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The recent IPCC report: some reactions from our Liveable planet community

The publication of the recent IPCC report on climate change has not gone unnoticed, to put it mildly, certainly not within the Liveable Planet community.

In its own words, the IPCC report “…recognizes the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, and human societies and integrates knowledge more strongly across the natural, ecological, social and economic sciences than earlier IPCC assessments”. The assessment of climate change impacts and risks as well as adaptation is set against concurrently unfolding non-climatic global trends e.g., rapid urbanization, overall unsustainable consumption of natural resources, land and ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, human demographic shifts, social and economic inequalities and a pandemic.

The report calls for immediate and drastic action, in all sectors of society: energy, buildings, transport, food and industry. The required drastic reductions in our consumption and demand for energy-intensive goods will for example entail dietary changes, e.g. eating less meat, especially needed to reduce methane, and with additional benefits for our health. But as pointed out by Marja Spierenburg in her recent inaugural lecture, there are vast inequalities in consumption, with poorer people often bearing the brunt of sustainability initiatives. Wealthy countries account for a disproportionate amount of global emissions: 10% of the people on this planet are producing between 34% and 45% of the global carbon emissions, while low-income countries already experience severe impacts from climate change. A recent paper in The Lancet Planetary Health argues that High Income Nations (US, EU) are responsible for 74% of global excess material use, China for 15% and all of the Global South for 8%. And also within wealthy countries like the Netherlands, the costs of energy transition measures are not divided fairly, with lower income groups paying disproportionally more than their fair share (see the recent interview with Eefje Cuppen).

What might the IPCC’s call to immediate action entail for our university community? In order to find out we solicited reactions from within our Liveable Planet network and received an array of comments, ranging from brief remarks about how the university organizes its business operations (finances and buildings) and ideas about its possible contribution to research and education, up to thoughts about the future of young researchers embarking on interdisciplinary research paths, so critical for addressing sustainability issues. Below we present these comments, as well as a final piece of some good news…

Interdisciplinarity and career trajectories

Thomas Franssen, of Leiden’s Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), delivered a thought-provoking comment on the possible consequences of the shift toward more interdisciplinary types of research, necessary to adequately deal with the many dimensions of the sustainability challenges.

"Every systemic shift thus requires to be studied with an integrated interdisciplinary approach"

“A key challenge is to approach the necessary drastic, systemic changes that we face, and that are urgently needed, in all their complexity. This means we should not give in to the tendency to simplify or reduce such systemic changes and foreground a particular dimension, like the technological, social or political. Rather, we should constantly bring the economic, technological, social, political, and cultural dimensions of systemic change into conversation with each other. In this way, we do not succumb to thinking there are simple solutions to the large-scale environmental degradation that we witness. Rather there are systemic changes that will be better for some and worse for others as both Spierenburg and Cuppen rightly point out. Every systemic shift thus requires to be studied with an integrated interdisciplinary approach and without erasing/hiding the negative consequences that there will undoubtedly also be.

Such an approach, consequently, also requires an integrated interdisciplinary scholarly community and that might be the more difficult shift to make. Our university, like many, is organized along, primarily, disciplinary lines, and disciplinary norms dictate what is considered ‘good’ research and what types of output are required to be seen as a ‘successful’ researcher. Within funding councils, these disciplinary norms often shape peer review processes and thus funding decisions. So a major organizational challenge for the university is how to organize not only interdisciplinary research areas, like the Liveable Planet program, but also career trajectories for the early career researchers that end up in-between disciplines but who are crucial to producing the knowledge that we need.”

Knowledge creation and sharing

Marco Cinelli (Leiden University College, The Hague), suggests that there is an opportunity for our staff to focus on the “positives” of the IPCC report, as embedded in figure SPM.4 in the summary for policymakers.

"The “positives” mean that there are a lot of opportunities for knowledge creation and sharing. Leiden University staff could think about how their research/teaching could pragmatically contribute to these climate responses and adaptation strategies. As an example, in my case, I work on decision support systems for energy transition. A multitude of opportunities can be explored to relate this type of research/teaching to figure SPM.4 in the report’s summary for policy makers , which provides several climate responses and adaptation options. Some examples include multiple criteria-based assessment of energy technologies, energy systems and policies. More specifically, a few technologies could be assessed according to a set of criteria to explore their capability of contributing to a more resilient power system, either at the regional, national or supra-national level.“

Suzanne Marselis (CML) emphasized the importance of more systematic “sharing” of our research with a wider community:

"Actively seeking out such engagement will help our research find a place in society"

“I find that in our research grant proposals we nowadays diligently outline the societal and/or research impact. We are required to think about these aspects even before doing the actual research, but I believe this should not be the only time we think about it. Throughout the time we perform our studies, we should try to disperse the results we find in the societal context and distribute our findings among relevant stakeholders, much beyond our peer scientists who may or may not read our papers. Actively seeking out such engagement will help our research find a place in society, to be used to work together towards a more sustainable future. “

Thoughts on UL’s business operations

Some respondents focussed on the way our university is run, in terms of the kind of energy we use, energy-saving practices and emphasize in general the highly visible role of universities because of their public status as scientific institutions. Katherine MacDonald (Faculty of Archaeology) wrote:

"It is therefore important that sustainability should be one of the most important criteria for University financial choices."

 “The latest IPCC report makes it very clear that rapidly ending the extraction and use of fossil fuels is essential to restrict global warming within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels and retain a healthy and climate-resilient future worldwide. An important element of this is stopping investment in the fossil industry. The short time available to achieve this goal also means that we need to focus on ‘social tipping points’: rapid social and economic changes which can strongly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Divestment from fossil fuels is potentially one of the most effective of these. In this context, the Universities play an important role because of their public status as scientific institutions. It is therefore important that sustainability should be one of the most important criteria for University financial choices. Last year, the ABP pension fund stopped investment in the fossil fuel industry, an excellent first step. The Board of Directors (CvB) could consider moving over to the most sustainable banks and insurance companies, and where this is not possible, put pressure on the banks and insurance companies to withdraw from fossil fuels and actively invest in sustainable energy. Given the financial and health consequences of severe climate change, this is also a safer strategy for University employees, students, and institutions”. 

The decision to lower the temperature of the university buildings by two degrees is a good example of a small action that Leiden University very recently took in an attempt to reduce energy use. An anonymous respondent called for university buildings to turn off their lights when not needed, and found it rather ironic that our beautiful Sterrewacht building, symbolic for a discipline which needs dark skies for observations, still occasionally stands out with its lights on, deep in Leiden’s night.

And finally, some good news…

Leiden University has been and is investing heavily in sustainability in the areas addressed in these comments, as outlined in the latest sustainability report, accessible here. In 2021 Leiden University was ranked as the 7th most sustainable university worldwide in the UI Green Metric. There is obviously still lots of room for improvement, as acknowledged in Leiden University’s sustainability vision and as well- reflected in the comments listed above. It is up to our community of staff and students to work together to achieve a sustainable university on a liveable planet.

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