Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

The World’s Single Largest User of Oil is Going Carbon Negative

By Tina Casey
Carbon Negative

When President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, perhaps he forgot to notify the Department of Defense. The U.S. military is more determined than ever to shed fossil fuels in favor of a carbon-negative future, and its efforts provide a roadmap for business leaders to follow.

Treat an existential threat for what it is — an existential threat

At the bare minimum of competence, any CEO would acknowledge the reality of circumstances that threaten their company’s very existence, and act on them with urgency.

During the Barack Obama administration, the Department of Defense did just that. It issued a planning document titled, “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap.” That roadmap took note of climate impacts on global resources, leading to an intensification of conflicts around the world and an increased demand on humanitarian intervention. DoD also formally classified climate change as a national security risk in its Quadrennial Defense Review.

The Defense Review was a time-limited document that ceased publication several years ago. It was more or less replaced by a classified document titled "National Defense Strategy." A brief, unclassified version published in 2018 provides little hint of concern over climate change specifically, though it does emphasize resiliency, readiness and modernization, especially in the area of advanced technology.

Nevertheless, the Defense Department’s climate concerns continued into the first days of the Trump administration when the President tapped James Mattis to lead the agency. In July 2017, Mattis informed Congress that climate change is a “driver of instability” that can have an impact on "areas of the world where our troops are operating today.”

Though Mattis was forced out in December 2018, his concerns have continued to resonate. Last year, the Defense Department issued a new document titled, “Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense.”

Though issued through the somewhat obscure office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, the report is forceful in its identification of climate change as a national security issue “with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans and installations.”

Recruit top talent, support it organizationally, and deploy it effectively

The unclassified version of the National Defense Strategy may be thin on climate change, but it does dwell at length on the urgent need to “change Departmental mindset, culture, and management systems.”

To that end, the document calls for “establishing an unmatched 21st-century National Security Innovation Base that effectively supports Department operations and sustains security and solvency.”

Specifically, the Defense Strategy states that “recruiting, developing, and retaining a high-quality military and civilian workforce is essential for warfighting success,” adding that the “creativity and talent of the American warfighter is our greatest enduring strength, and one we do not take for granted.”

The Defense Department has taken that message to heart in the area of climate action. Whether by consensus or self-appointment, the U.S. Air Force appears to have taken the lead role in the effort.

The Air Force is calling for a “carbon negative Department of Defense” through its AFWERX hub, which connects Air Force personnel with private-sector innovators and financial resources.

Collaborating with other agencies for a carbon negative future

Business leaders are already beginning to form global collaborative efforts in support of climate action, clean power, plastic pollution reduction and other environmental issues.

The Defense Department provides a model for funneling this energy into effective action. It is the lead agency in the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which aims to coordinate scientific research among cabinet-level federal agencies as well as NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institute and USAID.

While acknowledging the absence of a formal mission on climate research, the Global Change program has tasked itself with “developing policies and plans to manage and respond to the effects of climate change on DoD missions, assets and the operational environment.”

Through Global Change, the Defense Department recognizes that its future survival depends on a coordinated, holistic effort that extends beyond the grounds of its own assets.

“Because the performance of DoD systems and platforms are influenced by environmental conditions, understanding the variability of the Earth’s environment and the potential for change is of great interest to the Department,” Global Change explains. “DoD is responsible for the environmental stewardship of hundreds of installations throughout the U.S., and must continue incorporating geostrategic and operational energy considerations into force planning, requirements development, and acquisition processes.”

Aim high and leverage available resources

At first glance, the idea of a carbon-negative Department of Defense may seem out of reach. Researchers have described the agency as “the world’s single largest institutional user of petroleum and, correspondingly, the world’s largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases.”

However, the agency already has a running start in biofuels, clean power, energy efficiency and other areas, and its buying power can help push the market for new clean technologies throughout the civilian supply chain.

More significantly, the agency’s enormous geographical footprint — including massive training grounds as well as built infrastructure — can be called into play for carbon recycling and sequestration.

The popular tree-planting movement is one example of the potential for leveraging Defense Department property for carbon sequestration. Researchers are also considering shorter cycles of growth, such as deploying captured carbon to cultivate algae for biofuels.

Soil sequestration is another pathway. In 2017, a U.S. Army research team took a look at the potential for achieving carbon neutral status on land owned by the Department of Defense through soil sequestration, and advocated for following up with additional research and data to optimize the practice.

As for the Navy and the Air Force, the sea and air can also become powerful resources for climate action and becoming carbon negative.

As recently noted by the office of U.S Rep. David Schwiekert (D-Ariz.), the Defense Department can explore the potential to harvest carbon from the sea and air and convert it into fuel. Schwiekert successfully advocated for research funding to be included in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

The U.S. Navy has a head start in that regard, partly through a 2016 patent for a device that extracts both carbon dioxide and hydrogen from seawater, providing “all the raw materials necessary for the production of synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels.”

Regardless of White House policy, business leaders would do well to take their direction from the U.S. Department of Defense and ramp up a collaborative effort on climate action.

Image credit: JP Valery/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey