According to it KNMI 2023 was the hottest year ever in the Netherlands. At the recent climate summit COP 28 it turned out that our earth is heading for a warming of 3 degrees. That is (more than) one too many. Published in 2023 Nature an article showing that safe climate limits are exceeded with an increase of 1.5 degrees. With larger temperature increases, the climate may become unstable because tipping points are exceeded, for example because the polar ice melts. Against this background, the boards of Dutch universities are deliberating whether they still want scientific collaborations with fossil companies, such as Shell.

It was no coincidence that a ‘New Year’s good news interview’ was published on January 3 The Telegraph in which Shell CEO Frans Everts was given a platform to describe his company as sustainable. The fact that Shell is doing its best to appear green makes it clear that the group is feeling increasing pressure. So what should universities do: trust Shell’s so-called transition efforts? Or just say now: that’s enough, it’s enough?

Temperature rise

To prevent dangerous temperature rises, our universities have special responsibilities. They help determine the future and not only through their research. They train ‘our’ new talent. However, there is little point in producing academics if we do not care about the world in which they will have to survive.

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That is why the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has the right to do so in the discussion about collaborations with fossil companies taken the lead by stating that its researchers will only enter into new collaborations with companies if a company demonstrably adheres to the Paris Climate Agreement. This agreement aims to limit the increase in average global temperatures to well below 2 degrees.

Large companies such as Shell, BP and Total are frustrating the climate transition required by the Paris Agreement because they consider it more important to make money for their shareholders now. From an article published in 2023 on Euronews it appears that Shell’s CEO Wael Sawan wants to continue rewarding his shareholders. Where previously net zero CO2 target in 2050, Shell wants to maintain production until 2030 and invest 37 billion euros in oil and gas production until 2035. In the meantime, 9 and 14 billion euros will go to ‘low carbon’ products (including biofuels), hydrogen and CO storage.2.

Recently Shell concluded to fire two hundred scientists working on sustainable energy. Shell naturally values ​​a good reputation. That is why it would like to continue to collaborate on a small scale with universities in scientific research into sustainable energy.

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But this collaboration is above all greenwashing: Shell tries to give the impression of being a decent company. The truth is that the company is risking our future for the short-term interests of shareholders.

Discussion point at universities there is a moratorium on collaborations, yes or no. If it is ‘yes’, then the decision should be based either on the character of the partner (‘partner based’: is the company good or not?), or on specific collaborative projects (‘project based’: would this project not be useful could be if it succeeds?).

Participating in greenwashing is ostrich politics

Now, science is clear that the Paris agreement must be respected. Contribute to greenwashing of an industrial policy that leads to 3 degrees of warming is ostrich politics. Scientists cannot participate in that. There is therefore only one choice: ‘partner based’, because collaboration based on projects still provides Shell with legitimacy. We therefore hope that university boards, and in particular the Executive Board of Leiden University where this theme is currently current, will not legitimize Shell through project-based collaboration.

Shareholder interests

We ask the fossil companies to adapt their policies and actions actively, in a targeted manner and in the short term to the Paris goals. If they simply do not do so because of shareholder interests, any position taken by universities seems weak.

At a higher level, the Netherlands can try to strive in a European context to ensure that fossil companies such as BP, Total and Shell fall under a different ownership model, such as the model of ‘steward ownership‘, whereby not profit maximization for (external) shareholders but a specific mission is paramount – successfully tried by clothing brand Patagonia, among others.

With the current attempt by PVV, VVD, NSC and BBB to form a cabinet, we cannot count on a political solution. The PVV has cheerfully declared that it will put climate policy “through the shredder”. So if fossil companies continue to endanger the future of the earth and of human life because of shareholder interests, then the universities that do not take their responsibility run the risk of becoming complicit in creating an unsafe climate because fossil companies and politicians let us know. And that is why our universities must be the first to take their responsibility now.


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