Universiteit Leiden

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A 36-ditch effort

An Institute of Environmental Sciences, ambitious goals for energy, water and CO2 emissions. Leiden University plans to take the lead on sustainability - in research, teaching and raising awareness.

As Geert de Snoo talks about sustainability, he wants to show us things. So De Snoo, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Professor of Conservation Biology, takes us outside, to the ‘Living Lab’. But first he shows us the new Gorlaeus Building. We walk through the 100-metre-long atrium with its light wooden floor and see space, space and more space. Natural light abounds. Fabulous white staircases, here and there a purple sofa, bright-green walls. It’s stunning, but equally important: very sustainable. Whereas ‘the energy flew out of the windows’ of De Snoo’s old Faculty of Science buildings, the new Gorlaeus Building uses heat in the winter that was stored underground in the summer.

Sustainable fish

Leiden is also blazing a green trail in its research, with its Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML), one of the largest such institutes in the Netherlands. The environmental scientists there develop methods to assess the sustainability of products, and the world is watching, says De Snoo. ‘We are doing this for tilapia farms in Asia, for instance, where they farm the fish that we consume here. Which systems should you use to breed and farm the fish? What is sustainable? This concerns the toxicity of the waste that fish farms produce, but equally how the fish is packaged and transported afterwards. Or take biofuels. First, they were based on food crops and then on agricultural waste. How do you assess the sustainability of such processes?’ You need to know a lot about the physical environment and the economy, and you need to be good at maths. These, he says, are precisely the strengths of the researchers at the Industrial Ecology department of CML. They also work with the Centre for Sustainability, of which De Snoo is one of the founders. Scientists from Leiden (CML), technology researchers from Delft University of Technology and economists from the Rotterdam School of Management work at the Centre.


The other department at CML focuses on biodiversity and the effect of human activity on nature and the environment. In the ‘Living Lab’, 36 ditches behind Museum Corpus that were dug with the aid of a crowdfunding campaign, they are investigating the effect of chemicals (such as pesticides) on our water quality. This is necessary, because the conditions outside – where birds, insects, water fleas and various other animals and plants go about their business – are much more complex than in the controlled, standardised lab inside.

Outside is more real, as real as the rabbit that sniffs around by the window of De Snoo’s office. Otherwise, the Bioscience Campus is rather bare. Definitely room for improvement, says De Snoo. ‘Flowering plants, insect hotels so that we see many more colours, birds and insects. If the University, all the businesses here and Naturalis were to work together to achieve this, we would see the “bio” of bioscience in biodiversity too,’ he smiles. ‘A green university with a green face. That’s what would make me happy.’

There are six themes to Leiden University's ‘Environmental Policy Plan 2016-2020’: housing, energy, water, procurement and investments, waste and mobility. The main goal is to halve the University’s CO2 footprint in the coming years. Most gains stand to be made from increasing the sustainability of the buildings and reducing mobility. Furthermore, all water coolers are being removed and there is a paperless office pilot.

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