On 27 September, Leiden University will host a debate on the relationship between the university and the fossil fuel industry. The Board is to be commended for organising a meeting where we as an academic community can discuss our role in the aggravating climate crisis.
There is an urgent need for such a debate.
We must make a collective, conscious choice: either we continue to support the fossil fuel industry by collaborating with them, or we make the courageous choice to cut all ties and focus our efforts on the radical transformation needed to respond to the climate crisis.
The university community has a moral obligation not to collaborate with an industry that stands in direct opposition to a key part of the university’s mission, which is to act as a ‘reliable authority in societal and political debates'’. Continuing to collaborate undermines the university's authority with regard to issues related to the climate crisis. The latest IPCC report clearly shows that ‘climate science has been significantly undermined by climate change counter-movements in both old and new social media environments through the use of misinformation, including on the causes and consequences of climate change’.
For decades, large corporations such as Shell and ExxonMobil have been spending billions of euros on disinformation campaigns to deny the existence of climate change or to delay measures that would mitigate its impact.
Some of these campaigns are still ongoing, including in Leiden. In response to an information request from the Mapping Fossil Ties initiative, it was revealed that oil giant Saudi Aramco (which was recently slapped on the wrist by UN experts because of the dangers its ongoing activities pose to human rights) has sponsored academic projects at Leiden University. The same is true of Shell and Total.
By working together with companies that participate in these campaigns, we implicitly condone their practices and thus undermine our own reputation.
It would be irresponsible of Leiden University, which is committed to the pursuit of truth, to align itself with an industry that has been trying for decades to hide the truth about the effects of its activities.
From an academic point of view, there is no reason to continue collaborating with an industry that seeks to make profits by expanding oil and gas production.
A 2021 report by the International Energy Agency clearly states that no new fossil fuel projects can be launched if we want to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to IPCC research, if we continue burning fossil fuels at the current rate, we will use up the remaining carbon budget to stay below that 1.5 degrees in less than a decade.
And yet, companies like Shell, ExxonMobil and Total have plans to dramatically increase their production. Recently, they even scaled back previous commitments to reduce their emissions. None of them have credible plans to achieve net zero. By continuing to cooperate with them, we legitimise their plans to violate the ambitions of the Paris climate agreement.
Some believe that cooperation can play an important role in facilitating the necessary energy transition. But in fact, the opposite is true: collaborating will actually slow down that transition. We know that the fossil fuel industry has been fighting efforts to switch to more sustainable energy for decades. Collaborating with them now, even on projects that could play a role in the transition, would only facilitate their greenwashing efforts. The handful of ‘green’ projects they have initiated serve as camouflage for their main activity: extracting and profiting from fossil fuels. For every euro the industry spends on oil and gas drilling and exploration, only 4 cents is spent on clean energy or carbon removal.
‘Sustainable’ projects (for example, green hydrogen) are an attempt to change public perception, but are not part of a comprehensive effort to move away from fossil fuels. There is plenty of evidence to support this: Shell has reversed its climate ambitions and plans to invest four times more in the expansion of fossil fuel production than in ‘low-carbon’ products such as hydrogen and carbon capture. By cutting the ties, the university will send a signal to policy-makers and the public that fossil companies are not reliable partners in addressing the climate crisis.
It has also been found that when these companies sponsor academic initiatives, academics’ findings are usually in their favour; when there is no funding from the fossil fuel industry, the findings are usually more favourable to renewable forms of energy. The only way Leiden University can continue to be a reliable partner in societal, political and academic debates is to stop collaborating on research with the fossil fuel industry.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that we should continue to collaborate to reduce carbon emissions. Some have claimed that we cannot sustain a modern industrialised economy without a substantial fossil fuel sector. This contradicts recent scientific and economic research, which shows that the transition to wind, water, solar and battery storage technologies can produce reliable and inexpensive energy capable of replacing virtually all the energy we currently derive from fossil fuels. While it is impossible to end our dependence on fossil fuels overnight, we must ensure that we work with partners committed to a gradual but expeditious phase-out.
Prominent world leaders with regard to environmental matters, such as Al Gore and former climate negotiator Christiana Figueres, have criticised the fossil industry for thwarting the development of renewable energy and for ‘anti-climate change conspiracies’. UN secretary general António Guterres recently said we have entered ‘the era of global boiling’ and called for immediate, swift action to drastically reduce fossil emissions. Evidence of climate change is all around us, from forest fires in Canada and the Mediterranean to floods in Spain and China.
What can a university do to help tackle the climate crisis? It can use its privileged economic and social position to find solutions.
It is encouraging that Leiden University has chosen ‘sustainability’ as its theme for the new academic year.
However, the best way to show its commitment to sustainability would be to completely sever ties with groups that are actively working against efforts to tackle the climate crisis. This means cutting all ties with the fossil fuel industry.
Gerrit Schaafsma works at Leiden University College, where he lectures on climate ethics and politics