Defence has a real opportunity to lead the way towards Net Zero – and it can start with logistics


Published 14th September 23

By Kalyan Sarma, VP Commercialisation – Climate, Environment and Sustainability

As we move towards a more digital world, we can sometimes forget the physical world itself. Climates are changing, global temperatures are rising, but the world continues to move on. Unfortunately, the way things are going, and if it continues to go the way it is, there may not be much comfort left in the world that we have.

To address things, we need to really get into gear and start acting on sustainability. Small things are, naturally, a fantastic way for the general public to get more involved. Making smaller changes can all add up to impact that can make a difference, however in the world of government innovation and research, it’s often the bigger problems that need to be tackled head on. These solutions may also have a huge impact on things in a wider world when they are rolled out further.

One specific topic that we are seeing a lot of interest in when it comes to the wider question of sustainability focuses on transport, and specifically around aviation fuel. Aviation fuel, and aviation generally, as it stands, is not the most ecologically-friendly way to fuel anything, let alone a plane. We also have to remember that plane travel is not only a “normal” thing for people, but it’s also crucial for global trade. Unfortunately, unless you are in a one-person, solar-powered plane like   – and you aren’t on any strict timeframe or have any other pressing matters to attend to – you’re kind of out of luck. Engines in aviation are near-exclusively reliant on aviation fuel as it stands aside from in an experimental arena. Now, this is better nowadays – research continues to be done on how to make fuels more efficient – but fuel is still not great.

Aviation, certainly within a defence context, is not set to go away any time soon. In fact, in a defence context whether on the front line, within humanitarian purposes, or even in integrated training, aviation remains a critical piece to the puzzle. Transporting an airborne regiment, transporting materials, or even other vehicles are but a few of these examples. So how do we make it better? How do we make it better for not only the government’s legislated Net Zero targets, but also for the planet at large?

The MoD is aware of the challenge it faces with sustainability. The two guiding principles that it has laid out in its Sustainable Mod strategy – Act to make our resource use and assets sustainable. The gumption is there, albeit with Defence Research being a third priority, whilst energy security is considered high. Both play into each other in this instance, hugely – but that’s a different story for another time.

Of course, all this benefits defence, and defence is a super-small area to make a difference in. But, within defence technology is engineered to within an inch of its life, so by the time it comes to market it is tested, tested, and tested some more. It’s often more than ready to be implemented in the civilian – read “real” – world. The positive and environmental impact that this type of research within sustainability could know no bounds. It’s a goose that can lay a golden egg – and let’s face it, the world could absolutely do with one of those right now.

My colleagues and I have often spoken about private investment in government research and development – the NHS does this well with clinical research already, as often do university technology transfer offices. Government research itself, though, needs to step up if these types of stupendously impactful research are to survive – but it needs help.

Private investment has the opportunity to take a step back from the latest shiny B2B tech product or software and look at – in this case – what can make a greener world go around: and that is logistics. And why not then partner with industry that is already look at this? At its heart there is a shift to NetZero, and it’s the fuel used that will help logistics get to that state. Be it hydrogen, or a combination of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and carbon capture, the world of aviation and logistics is an opportunity for investment to get involved in, and be on the front foot.

In the short term, engines as we know them in one shape or form, aren’t going anywhere. Battery research, whilst coming on leaps and bounds, is nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of storage or efficiency, to be able to replace engines as we currently use them. We know engines work, combustion engines have been in place and in use for over 100 years now, but the fuels that power them – well we know they damage the environment, so the opportunity to get involved here is huge.

But the payoff would be equally huge, and incredibly green.