New Navy Climate Plan Is Mostly Silent on Its Biggest Polluters: Ships and Planes

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An E/A-6B Prowler pours smoke from its exhaust.
An E/A-6B Prowler pours smoke from its exhaust as it prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz as an F/A-18C Hornet prepares to be next for launch. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jacob Milner)

The Navy has unveiled a plan to cut its energy emissions in half by the end of this decade and reach so-called "net-zero" status by 2050. Yet for all of the plan's bold ideas and innovations, there's one aspect that remains conspicuously unaddressed -- the scores of ships and planes that burn fuel anytime they operate.

Instead, the plan released this week focuses on increased vehicle fuel efficiency and setting up new energy systems such as microgrids to become less dependent on fossil fuels and harden the Navy against the growing effects of climate change, which is increasingly threatening coastal bases with flooding and extreme weather.

The Navy plan is the latest move by the military to underscore its commitment to tackling climate change under President Joe Biden, who has put the issue front and center after it was largely pushed aside by the previous Republican administration.

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"For the Department of Navy, this is existential," Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro wrote in the opening lines of the strategy document. "If we do not act, as sea levels rise, bases like Norfolk Naval Base and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island will be severely tested in their ability to support their missions."

As part of the new strategy, the Department of the Navy will aim to make its ground vehicles, including large trucks such as the Marine Corps' seven-ton Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement, more fuel efficient.

The Navy's ambitious overall goal is to be buying "100% zero-emission vehicles by 2035, including 100% zero-emission light-duty vehicle acquisitions by 2027," according to the strategy publicly released by the service.

It also plans to install more microgrids -- small-scale power systems -- on installations. The independent systems are seen as a way to provide renewable power to bases and also shield from disruptions to the broader electrical grid. On Tuesday, the Marine Corps announced that one of its logistics bases in Albany, Georgia, became the first net-zero installation in the Department of Defense. That means the base is generating more energy than it consumes "by implementing a range of climate friendly solutions," Del Toro said in the announcement.

However, the Navy strategy is notably silent on what it plans to do about the ships and planes that are its largest consumers of fossil fuels and biggest emitters of climate change-driving pollution.

Data from the Department of Defense showed that the Navy and Marine Corps accounted for 30% of all energy used for operations by the military in 2014. Sea and air assets made up almost equal portions of that figure.

The top consumer that year was the Air Force, with 57% of all military energy usage -- and almost entirely on air operations. During this time, the military was heavily involved in fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and began the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan.

"In fiscal year 2014, DoD consumed 87.4 million barrels of fuel enterprise-wide to deploy and sustain worldwide missions," the 2016 report explained, before adding that while much of it "can be attributed to operational tempo in U.S. Central Command, the Department's weapons platforms and equipment also are demanding more energy, albeit with ever increasing combat capability."

Despite the huge consumption, a 2019 study by Brown University found that the military's overall greenhouse gas emissions have actually declined since 1975, when they were at around 110 million metric tons per year, to just under 60 million metric tons in 2018.

The new strategy does say that the Navy "will continue to explore hybrid and advanced propulsion options for all ships including future frigates and destroyers, and other classes of ships," without going into more detail.

This would not be the Navy's first foray into making its ships more environmentally friendly. The Obama administration and former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus attempted to transition ships and planes to biofuels, an alternative to fossil fuels that could reduce the impacts to climate change.

Also driven partly by rising fuel prices, a 2011 Department of Energy announcement said that "by 2016, the Navy plans to deploy a Great Green Fleet powered entirely by alternative fuels."

Later Navy materials scaled back on that promise. By 2016, the plan was as much about energy conservation measures like hull efficiency modifications as it was biofuels.

On Monday, speaking to reporters in advance of the strategy's rollout, Meredith Berger, the assistant secretary of the Navy for environment, installations and energy, said that the service is still "working with industry to understand what other types of low-emission fuel alternatives are out there" and could be used.

"The driving element is always making sure that the Navy and Marine Corps meet mission," Berger said.

Now, the conversation about making warships green is being framed as something to strive for, just not right now. "We see a lot of potential, and future ships are contemplating more of these energy-efficient drives," Berger said.

Despite its vagueness about ships and planes, the strategy is a statement on the Navy's belief that climate change is a serious threat to the service. Berger said that San Diego, home to several major naval bases and a Marine Corps boot camp, is being "highly impacted." She added that Norfolk, home to the Navy's largest naval base, has been seeing more flooding.

"If temperatures continue to rise, the oceans will get warmer, creating more destructive storms requiring our fleets and Marine Corps forces to increase their operational tempo to respond," Del Toro wrote in the strategy memo.

"Bold climate action is a mission imperative" for the Navy, and "in this decisive decade, we have no other alternative," according to Del Toro.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Marine Corps Considers Abandoning Parris Island Amid Rising Extreme Weather Threats

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