18 May 2018

Op-ed Maarten Hajer in NRC

Come out of the laboratory and work on the good life

Engineers should not only be studying the climate, they also have a duty to work with sociologists in identifying ways to implement their recommendations, argues Maarten Hajer.

This op-ed was published on 30 April 2018 in NRC Handelsblad and nrc.next

A competition between good news and bad tidings – that’s how you could describe the news about the environment and climate. On the one hand, there is the growth of solar and wind energy capacity and the fact that we will be building wind farms in the North Sea without public subsidies. On the other hand, we are seeing one heat record broken after another, the Antarctic ice is melting and calculations show that the emission cuts promised in the Paris climate agreement will not be enough to remain within the two-degree goal.

Sustainability is one of our greatest challenges, but in our efforts to tackle it, we are relying on our old toolbox. A group led by Utrecht-based climate scientist Detlef van Vuuren recently published a model study: in order to achieve the two-degree global-warming goal, we could look to 'lifestyle change' to provide a solution. Or, to make it more concrete, a person who is not in favour of carbon capture and storage (CCS) could decide to refrain from eating steak in the future.

Sustainability is not only about understanding the problem, but also about putting a lot of effort into implementing solutions
Scientific Director of Pathways to Sustainability

The study shows in a nutshell just what sustainability is about. Not only understanding the problem, but also putting a lot of effort into implementing solutions. This is exactly the approach adopted in 'Pathways to Sustainability', the strategic sustainability research at Utrecht University. First and foremost, there is a need for greater cooperation across disciplines. If a mathematics model study states that 'lifestyle change' has potential, the question that arises is: how can this be achieved? Under what conditions is it imaginable that people will actually change their diets? This is very much a question for social and behavioural scientists; for psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists.

Cooperation is also desirable when it comes to carbon capture and utilisation (CCU). Researchers are considering chemical ways of using carbon dioxide as a raw material. Industry is interested. If we want to be able to deploy the technology in time, we need to start thinking now about legal frameworks and administrative decision-making. This will require dialogue between chemists, legal experts and specialists in governance.

I would like to see more direct cooperation with partners from civil society

Secondly, I would like to see more direct cooperation with partners from civil society. In university circles, we sometimes use that horrible word 'valorisation’. Here we basically mean developing knowledge and making money out of it. But a linear approach like that no longer fits the bill. At our university, we see these partners as part of a learning community. Cooperation starts by formulating the research question.

More than in neighbouring countries, our industry is heavily reliant on petrochemicals. These are a major source of carbon emissions. How can we achieve green chemistry? The world’s deltas are clusters of urbanisation and economic growth. What fate do these low-lying areas face and how can we work with groups from civil society to reduce their vulnerability and identify alternative development strategies? Cities are full of tubes, rails, cables and pipelines. They are continually being renewed by corporations, network managers or transport companies. Can we identify the right connections so that this renewal can accelerate cities’ sustainability? What governance strategy delivers the most innovation?

Thirdly, the university can help to conceptualise these new sustainable realities. We need to bring these futures to life. This applies equally to fundamental research: nothing is more convincing than hearing the message about melting ice from someone who has already been visiting the polar cap for years.

Sustainability research calls for a discussion about nothing less than the good life itself

Sometimes, you hear people say that science should be 'neutral'. A puzzling line of reasoning. Our society is already drenched in science and technology. There is nothing neutral about working on new applications for robot technology. It is better to be more active in debating the role that scientific knowledge can play in creating tomorrow’s world. In that sense, sustainability research calls for a discussion about nothing less than the good life itself.

Scientists and academics are often capable of thinking 'around the corner': bringing something unimaginable a step closer. That's why it is actually good to think much more about the legitimacy of our work. Anyone looking for new types of nutrition not only collaborates with a powerful manufacturer like Unilever, but also with an NGO like the Youth Food Movement. If we are thinking about the spatial future of the Netherlands after the transition, we organise public events, such as 'Places of Hope', where we actively combine science with policy perspectives. In this way, science feeds the public debate and helps to create solutions that enjoy widespread support.

The climate issue is a pre-eminent theme in which science can (and will) prove its added value. If all academic disciplines join forces and also cooperate with civil-society partners, science can ensure that, in the future, good news about the climate will start to dominate the pages of the newspapers.

Maarten Hajer is Distinguished Professor of Urban Futures and Scientific Director of Utrecht University's 'Pathways to Sustainability'.

In the coming time, scientists and academics from Utrecht University will be reporting in the climate blog of the NRC on their research in the field of sustainability.