What is TU Delft’s responsibility in times of climate breakdown? This is a question I often ponder when I read about the ongoing deadly heatwave in India and Pakistan. And the persistent droughts and massive famine in the Horn of Africa. And the totally inadequate plans of our current Government to tackle this - and many other - crises. With the national Climate March coming up this Sunday, 19 June, raising these issues just around the corner in Rotterdam, I wonder, should TU Delft voice its support for the Climate March?
Prof. Andy van den Dobbelsteen, TU Delft’s Coordinator of Climate Action assures me that TU Delft is making it a priority. “We are currently developing concrete plans for a 2030 CO2 neutral, circular, and climate-adaptive TU Delft, that will help improve the quality of life and biodiversity.” The canteen in Van den Dobbelsteen’s faculty (Architecture) was the first in the Netherlands to go meat-free and largely plant-based. And the newly built buildings on campus are reportedly climate-neutral and even supply energy to the grid. It seems like TU Delft is taking its carbon footprint pretty seriously, an attitude shaped in part by Van den Dobbelsteen’s CO2 roadmap report of 2019.
Ties with dubious companies
This is in contrast to many companies like Shell and KLM who don’t yet seem to understand (or want to understand) that continuing with business as usual is dangerous. However, TU Delft still has strong ties with these companies. Shell is infamous for greenwashing, repeatedly denying and downplaying (in Dutch) climate science, and unspeakable violations of human rights, such as in Nigeria (in Dutch) where water bodies and the surrounding environment have become and remain utterly polluted to this day.
‘TU Delft should prepare students to be leaders in the climate and energy challenges’
Meanwhile, KLM actively promotes ‘responsible flying’, which is so misleading they are being taken to court. PhD candidate and Delta columnist Vishal Onkhar devoted a whole article to Shell’s problematic motives, stating ‘TU Delft is either totally fine with this or too hesitant to raise its voice’. Some guidelines were recently developed, but do they adequately incorporate the urgency?
What about teaching at TU Delft? Students can follow master tracks like Environmental Engineering, Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Energy Technology, but what about most other students who also need to operate in a world grappling with a climate emergency?
Sieb Rodenburg, who is involved in Students4Sustainability, says “I believe that TU Delft should prepare students to be leaders in the climate and energy challenges of today. It is thus not only about technical knowledge, but also about empowering students so that they can incite change in their future job environments.”
This is especially interesting in fields where the current prospect is still that of growth, while no actual sustainable alternative is available yet. Just think of the aviation, shipping and automotive industries, as well as heavy industry and the resource extraction sector. Aren’t they, by definition, unsustainable?
‘Social change does not come from research and knowledge transfer alone’
Prof. Henri Werij, Dean of the Aerospace Faculty, has communicated more than once that sustainable aviation does not exist yet (in Dutch), however my impression from talking to students at this Faculty is that shrinking the industry is not under serious discussion. Are we too focused on technical solutions that do not yet exist?
From my perspective, we are. I asked Dr Andrea Gammon of the Department of Ethics and Philosophy of Technology what she, as a teacher of ethics around the campus, thinks. “I see concern among students as well as increasing interest in understanding how climate change figures in their lives, even outside a technical perspective. I think there’s lots more TU Delft can do to support this.”
And should TU Delft voice support for the Climate March? Although I understand if people think this is too much, I think it would not be misplaced. It ultimately depends on what people see as the responsibility of TU Delft and how one thinks we can change things for the better in the world at large. Social change does not come from research and knowledge transfer alone, we need people and institutions to speak up, set the right example and organise themselves. Rodenburg also thinks supporting the Climate March is part of setting the right example, “just as being a more climate-friendly university does, with plant-based canteens and little to no cars”. Gammon adds that “TU Delft should also help build more of a university-based network on climate action” as a way of helping students organise themselves.
‘What are we waiting for?’
Onkhar goes a step further and sees “universities as leading institutions to push for urgent climate actions. After all, academia is where the science on this pressing issue originates! Not to mention that they should actively help organise events such as climate marches. This isn't a ‘political’ matter (for lack of a better word) which requires them to stay neutral or be diplomatic – it’s quite clear that if we let the climate crisis get out of control, we may not survive as a species. But TU Delft shies away from this because there are a lot of vested interests (partners, companies, investors etc.) at stake.”
While I don’t see TU Delft organising a climate march anytime soon, supporting and promoting these types of events would be very powerful. I asked Van den Dobbelsteen if this would be possible. He put me in contact with TU Delft Communications, but I have received no response so far.
Big demonstrations on the streets have always been important in sparking change and lobbying for what is right. With the severity of the crisis already raging around us, what are we waiting for?
This opinion article is written by Charlotte Braat, with additions by Vishal Onkhar (PhD candidate), Sieb Rodenburg (boardmember Students4Sustainability) and Dr Andrea Gammon (Assistant Professor of Ethics & Philosophy of Technology).
Charlotte Braat is a junior researcher at the Water Management Department of Civil Engineering and Geosciences. She is also a campaigner at Reclame Fossielvrij and a mobilisation coordinator at the Klimaatmars.