A victory, with caveats

Guus Dix, initiator of climate activist movement Scientist Rebellion at the UT, wrote an op-ed in response to the Executive Board's recent statement on fossil collaboration. 'There is a very nice word for a green project with a dirty partner: greenwashing.'

Archive image U-Today: Dix (second from right) and other activists at a climate protest behind the Horst

A victory for Scientist Rebellion. The peppery statement by the UT on fossil cooperation by can safely be credited to us. After all, it has been activist students and scientists who have questioned fossil ties time and again over the past year. Here on campus and elsewhere in the country. That created some friction at times. But it worked too.

After an extensive series of sustainability dialogues, the UT is the first technical university to take an explicit stand. And we are proud of that. Eindhoven University of Technology is sinking into smaller and larger scandals. A chairman of the board who drags away an activist student deserves no beauty prize. A new rector who himself is embroiled in fossil conflicts of interest makes the whole thing even more problematic. And that administrators then try to kill academic press freedom is an absolute disgrace.

Consultation moments

At TU Delft, the main supplier to fossil companies, there is little progress too. After a year, it has come up with a real ‘moral deliberation chamber’ and is organizing ‘new consultation moments’ about industry ties. Consultation moments. Brrr. For Wageningen University, it should be pretty easy to take a stand. After all, they are only slightly into fossil (but up to their ears in big agro). However, the board has gotten no further than a lazy defense of the existing ties. The UT, on the other hand, does take a stand. And it does so in three ways.

'The UT does take a stand'

First, the Executive Board calls on fossil companies to commit to the Paris Agreement. In doing so, it openly admits what we all already know: companies like Shell have zero commitment right now. Because saying on your website or in public that you think the one and a half degree is so important means nothing if, at the same time, you continue to invest in new oil and gas extraction. Climate scientists are crystal clear about the first step in the transition: stopping further climate disruption begins with a stop to building new fossil infrastructure. So companies that continue to invest in new fossil – or provide hands-on services to it, such as Fugro and Van Oord – have not committed to Paris but to an earth that is becoming uninhabitable in many places.

Shell, Total and ExxonMobil

Second, UT says it will ‘enter into new cooperative agreements with the fossil industry only with those parties that demonstrate a substantial change in their approach to making the transition from fossil to alternative, renewable sources’. That is the key point of the statement. At Shell, Total and ExxonMobil, we are currently seeing just the opposite happen. They are retreating on their weak or non-existent sustainability plans and are actually drilling for more oil and gas. This clause of ‘substantial change in approach’ makes it clear that new collaborations are only possible again when companies make a sharp U-turn.

'A number of student associations continue to be sponsored by fossil fuel companies'

Finally, the UT states that the problem does not end with research money. After all, the campus is also the site for fossil recruitment activities. Against that background, the Executive Board says it will refrain ‘from promoting internships and graduation projects at companies that do not adhere to the previously mentioned principles’. Those principles are about a company's climate goals. In doing so, the UT is sending an important signal to students. A number of student associations continue to be sponsored by fossil fuel companies - with lunch lectures and dinners on site. These companies are also warmly welcomed to the annual Business Days. Board members and Business Days organizers say they would like to remain ‘neutral’ in company offerings. But the UT is now saying: continuing to roll out the red carpet is not neutral - it's promotion.


Of course, there are important comments to make. The statement is somewhat woolly. Call it management speak. And underneath that wooliness are some hefty contradictions that make any worried earthling suspicious. For example, a few lines after the clause about the substantial change in approach, we read, ‘Why we sometimes cooperate with the fossil industry anyway’. Huh? Is that a statement about some distant future? Or are we being fooled here?! In addition, the statement also skims between conditions for projects and conditions for partners. It should, of course, be the latter. Because there is a very nice word for a green project with a dirty partner: greenwashing. And with the commitment to a sustainable future radiating from this statement, that is the last thing the UT wants to participate in....

This has yet to be worked out in concrete terms in a new committee. We are happy to participate and are still waiting for an invitation. Key question: how do you make the condition of actual (not only verbal) commitment to the one and a half degree goal of Paris concrete in your choice of partner? The research collective Solid Sustainability has some interesting ideas for that, borrowed from the financial sector. Let's invite them. And critically follow whether the board really stands by its own statement.

Guus Dix, assistant professor and initiator of Scientist Rebellion at the UT

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