What will bring the energy transition forward the fastest, educational planner at the Faculty of Economics and Business Tim Bianchi wonders. Breaking or maintaining collaboration between the UvA and the fossil fuel industry? “Breaking off collaboration is the easiest solution to this issue as a university.”
What is striking is that proponents and opponents of the moratorium on research collaboration between the UvA and Shell or similar companies, for now, hardly address each other's views. But what if they are both right? What if Shell is hypocritical and unethical, part of the climate problem, and commits crimes, but can also accelerate the energy transition?
There is a moral dilemma here. Because for the people who are already confronted daily with the risks and dangers of global warming (and, of course, for those who will face these dangers in the near future), the only thing that matters is that the energy transition goes as fast as possible.
The discussion we, in the relatively safe Netherlands, have about what scientific codes apply is completely irrelevant to them. On the other hand, an example must be set of how we as a society deal with inherently irresponsible companies to - hopefully - make our actions more future-proof. Therefore, UvA's main goal in this area is to help maximize the speed of the transition while not fearing unpopularity.
Break or collaborate
The question arises of how best to achieve that goal. Which has a greater impact on the transition: severing ties or working together? In any case, my non-scientifically based feeling says that the impact of severing these ties should not be overstated. The Theory of Change sounds plausible, but the danger is that the industry will fade into the background (like other dubious industries) where they will have even less public accountability. In any case, fossil fuel requirements will increase for at least the next decade, and even as they decline, there will still be plenty to earn from these forms of energy for a long time to come. So even though the cut-the-ties movement is expanding globally, the people who really care about climate still remain a sizeable minority. Collective self-aggrandizement is looming.
Breaking off cooperation is also the easiest solution to this issue. After all, doesn't this mean that as a university you can evade the responsibility of employing your expertise on all fronts? Evidently, research time and money can be used elsewhere in such a case, but integrity should not be confused with hypocrisy. Our moral compass should not get in the way of those whose lives are already at stake. Ultimately, we are all to blame for the current situation and must work together to find solutions as soon as possible. The potential of the fossil fuel industry should not be ignored in the process.
A common argument is that Shell spends only a small percentage of its investments on renewable energy. But even that investment, admittedly small for them, makes them one of the largest investors in this area in the Netherlands (even after subtracting carbon storage). Of course, given Shell's opposition in many other areas, this makes it incredibly paradoxical. But we will have to find a way to deal with it.
The good news is that there is much to be gained in terms of current collaboration and its social utility. This means investing in that quality so long as there are crystal clear, collectively applied policies and critical self-reflection. It may require a culture change, and that is exactly where the strength may lie with current supporters of the moratorium.
Here are some preliminary ideas on how to make cooperation with the fossil fuel industry more impactful. Commit upfront a significant financial investment after the research project is completed and predetermined success factors are met (and if these committed investments are not made, agree to make the results open source). Or make all research directly open access or even open science. Provide full transparency with all research projects and collaborators. To pre-judge and monitor future projects with these parties, install a supervisory board represented by stakeholders who have a strong and demonstrable affinity with society and climate. Develop a (penalty) point system regarding the implementation of the outcomes of research projects and link actions to it. Work on the level playing field principle: strike the right balance regarding who is invited as guest speakers or to open days or alumni events. And ensure that all research branches go through the exact same permission process for collaboration.
The crux of this plea, then, is that first everything must be done to get the most out of collaboration. We owe that to everyone whose lives are already at risk. So until then, the ties should not be severed, with the emphasis on “not yet”. In short, hold your nose and tolerate the enemy.
Tim Bianchi is an educational planner and member of the Works Council at the Faculty of Economics and Business at the UvA.