Niks meer missen?
Schrijf je in voor onze nieuwsbrief
Foto: Jethro Carullo (Unsplash)

The fossil industry’s real interest is delaying the energy transition

21 februari 2023 - 13:14

Cooperation with Shell continues to occupy the UvA. Four scientists from three different faculties disagree with the thirty advocates who last week spoke in favor of cooperation. “Their argument rests on an inadequate conception of academic freedom.”

We read the recent open letter by professor Alfons Hoekstra and colleagues with great interest. We share their concern about the slow pace of the energy transition, and welcome an opportunity for reflecting on our roles as scientists and scholars at this critical time. But we were not persuaded by their argument. In our view, it relies on an inadequate conception of academic freedom, and it glosses over much of what is at stake in collaborating with planet-wrecking corporations. We think our reply can stand on the force of its arguments, so we won’t present it as a quasi-petition. Anyone interested in the sheer force of numbers and titles might want to look at this open letter to UK and US institutions instead: it argues for cutting ties with the fossil fuel industry, and it is signed by over 800 scientists and academics from over 130 institutions.

Real-world villains

Discussions about the energy transition can seem abstract and detached from everyday life. So let us remind ourselves that we are facing an unprecedented crisis for our species. Devastating climate impacts are already here, and 8.7 million people die every year from air pollution caused by fossil fuels. And we are on track for an unlivable world. As the IPCC notes, any further delay in action “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all”. Fossil fuel corporations played a key role in delaying action on climate for more than half a century (see e.g. here, here, and here). They continue delaying action to this day, often in newer, subtler ways.  

Fossil fuel corporations played a key role in delaying action on climate for more than half a century

All of this is happening in plain sight. And there is no course correction on the horizon. In fact, things are getting worse. Shell and others are raking in record profits while the poorest among us are having to choose between heating and eating. The oil majors recently announced that they will cut down on their already flimsy climate pledges, explore for more oil and gas, and roll back on renewables. This announcement comes as current and planned fossil infrastructure is already three times the size of the remaining carbon budget to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees. One might say the villains’ masks have come off completely. 



Shell’s legal obligation as a shareholder company is to maximise profits. Fossil fuels are enormously profitable. And so fossil fuel companies have an incentive to drill as much as possible, for as long as possible. Their real interest is in delaying the transition. If they need to appear green and “necessary for the transition” to achieve that, they also have an incentive to find institutions that can sell them that appearance. In doing so, we allow those who cause the problem to present themselves as the solution. Our academic stamp of approval contributes to what Shell transparently calls “a strong societal licence to operate.” 

It hardly matters that research outputs are made publicly available, or that the projects are about renewables. By continuing to collaborate with Shell, we provide cover for what remains the overwhelming majority of their activities: the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Shell claims that 12.5% of its capital investment goes to renewables, but a recent investigation alleges that the real figure is as low as 1.5%. Either way, it is clear that Shell is not seriously interested in facilitating the transition. Shell and other fossil fuel companies may well possess critical expertise and resources to do so, but relying on them is not a shortcut to viable solutions. It is evident that they are deliberately taking us on a long detour, to postpone the time when they’ll finally have to stop extracting oil and gas.

Collaborating with the fossil fuel industry does not protect academic freedom. It threatens it.

Academic freedom?

Hoekstra and colleagues are concerned that a moratorium might restrict “academic freedom,” Theirs is a stunted view of academic freedom, and not the one taken by most reputable scholarly institutions. For instance, the KNAW report on academic freedom states that “a number of principles that apply to all scientists” delineate the limits of academic freedom. These principles include “honesty, diligence, transparency, independence, and responsibility.” NWO takes a similar view. Let us point out a couple of tensions between these standard conception of academic freedom and what Prof. Hoekstra and colleagues propose.

On responsibility, the UvA’s guidelines for collaborating with third parties state that scientists should “prevent research results from being misused by third parties so that humans, animals and the environment are protected, today and in the future”. In the case of Shell and the like, that point hardly needs commentary.

Concerning independence, it is odd to invoke the freedom to work with partners who have a long and well-documented record of influencing research outcomes, and refocusing research agendas towards ineffective or false solutions (e.g., carbon capture and storage) that just so happen to not hurt their bottom line. Collaborating with the fossil fuel industry does not protect academic freedom. It threatens it.  

Yet we don’t presume that our brief observations can settle complex questions of academic freedom. The key challenge we face as a scholarly community, then, is to revise our research ethics standards in light of the gravity of the climate crisis. For that reason it is important that the debate proposed by the UvA Executive Board alongside the moratorium on new projects with Shell should proceed in a participatory, transparent and democratic manner–in other words, in full autonomy from financial imperatives and the University’s hierarchical structures.

Looking ahead

In all likelihood, the climate crisis will get much worse before we can stabilise temperatures. There will be more heat waves, more droughts, more hurricanes, more extreme flooding, more crop failures, more human displacement, more conflict, and possibly war. Let’s imagine we’re looking back at the 2020s — the defining decade for mitigation. What might we be proud of? Not much, if we continue to collaborate with organisations committed to delaying the energy transition. Our best bet is to try to pull the brakes on an industry that is driving our planet towards the edge of a cliff. So let’s begin by doing our part to revoke Shell’s precious “societal licence to operate”. Time is short.


Fabian Dablander recently submitted his PhD thesis at the Department of Psychological Methods and is a guest researcher. Gijs van Houwelingen is assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business, Enzo Rossi is associate professor at the Department of Political Science.  Franciska de Vries is full professor of Earth Surface Science at the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics.