A debate recently took place on severing ties between Leiden University and the fossil industry. As scientists, the three of us are very concerned about global warming. However, we also believe that there are no simple solutions. The necessary energy transition is so complex that all parties need to be involved: the government, academics and the (fossil) industry.
The energy transition is complicated because several goals have to be achieved simultaneously. We want to prevent further global warming and therefore reduce CO₂ emissions. At the same time, we also want energy to stay affordable and available - for everyone, now and in the future. This is the very foundation of our prosperity, as physicist Jo Hermans wrote in his Energy Survival Guide. It is because of cheap (fossil) energy that our societies were able to develop into fairly egalitarian communities. Thanks to washing machines, vacuum cleaners, cars and smartphones, we live like royalty, but without servants or slaves.
Academics and students also collectively benefit from all the (travel) possibilities. So in order to ensure a bright future for our grandchildren, we must face a double challenge. Global warming must be limited AND the energy supply must be secured.
Therefore, it is clear that we need to be more energy efficient and use alternative energy sources. This efficiency is not only achieved through insulation, but also through science, for instance by developing smart processes that minimise energy consumption. This is how the chemical industry is becoming more and more efficient and cars are becoming more fuel-efficient.
ALL POSSIBLE SOURCES
But it’s not enough. That is why we’re tapping into renewable energy sources, for example through solar cells, based on fundamental quantum mechanics, and large wind turbines. As a result, 16 percent of Dutch energy consumption is already renewable (2022; energieopwek.nl). An impressive figure, as not long ago it was 0 percent, but it’s still far from enough. Especially since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.
We will therefore have to explore all possible energy sources, including nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. And even if that proves a perfect success, there are still plenty of challenges ahead. How do we store energy? Our batteries are too small for that. Will we produce hydrogen (H₂) through electrolysis? Or synthesise fuels from CO₂ and H₂? But then who will provide the infrastructure to get these forms of energy to peoples’ homes? How do we further green the construction and chemical industries (steel, cement, ammonia...), and who will build those large new (hydrogen) plants?
One of the key challenges is upscaling. New technologies can be devised and developed in university labs - we’re good at that - but they will only have impact when implemented on a large scale.
And who does that best? The fossil industry, whether we like it or not. Scaling up from lab to factory is a great challenge that involves new fundamental problems in addition to technical ones. Solutions to these problems require new research in labs. Only if universities and companies work together - the science-technology spiral - can real strides be made in the energy transition.
We are also aware of another reality: the fossil industry is controversial. Its investments in sustainability are limited (in percentages at least; in euros, Shell is the biggest investor in the Dutch energy transition). And when push comes to shove, the industry always seems to opt for new oil and gas fields: high share prices take precedence over the climate.
CARROT AND STICK
Therefore, LUC lecturer Gerrit Schaafsma’s reaction is understandable. It seems morally right and feels good. But is it the solution we’re looking for? No, because that would mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The consequence is that the transition will take much longer. And we don’t have the time!
Schaafsma underestimates how complicated the energy transition is and how dependent we still are on fossil energy. Because let’s face it: hardly anyone is prepared to draw the real consequences of quitting fossil fuels and stop travelling, heating lecture halls and using computers.
That said, we too believe the energy transition is moving too slowly. In our view, what we need is a combination of “carrot” and “stick”. The carrot stands for cooperation and perspective. A (fossil) company that brings sustainable key technology to society secures its existence for the long term. To do so, that company needs input from university labs. This way, common goals can develop. We should not underestimate the power of Dutch “poldering”, working together and brainstorming to solve big problems.
Unfortunately, we also need the proverbial stick. Because while Schaafsma’s portrayal of the fossil industry as the enemy is too simplistic, people are right to be sceptical. That is why we need to set clear demands for our collaborations. Do they actually contribute to the transition? If not, we may want to discontinue them. The government should also take more initiative, both through (international) regulations and the strategic use of energy taxes, and through setting up (new) long-term research collaborations. Here lies a great opportunity for the Netherlands to become a frontrunner in green technology.
This is because ceasing cooperation has another disadvantage: it leaves us without a vision for the future. Let’s look at two historical examples from the 1980s when (chemical) emissions caused both acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Both risks were eliminated by means of the carrot and stick approach: the government imposed regulations on industry and companies were presented with alternative methods through scientific research, such as the catalytic converter for car exhausts (acid rain) and CFC-free propellants for aerosol sprays (ozone layer). Collaboration was necessary and generated solutions.
Unfortunately, the climate problem is more complex: we’re not sure if we can solve everything. Therefore, it is wise to also freely conduct research on climate engineering and the dikes of the future. But above all, we academics have to get to work on the energy transition, together with the government and (fossil) companies.
This requires the involvement of the entire academic community, not just STEM scientists. Research by sociologists, psychologists, lawyers, business experts and economists answers questions about the organisation of future society, about preventing energy poverty here and elsewhere, about international relations and resource politics. Interdisciplinary cooperation can really make a difference in this area.
Only by joining forces with all parties will we be able to take the urgently needed big steps, through cooperation based on reason, in full academic freedom. Because that is when our university is at its strongest.
Marc Koper is a professor of chemistry. He collaborates with Shell and various other companies
Sense Jan van der Molen is a professor of physics. He does not cooperate with the fossil industry
Victor van der Horst is a master’s student in mathematics and a member of the University Council