WASHINGTON and LONDON — The United Kingdom has set a requirement that its Royal Air Force have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But according to Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, the service needs to work under the assumption that it has to hit that target a decade earlier — and accept that other budget priorities will be cut to make it happen.
Speaking to Defense News during a recent visit to Washington, Wigston said the push toward net zero — where the overall carbon footprint is either reduced to zero or balanced out by other efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere — will also be something he discusses with other air chiefs throughout this year, with a hope of finding agreements on how to move forward as a military aviation community.
“I recognize that sounds crazy to some, that we’ve got an Air Force Chief talking about being net zero,” Wigston said. “But I think the imperative is clear: our politicians will demand it of us, are demanding of us. Our public demands it of us. And the young people in the Royal Air Force today demand it of me and the leadership, that we should be taking a lead in this.”
The Air Chief’s comments came just days after the Biden administration hosted a world climate summit, during which U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described the threat of climate change as an “existential” national security issue, and roughly a month after the MoD released a document on adopting a new strategic approach to enhancing sustainability and reducing armed forces emission levels in order to meet wider government environmental targets.
The MoD review argued that defense will be stronger if it keeps up with new, adaptable and efficient options for reducing fuel consumption.
“We are already at the forefront of the new and growing green military agenda, trialing new types of vehicles, fuels standards, energy storage and much more. Done right, this will improve how we meet the defense and security challenges of the future,” the review states.
That effort will fall particularly on military aviation if the MoD is to meet its mandated net-zero emissions target by 2050. Two-thirds of defense fuel is consumed by military aviation, while the MoD itself accounts for half of all British government emissions.
While the 2050 target is the official deadline, Wigston has ordered his team to aim for 2040 instead, based in part on what he called a “hunch” that as the climate crisis expands, both the public and politicians will begin pushing for net zero sooner, and it is best for the RAF to be prepared.
“That will require additional investment. It will require me diverting investment from equipment and platforms into infrastructure and into how we operate,” Wigston said. “But I think that’s a price that we’re going to have to accept that we’re going to have to pay, and I see a leading role for the Royal Air Force in that.”
All of the RAF’s planes are now certified to use 50 percent synthetic fuels, Wigston said. But for the service to take advantage of that capability requires getting suppliers and industry on board, while also changing the military infrastructure to accommodate new fuel sources.
The easiest part may be the first, thanks to a push on the commercial aviation side to pursue net-zero efforts. Wigston noted that the U.K. has set up a Jet Zero Council, which is focused primarily on non-military aviation. “A large part of that is about commercializing synthetic fuel production and making sure that it’s available at the pumps around the civil airspace infrastructure,” he said. “So military air forces can take advantage of that.”
The second part is harder, and it requires coordination among ally and partner air forces to make a reality. The U.K. using alternative fuels for its jets doesn’t matter if the planes are operating out of a U.S. base without that fuel on hand, after all. To that end, Wigston hopes to have serious conversations with his counterparts in 2021 about developing universal standards.
That’s “something that we are proposing to our fellow air chiefs over the next few months, so that by the end of the year, I would like to hope — and I’m certainly aiming for a common declaration amongst global air chiefs — that these are the steps that we’re going to take collectively, because this is the only way that I think we’re going to achieve this, to get to a position where we are consuming far less hydrocarbons in fuel terms.”
“The way we power our aircraft, the way we power our bases, the way we talk to our supply chain, [to] our industrial suppliers about their carbon and sustainable practices, are all going to be things that are important for all Air Forces,” Wigston added. “And it’s something that I want the Royal Air Force to take a lead in, and it’s something that I will be coming back to with my fellow air chiefs around the world to reach a common understanding of what we’ve got to do. And then declare a common ambition of how we will get there.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.