Can the U.S. Military Reach Zero Carbon Emissions?

Can the U.S. Military Reach Zero Carbon Emissions?

The Biden administration would like to set net zero emissions by 2050 as an across-the-government goal, but any such plan must be done carefully and correctly.

It is widely expected that President Biden immediately upon taking office will set a Net Zero Carbon goal for the country. Such a goal has tremendous implications for the economy affecting all operations of the federal government—the nation’s biggest consumer of energy. In 2019, the Department of Defense (DOD) consumed 682 trillion BTUs, which represents 77 percent of federal government energy use, fifteen times the consumption of the Postal Service, the next largest agency user. It is worth reflecting on how likely the DOD is to meet the goal and to warn of political battles likely ensuing in Congress between national security and climate change interests.

The intent of Net Zero Carbon by 2050 goal is to move all elements of the economy away from dependence on fossil fuels. This will be accomplished by regulatory mandate or emission charges that will require energy procurement decisions based on market prices that also reflect the external cost of carbon emission damages. Making this transition for all elements of the economy is vital to avoid calamitous climate damage. For most federal and state agencies this adjustment will be same as for private sector entities and consumers. The transition will depend upon how rapidly alternative zero-carbon energy sources become available for transportation, industry, and both residential and commercial users. It will require substantial new private and public investment and result in higher market energy prices, at least for the next several decades.

The transition is likely to be especially difficult and contentious for the DOD. DOD energy use is divided between operational use and installation use. A significant fraction of DOD energy expenditure is for petroleum to support U.S. forces based and operating overseas. Operational use represents about seventy percent of DOD energy use. Deployed U.S. air (57%), land (13%), naval (26%), and marine (4%) forces use petroleum for jet fuel, diesel fuel for vehicles, ships, equipment, and for generating electricity for forces in the field or on maneuvers. Operational use demand depends on the type of fuel available in local markets, the tempo of operations, long logistical tails, and need for energy reserves. Any externally imposed restrictions on operational use are considered to endanger mission readiness, and accordingly, operational use has not been subject to federal energy mandates. Placing restrictions on operational use in order to meet Net Zero Carbon targets would certainly ignite a debate between climate action and defense priorities, because the Pentagon correctly regards access to energy as critical to its warfighting capability.

The DOD is well aware of the large fossil fuel requirement for deployed forces and has made efforts to control and lower its use. The DOD issued an operational energy strategy in 2016 and issues annually an operational energy report. The Department of Energy (DOE) Comprehensive Annual Data reports CO2 (equivalent) emissions from “standard” and “non-standard” operations. In 2019, DOD operational energy emissions accounted for about thirty-six million of the roughly equivalent thirty-seven million metric tonnes of “non-standard” federal emissions. Of this DOD total, thirty-three million metric tonnes were from mobile emissions of vehicles, aircraft, ships, and equipment. Notably, providing this fuel is notoriously expensive, with large swings depending on the extent of deployments, (for example DOD OE CO2 emission total in 2008 was 50.4 compared to 35.7 million metric tonnes). Only 1.7 million metric tonnes of the 2019 emissions were from purchased electricity.

It is generally accepted that 100% carbon-free electricity generation is key to achieving Net Zero Carbon for the United States economy. It is clear however that DOD operational energy users are unlikely to have access to such sources or little possibility to switch its fossil energy use to carbon free electricity. Accordingly, the new administration should be wary of establishing strict numerical CO2 emission restrictions on DOD operational energy activities.

The federal government might make available, as a temporary measure, a fixed amount of carbon emissions permits available as a “safe harbor” for a private sector firm to cover its outstanding carbon emissions. DOD might be required to purchase such permits; perhaps at a relatively affordable additional cost of $3.7 billion if the price of a permit was $100 per metric tonne. However, as emission levels approach zero, available permits would become scarce, and the cost of a permit might well rise to $1,000 per metric tonne. At this point, it will be the lower cost of Negative Emission Technology (NET) such as direct carbon air capture that will determine the cost that the DOD or private firms will need to pay to offset unavoidable emissions.

Can technology solve the DOD’s emissions problem? Energy and climate change have national security implications, so it is natural to hope that technology cooperation between DOD and the DOE might accelerate availability of the still-nascent NETs necessary to achieve carbon emission reductions. Such cooperation has been productive for a number of clean energy technologies, including photovoltaics, fuel cells, and power electronics because these agencies have a compatible approach to innovation. For example, DOE national laboratories have been doing important work for DOD as “work for others,” for many decades.

However, NET can solve the DOD’s emission problem without a joint development effort between the DOD and DOE—the former driven by military needs and the latter by needs of the civilian economy, but there are risks. In 2009, then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus set a series of goals to increase greatly the use of biofuels relative to oil in carrier-based combat air and in naval ships (also here and here), apparently to encourage a shift of naval fuel similar to the historic shift from coal to oil that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth-century. The effort inappropriately picked the DOD’s budgetary pocket to pay for early purchase in order to drive down prices of commercial biofuels at a time that Congress had resolved to rely on alcohol fuel mandates.

The second risk is DOD pursuing an energy technology that allegedly has both military and commercial applications. For example, DOD’s current Project Pele is spending $40 million to design small mobile nuclear reactors in the one-to-five megawatt range to support a variety of defense missions, including generating power at remote bases. This nuclear-powered generation displaces carbon but raises massive questions concerning safety, waste management, and logistical burdens in either a commercial or military setting. Moreover, mobile nuclear reactors in the field would make excellent targets for enemy countries and terrorists.

DOD’s dilemma of dealing with Net Zero Carbon underscores the large gap between setting aspirational goals at the national level and implementing change on the ground. Surely the Administration does not want to suggest that military operations should be curtailed to reduce carbon emissions, especially at a time when it is signaling a return to U.S. international engagement which will invite more port calls, joint exercises, and training. DOD progress on reducing carbon emissions from operational energy will necessarily be slow. The Department should begin collecting operational energy use by data by fuel, application, carbon emissions, regional and combat command. Detailed logistics planning is required to establish rules on how DOD will implement a new climate policy that correctly asks all energy users to take climate damage costs beyond market prices into account in energy procurement and use decisions. Most importantly DOD should begin now to consider how NETs might be introduced to support deployed people and equipment and begin to discuss long term measures to reduce carbon emissions from operational energy use with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Japan, India, and other allies.

John Deutch was Undersecretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense in the first Clinton Administration and Undersecretary of Energy in the Carter Administration.

Image: Reuters.