatives unveiled by MINDEF are its contribution to a whole-of-government plan to go green. As Dr Ng said in his speech, the threat of climate change is some “which the SAF may not be primarily responsible, but must join in the efforts (to combat) for Singapore’s security and safety”.
Such efforts illustrate the fact the militaries do not exist in a vacuum, and will have to do their fair share of meeting national objectives.
Singapore has previously pledged to reduce its absolute carbon emission levels after 2030 and halve that by 2050.
READ: Commentary: Why Singapore’s new 'absolute' climate mitigation targets could be an absolute game changer
It is also worth noting Singapore’s carbon footprint is big for its size, with estimates that it contributes 0.11 per cent of global emissions despite having just 0.0005 per cent of the world’s land.
While it is hard to see how Singapore can reduce its dependence on heavy industries that contribute the majority of the nation’s greenhouse gases, including the oil and gas industry, there is no question Singapore sees the need to reduce its carbon footprint as a responsible global stakeholder, with everyone doing their bit.
Using renewable energy sources such as solar power would be a good place to start.
Given 95 per cent of Singapore’s electricity is generated by natural gas-fired powered stations, there is room to embrace the use of solar and other forms of renewable energy to power electrical needs, with new targets to increase installed solar capacity by more than seven times from current levels to reach 2 gigawatt-peak by 2030.
But the SAF has a large land footprint too and knows it can do better with designing bases and camps. In addition to the RSAF’s green hangars, Dr Ng also revealed that MINDEF has commissioned net zero energy buildings at Kranji and Seletar Camps, and by the end of this financial year, the buildings in 12 SAF camps will be equipped with solar panels.
These initiatives will be a start to making a dent in Singapore’s carbon emissions, a whopping 52.5 million tonnes in 2017 alone.
READ: Commentary: Reaching net-zero emissions will be ‘very challenging’. But watch Singapore try anyway
GOING GREEN HAS DEFENCE UTILITY
For militaries, learning how to live “off the (electrical) grid” is a good thing. During times of conflict, national disaster, or even a cyberattack, access to the national electrical grid or fuel could be affected while the SAF must still perform its duties.
The American military learnt this during its time in Iraq and Afghanistan, when it found embracing the use of solar to power its sometimes-isolated bases reduced its dependence on diesel which reduced the risk of attack to road convoys delivering the fuel.
A similar conundrum could be faced by Singapore during an emergency. In 2018, Singapore imported 9.96 million tonnes of oil equivalent of natural gas, of which 71.4 per cent was piped in from Indonesia and Malaysia.
READ: Commentary: Forget bamboo straws. Let’s name the elephants in the room of Singapore’s climate debate
However, supply from the former is due to end in 2023, and the use of LNG brought in by ships is expected to increase in proportion to 50 per cent by the middle of this decade.
Given the well-known vulnerability of the sea lines of communications around Singapore, it is prudent to assume an uninterrupted supply of fuel such as LNG and petroleum products cannot be guaranteed in a crisis, and the SAF, like all Singaporeans, cannot assume that unfettered access to electricity or fuel in tough times.
MORE MILITARIES GOING GREEN
The push to go green is not limited to Singapore’s military. Several military leaders have gone on record as saying the climate change is the biggest challenge their forces will face or a variation thereof, including the US and Australia, whose national governments have on occasion been susceptible to bouts of climate scepticism or outright denialism.
Most of these concerns are driven by the calculation of the rising frequency and intensity of natural disasters armed forces have to respond to.
Australia’s Chief of Defence Force General Angus Campbell noted in 2019 that Australia’s military capabilities could be stretched if it had to undertake more humanitarian relief efforts as a result of climate change causing more frequent and damaging natural disasters.
The Australian military deployed 3,000 personnel to support the relief effort following a cyclone in the north of the country earlier that year, double the number of troops it had in Afghanistan at the height of Australia’s combat deployment in support of coalition forces.
READ: Commentary: Rising temperatures, fires and floods highlight importance of understanding weather extremes
There is also no doubt that the sustainability of continuing a “business as usual” approach to the use of fossil fuels and accompanying carbon emissions is being questioned by militaries worldwide, with a realisation something has to change.
According to a 2017 report by the US Department of Defense, the US military nearly doubled its renewable power generation between 2011 and 2015, to 10,534 billion British thermal units, or enough to power about 286,000 average American homes.
The US military also nearly tripled the number of individual renewable energy programmes during this period to almost 1,400, most of these occurring on American military bases.
A good example of this is Fort Hood in Texas, the US military’s biggest base on American soil.
The sprawling base reported in 2017 it had increased its use of renewable energy vis-à-vis fossil fuels, with 63,000 solar panels and off-base wind turbines providing almost half of its power needs, compared to just 23 per cent in 2015. The US Army estimates this will reap more than US$100 million (S$138.87 million) in savings over 30 years.
In Asia, South Korea’s military is also doing the same thing with the aim of increasing its use of renewable energy sources to 25 per cent by 2030, which is higher than the government's goal of 20 percent for the country as a whole.
The renewable energy will come from photovoltaic panels in bases, military land and rooftops of other installations, while some barracks will be fitted with geothermal cooling and heating system.
There is also a continuing effort worldwide to experiment with the use of biofuels on military ships and aircraft, to find a right blend that is sustainable yet without negatively affecting the performance of the engines.
As a whole, militaries tend to be one of the more significant contributors to emissions through burning of fossil fuels, yet are potentially some of the worst-affected by an interruption to supply.
As solar power becomes more affordable and battery storage technologies used to store power from renewable sources improve, the trend of militaries going green will only accelerate, which is a positive development to be welcomed.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.