Sustainability debate: no transition without trust

Should TU Delft cut ties with the fossil fuel industry? Activists and people from industry, politics and the media discussed this at the Sustainability Debate on 25 April.

At the end of the sustainability debate, participants thank the organisers. (Photo: Jos Wassink)

Can you still study chemistry if you are striving to make the world more sustainable? This ethical question was posed by Associate Professor Monique van der Veen at the start of the Sustainability Debate. The Debate was organised by the four Faculty of Applied Sciences’ (AS) study associations in conjunction with Oras, the student political party. The students want greater clarity about how the energy transition will be handled in technical degree programmes. All 300 seats in the debate that was held on Tuesday 25 April in Echo were sold out. Most of the attendees were students, with an occasional parent.

The composition was striking. The panel moderated by Ferdinand Grozema (Professor of Chemistry at AS) was composed of external representatives (activists, journalists, politicians, and people from industry). Three other professors were on the sidelines acting as the team of experts. They were Bernard Dam (Chemistry, AS), Andy van den Dobbelsteen (Sustainability Coordinator TU Delft) and Peter Palensky (Electrical Networks at Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, EEMCS).

The external representatives were: Rosanne Hertzberger (NRC newspaper journalist, microbiologist and TU Delft alumnus), Charlotte Braat (junior researcher at Civil Engineering and Geosciences as well as climate activist), Manon Bloemer (Director of the Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry, VNCI), and Raoul Boucke (D66 Member of Parliament and TU Delft alumnus).

‘Universities need to end their collaboration with the fossil fuel industry’
This statement has circulated across campus for a while and became more pressing recently when the Free University of Amsterdam, as the first university in the Netherlands,  announced (in Dutch) that it was going to end its partnerships with fossil fuel companies unless the latter could prove that they complied with the Climate Agreement (in Dutch). For TU Delft this source of income, which includes contributions to student teams, amounts to about EUR 65 million a year, said Grozema. Can or should TU Delft step back?

Hertzberger thinks it should. “Engineers are needed for the energy transition, but are these companies to be trusted? Higher production and greater dividends to shareholders always take precedence. Supporting projects at universities is a cheap form of greenwashing. Shell can show that is working on sustainable projects, while in reality this is a miniscule part of its activities. TU Delft has allowed itself to be misused for much too long,” says Hertzberger.

Manon Bloemer, as a representative of the chemical industry, did not agree. “Industry needs universities for innovation. Universities need industry for scaling up. As Professor Dam has said, without industry, scaling up will not happen. The chemical industry needs to move faster to become more sustainable, so we must continue to work together. Trust is a prerequisite.”

But activists have very little faith. “Shell knew 40 years ago that all those CO2 emissions were causing climate change and societal disruption,” says Charlotte Braat. “But they did not do anything about it. Even worse, they started a campaign to sow doubt about the human role in climate change. This does not create a foundation of trust. TU Delft must not let itself be misused by Shell as long as the company itself is not undergoing a transition. Shell and other companies need to be transparent about this.” Her statement received applause.

“Transparency is necessary for building trust,” Hertzberger says in support. “There must be greater clarity about who receives payment, how much, and from which company. But the names of the researchers were not included on the list (in Dutch) that TU Delft published for ‘privacy’ reasons. This does not foster trust.” She challenges Palensky, who had previously said that one of the people on the list works with him. But he did not reveal the name. Hertzberger has pushed the boundaries of transparency.

Chemistry Professor Bernard Dam stated that he had no ethical objections to working with industry and the fossil fuel industry, but he did point to the financial aspects of academic independence. The drop (in Dutch) in basic financing (first income flow) means that researchers are more dependent on research grants and financing from industry. And it is hard for the receiving entity to set conditions.

‘The Government concentrates too much on individuals in its sustainability campaigns and too little on regulating industry’
This was a no-brainer for Raoul Boucke. His past experience in regulating the automobile industry in Brussels taught him that setting limits (in this case on emissions) and deadlines works. So yes, you must set clear guidelines for companies, as is done in the Climate Agreement.

Charlotte Braat supports him by arguing for legislation in terms of quality, sustainability and circularity on products.

Bloemer says that the demand from consumers for sustainable products has already reached the agendas of the boards of companies. “Things are turning around,” she says as demand from customers is pushing companies to be more sustainable.

So will everything be fine? No, not automatically. Not all consumers are interested in being more sustainable. The question is how to include those that are. Bernard Dam foresees major economic and societal consequences caused by greater sustainability. “How do you share the burden fairly?” he asks. “You never hear anyone talking about this.” Rosanne Hertzberger makes the comparison with the nitrogen crisis. “For the first time you could see the pushback you get if environmental regulations are not sufficiently supported by society. This could also happen with greater sustainability.”

The time flew by. Raoul Boucke had to leave for his next meeting and Grozema asked the panel members for a final statement. Manon Flour (VNCI) emphasised that the chemical industry, industry in general and universities have all opted for greater sustainability and that they need each other to do this. Rosanne Hertzberger recognises that this requires trust, but calls for a critical stance towards universities, companies, activists and governments. Without transparency there will be no trust, and without asking questions there will be no transparency. Charlotte Braat called for greater speed. “Climate change is only becoming worse. Have your voice heard in this decisive decade and be part of our next demonstrations.” The student activist again received applause. And there was applause for the organisers of this lively debate that may have been even more lively if held in Dutch so that people would not have had to search for the right words.

Science editor Jos Wassink

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