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“Shell is a terrible company” appears to be the sentiment in dialogue about cooperation with the fossil industry

Sija van den Beukel,
30 maart 2023 - 17:05

The UvA must break ties with Shell. The narrow majority of the speakers seemed to agree on this in the first dialogue that the UvA organized online from the Amsterdam Business School on Wednesday morning. “Researchers who collaborate with the fossil industry publish positive results about the fossil industry more often.”

It was commonly agreed upon in the first UvA-wide online debate on collaboration with third parties that we must move towards a more sustainable world as quickly as possible. But the speakers who spoke differed on the way that would best be achieved.


Of the 200 participants who had registered, 120 came on Wednesday morning, in the middle of exam week. The participants included students, PhD candidates, deans, professors, climate activists, employees, and the Executive Board (CvB). All faculties were represented.


The Science Park – where most of the collaboration with the fossil industry takes place – was even overrepresented, and the faculties of dentistry, medicine, humanities, and economics and business administration were somewhat underrepresented.


Scientific coordinator Arno Kourula gave the floor to 10 mostly male speakers to explain their perspectives on collaborating with third parties in five minutes. The goal is to get as many perspectives on the table as possible for a discussion that will take place in the coming months.

“How many scientific discoveries still need to be made to wash away all the blood Shell has shed?”

“There are hardly any companies that are ‘bad’ across the board,” said John Grin, professor of Public Policy and Governance, when opening the debate. “Judgment about cooperation depends on the context. In this case, it’s the energy transition and climate change. The question we have to ask ourselves now is: can cooperation with the fossil industry contribute to the energy transition and broad prosperity?”


“No,” is the clear answer of speaker B. who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons. He speaks on behalf of the action group UvA Rebellion, which occupied a UvA building in January and called for ties with Shell to be broken. B. mentions the enormous oil pollution from Shell in Ogoniland in Nigeria, where nine Nigerian activists eventually lost their lives due to military escalation. “How many scientific discoveries still need to be made to wash away all the blood?” he asks. “We must stop collaborating with Shell and the fossil industry.”


Leadership role

There are more researchers who do not trust Shell as a company. “Less than three percent of Shell's investments go to sustainable energy,” says psychology researcher Disa Sauter. “But we can't trust ourselves either,” she says. “Researchers who collaborate with the fossil industry publish positive results about the fossil industry more often.”


“Shell needs the social license of collaboration with the university for greenwashing,” says student Renad Mangoud, speaking on behalf of the Central Student Council (CSR). “Not to mention that the fossil industry has no ambition whatsoever to accelerate the energy transition.”

“International law fundamentally requires companies to strive for minimal emissions”

Don’t single out one company

Criticism of the fossil fuel industry is justified, says professor of Sustainable Energy Technology and scientist at TNO Bob van der Zwaan. “But to single out one sector does not do justice to the scale of the problem. Climate change is a systemic challenge in which all parts of society and we as individuals play a role.”


“Many emotional arguments have already been made,” concludes one of the last speakers, professor of catalysis Joost Reek, who collaborates with Shell on the production of hydrogen and the conversion of CO₂, who previously explained his perspective in Folia.


“I feel those emotions, too. But we also have to look at the technical side. Our entire society is based on oil not just for fuel but also for medicines, materials, and plastics. We need investments and knowledge in scaling up for the energy and chemistry transition. That is only possible together with large companies like Shell, academic institutions, and politicians. If we don’t work together and instead stay confined to our silo, this transition will last decades longer. We can’t afford that.”


Academic freedom

This issue is also about academic freedom, which is the closing argument of Dean of Law André Nollkaemper. The academic freedom of the UvA can be restricted if “partners are guilty of serious violations of fundamental norms of international law.” This happened, for example, to prohibit collaboration with companies that supported apartheid in South Africa. “The fossil industry does not quite fit into this category (the Paris Agreement does not ban the fossil industry), but international law fundamentally obliges companies to strive for as few emissions as possible. And so I consider it relevant for assessing these collaboration agreements.”


In breakout rooms, the participants then enter into a discussion to formulate a problem statement about collaborations with the fossil industry. “I entered the discussion with the stance that cooperation with Shell was possible under certain conditions,” says a PhD candidate in biology. “But I am becoming more and more convinced that it is our moral duty to stop cooperation as a signal to society.” Two students in the breakout room already believed it was time to break ties with Shell.


 “We all agree that Shell is a terrible company,” the UvA policy advisor involved in organizing the dialogue summarizes the conversation. “But that also applies to companies like Google and Huawei. Where do we draw the line? Could that be a problem statement?” Better would be: “how” do we draw the line, as the question is reformulated by the students. And what are the alternatives if we do not want to cooperate with the fossil fuel industry?


The aim of the first dialogue was emphatically not to arrive at a referendum for or against collaboration agreements, explains scientific coordinator Kourula. “We want to show the complexity specifically of this subject.” People who do not feel represented in the perspectives discussed so far can still share their own opinions in upcoming discussions or send a message (anonymously) to the organization about collaborating with third parties.


The discussion will continue in person at various faculties in the coming months. In the summer, no later than September, the Executive Board will make a decision regarding collaborating with the fossil fuel industry.


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