General Richard Nugee: Reframing government’s approach to Net Zero
Governments have been framing Net Zero with decarbonisation as its objective, whereas efficiency and resilience should be the motivating force, says General Richard Nugee, a former Chief of People at the Ministry of Defence, and now senior advisor on the Oxford-based Climate Change and (In) Security Project and the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) .
After a 36-year military career, where he saw first-hand the implications of climate change on national and international security, Nugee has sought to make the military greener; first by leading MOD’s Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach in 2021, and now as a senior advisor on the IMCCS and non-executive director for Climate Change and Sustainability for the UK Government.
He stresses the importance of understanding the effects of climate change and its impact on the operational resilience of organisations. In his view, the link between the two are “not appreciated at all in government.” Whether it is rising sea temperatures disrupting supply chains or soil quality threatening food security, “all organisations and people are in some way going to be disrupted by climate change.” Nugee understands this better than most, having witnessed how military capability is impacted in a climate-changed world of extreme heat and flooding.
Nugee shares his beliefs about the misdirection of government’s Net Zero efforts, and how he put climate change on MOD’s agenda by reframing the end goal.
Reframe the game
As well-meaning as most government departments are, cutting carbon emissions to protect biodiversity and future generations will never be their guiding rationale. Most are focused on minimising cost and boosting efficiency, and it is through this lens that Net Zero must be packaged and delivered, Nugee explains.
“When presenting a sustainability strategy at MOD, if I had turned around and said the whole purpose for doing this is to reduce emissions, I would have been laughed out of the room. Instead, what I talked about was building resilience and saving money, presenting clear opportunities for action.”
Green innovations like recycled vehicle components, electric cars or even micro nuclear reactors that are more easily transportable, offer “huge opportunities” to make the defence sector stronger and more efficient, Nugee explains. “That’s what people are really interested in. That’s what makes them sit up and listen.”
He adds that any attempted change to the status quo must be packaged in a way that “still works within the grain and culture of the organisation”. Equally, starting with small changes that generate quick and obvious results will incentivise behaviours around sustainability far more effectively than attempting to uproot entire processes. By laying it out in this way, people are more likely to embrace change rather than resist it, Nugee explains.
Nugee advocates for a more experimental approach to Net Zero that challenges the accepted wisdom. He recommends this simple thought exercise: “What would you do if there was no more oil tomorrow? How would you be forced to change how you work? Now think of what those solutions might be and consider if you can take advantage of them now.”
In 2021, MOD opened three carbon negative buildings at Nesscliffe Training Camp in Shropshire, part of its Net-Zero Carbon Accommodation Programme. Carbon negative refers to sites that are built to produce more energy than they consume.
Reaching carbon negative status, Nugee explains, was rooted in that simple exercise of rethinking an opportunity to do things differently. “At every stage of its development, I asked the contractor: Can we make this more sustainable? Can we use different materials that produce less energy to create? Actually it was possible and even better – it was much cheaper.”
Humans have a habit of over-engineering just about everything; there are buildings constructed by the Romans 2000 years ago that are still standing. It is with this in mind that Nugee asks government departments to consider the potential green merits of focusing merely on what is required, rather than something quite so robust and long-lasting. What you are left with is a building or service that is cheaper, just as effective and consumes less energy, he says.
“I am a massive optimist and I believe we will solve these problems; it will take time, energy and money but when our backs are against the wall, we really do innovate,” Nugee says. “I am massively heartened by the attitude of senior people in the Ministry, who are almost working undercover to try and make this happen.”
At the end of the day, change is coordinated by people and Nugee believes there is a "whole groundswell of opinion across government” that climate change is something to be taken seriously; “both because it is the right thing to do and because it is to our advantage.”
He adds: “If you’re sailing a ship, the stronger the headwind, the faster you get there. I'm confident that despite the recent comments made by government about Net Zero, this will just make people strive twice as hard.”