NATO Secretary General says increasing defence spending and addressing climate change can co-exist as priorities. But can they?

By Dr Ian Davis, NATO Watch

12 October 2018

NATO states do not have to choose between increasing defence spending and addressing climate change, they can pursue both goals at the same time, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said during a press conference in Slovenia on the 9 October.

In his earlier speech to the National Assembly of Slovenia, Stoltenberg called on Slovenia to boost its defence spending in order to meet the agreed NATO target of 2 per cent of GDP by 2024:

And the majority of NATO Allies have put forward plans to reach 2 per cent by 2024…. so, that’s good news, we are making progress, we have made a significant shift. But we still have a long way to go, because we know that some countries are far away from 2 per cent.  And Slovenia is among those. And you are aware of that, spending just above 1 per cent. And therefore, I urge you to invest more. It is in your interests. It is in the interest of us to invest more in our security, because we live in a more unpredictable and demanding security environment.

The Secretary General acknowledged that increased defence spending would result in reduced money for other public goods:

I have been a politician myself for many years. I've been a Member of Parliament since 1990, Prime Minister for ten years, and I know that it's hard to spend money on defence, because most politicians, they prefer to invest in education, in infrastructure, in health, not investing in defence. And if there's going to be more money for defence, it's something… it's less money for something else. That’s the brutal reality.

However, this “brutal reality”, known in economic terms as the opportunity costs of military spending, does not apparently apply to funding for climate change. When the Secretary General was asked by a journalist during the subsequent joint press conference with Slovenian Prime Minister Marjan Šarec whether funding for climate change should also be considered as funds being spent on defence or security (given that climate change is probably now the biggest threat to security), he replied:

…there is no way we can choose between either addressing our security challenges or addressing climate change. We just need to do both. NATO has recognised that climate change is a security challenge and that’s also the reason why we have expressed concern about climate change, because it can lead to, you know, more migration, more instability. But we cannot say that we either spend on addressing climate change or defence, we just need to do both.

The NATO Secretary General added that investment in new technologies was the "industry of the future. "It is profitable. It is possible to earn money if you invest in clean and environmentally-friendly technology", Stoltenberg pointed out.

A day earlier, the UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) had released a report, stressing the need for the world to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2030 instead of the 2 degrees Celsius target agreed in 2015. To meet the new target, global net human-caused CO2 emissions would need to be cut by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching "net zero" around 2050. The panel called for "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

During the press conference Prime Minister Šarec confirmed that increases in defence spending are planned, but that reaching the 2 per cent target “cannot happen overnight in Slovenia”, adding “we'll make our utmost effort to attain our objective of at least 1.5 per cent in a couple of years. If the situation will allow this of course”. The opposition Left boycotted the Secretary General’s address, while a protest was held in front of the parliament building against NATO and US plans to use the port of Koper as a logistics hub.

At the July NATO Summit, US President Donald Trump harshly criticized allies, particularly Germany, for not spending enough on defence and threatened to quit the alliance if they do not raise their military spending more quickly. However, total defence spending by NATO members is now over $900 billion per annum, and accounts for over 52 per cent of overall global military spending. When NATO partners are added (e.g. Sweden, Japan, Australia, South Korea etc) the percentage rises to above 60 per cent. In contrast, Russia’s defence spending is under $70 billion per annum.

In 2016, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated that reallocating around 10 per cent of world military spending would be enough to achieve major progress on some key Sustainable Development Goals, many of which are closely linked to actions required to address climate change. Therefore, while it may indeed be possible for wealthy NATO member states to fund further defence increases and climate change action, it is also realistic to imagine that defence spending in NATO could be frozen at current levels or even cut in some countries, such as the United States, in order to fund measures to address climate change. Generating the political will for diverting military spending to climate spending is the biggest challenge, especially at a time of rising global tensions.