The recent reports of the IPCC leave no room for doubt: we are in an unprecedented climate crisis. “The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay […] will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”
What role can the university play in addressing this crisis? And what exactly are Leiden University’s ambitions?
First and foremost: our university is busy working towards greater sustainability. The university’s real estate aims to cut back energy usage substantially, and has recently decided to accelerate its reductions of natural gas usage (to 80% less in 2030 compared to 1990). Our Observatory has measured the carbon footprint of astronomical research in the Netherlands. Students and staff are active in the Green Office and in a sustainability network. Since March, the central office employs three fulltime employees who work on sustainability. In rankings like Sustainabul and Green Metric, our university is doing alright.
Unfortunately, this is not enough.
2,7 ºC temperature increase
Laudable as current efforts may be, they pale in comparison with the nature and severity of the climate crisis. The university board strives, together with other Dutch universities, to “join the goals of the [Dutch] Climate Accord”, according to the Sustainability Vision 2030. But governments’ current ambitions even if they are achieved (which seems unlikely), would probably take us to a global heating of 2.7 ℃ in 2100 - far above the 1.5 ℃ goal of Paris (Climate Action Tracker).
Already today, at just above one degree of warming, we see increased droughts, floods, and heat waves, also here in the Netherlands. The consequences of further warming will likely lead to catastrophic social and ecological disruption: rising sea levels, mass extinctions of species, and worldwide problems in agriculture resulting in large-scale famine and climate migration.
The coming years will be decisive for the future of ecosystems and societies: will we succeed and drastically reduce emissions, avoid irreversible tipping points, and prevent climate breakdown? Yet, the political will to decisively turn the tide is still lacking. The university can and should set an example. If we as academics don’t act on the insights of our colleagues in climate science, then how can we expect others to do so? Academic freedom means that the university should not simply stick to current, failing policies, but to lead in a more radical transition.
First of all: acknowledge publicly that we are in an emergency situation, and strive for zero emissions as quickly as possible. This is not just about the ecological footprint of our own university, but also about the symbolic role of such a declaration towards students, staff, politicians, and the wider society. The current Sustainability Vision 2030 does not even mention the climate crisis and its consequences. Join the Race to Zero campaign to reduce emissions as fast as possible, beyond the goals set by the government. The universities of Nijmegen and Twente have already signed up. Recognize and reward sustainability-related research and teaching. Invest in sustainability managers, work with green banks and insurers, and publicly reject financial support from the fossil fuel industry.
Leave fossil fuels in the ground
Second: don’t rely on compensation, but really reduce emissions. In the sustainability report of 2020 we read that the CO2-footprint of our university has been reduced by 96% (!) since 2016. But this is largely a fiction, as the lion’s share is due to carbon offsetting. The idea is simple: keep emitting, while paying someone else not to emit or to extract an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, carbon offsetting is highly problematic, andsuch offsets function as an excuse not to genuinely reduce our emissions. To cool down a heating world, we must not succumb to the illusion of offsets, but leave fossil fuels in the ground.
Third: be honest about aviation. Air travel caused around 16% of the university’s emissions (in pre-corona 2019). Unfortunately there is no prospect that such emissions can be reduced in the near future - except by flying less. Especially long-distance flights, which contribute most of the emissions, need to be reduced. We should map how many flights we currently use, and who flies where. The motto: ‘reduce’ (flying less: virtual and hybrid meetings, for example in collaboration with the Lorentz center), ‘replace’ (use the train within Europe) and ‘refine’ (make more of your trips). Which trips are really “necessary”, and who benefits from them? Unique fieldwork or a long stay abroad is more valuable than yet another conference talk.
The university can and should take a leading role in the climate crisis. As concerned academics, we launched a petition and look forward to a university sustainability vision that really takes us to zero emissions. There is no time to lose.
Anne Urai, assistant professor of cognitive psychology
Thomas Fossen, is assistant professor of political philosophy
Leonard Burtscher, is senior researcher in astronomy. from September 15 he will be working at the Umweltinstitut München, an NGO focused on climate and environmental campaigns
Read the Dutch opinion piece here