Universiteit Leiden

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Making better use of our natural resources

The availability of natural resources, the energy transition, the importance of circularity and our dependence on China. This and more is what Professor of Industrial Ecology René Kleijn will cover in his inaugural lecture on 18 September. He holds the chair in Resilient Resource Supply, the only one of its kind in the Netherlands.

‘Practically all the technology that we use today would not exist without metals’, Kleijn writes in his inaugural lecture entitled Resourcing the Future. ‘What is interesting is that metals also make a circular economy possible.’
He is often asked what he actually does as an industrial ecologist. ‘I look at the material and energy flows in society’, he answers, ‘like a doctor looks at his patient’s metabolism.’ He makes this comparison because, ‘Society is also sick. With fossil fuels and the linear economy, we won’t survive another 200 years.’

The energy transition is also a materials transition.

The energy transition is also a materials transition, he argues: a transition from coal, oil and gas to managing a supply of metals because these are needed for electric cars, wind turbines and solar cells, for example. ‘Fossil fuels are gone once you burn them’, he explains. ‘But you can keep metals in society for a very long time – by designing products in a certain way, with recycling and collection systems.’

Social and environmental impact

Metal mining affects the environment and can also have a negative social impact, Kleijn says. ‘More and more people are now asking how clean electric cars really are. Because you have to extract all those metals and then everyone refers to the cobalt mines in Congo.’

We will have to mine loads more metals in the next 30 years at least if we want to transition to clean energy. ‘But you immediately need less oil, gas and coal, which means less mining and pollution in total than now.’ This upscaling of metal mining is not easy because although most metals can be found on all continents, ‘no one wants a mine in their backyard. But we all think it’s fine to have them in Africa.’

Should we all have a car parked outside that you can drive to Paris in one go?

Smart choices

There are enough metals in the ground for the energy transition over the next 30 years, Kleijn says, particularly if we make smart technology choices. By making electric car batteries from materials that are in plentiful supply instead of ones that are becoming scarce, for example. He also thinks we should consider whether we should all have a car parked outside that you can drive to Paris in one go.

And he addresses our dependence on China and the importance of looking at the whole supply chain. ‘America has reopened mines to reduce its dependence but doesn’t win anything if it then ships the materials to China to make magnets from’, he explains.

Professional amateurs

Kleijn’s discipline is very broad. One minute it’s about energy technology and the next about metal mining, toxic substances or recycling. ‘We sometimes joke that we are professional amateurs. Because we need to know a bit about everything to get the full picture.’

His chemistry degree regularly comes in use. As a chemistry student, also in Leiden, he conducted research into porpoise fat, was shocked by the number of toxic substances he found and this ‘took me on my environment journey’.

Public money and fake news

Twenty years ago, when Kleijn began to specialise in the availability of resources, the subject was not particularly high on the political agenda. That is now changing. He thinks it is important to talk about the subject regularly in the media to raise people’s awareness.

Kleijn has the following to say about media appearances, ‘Colleagues are sometimes a bit scared of them. Yes, you’re dealing with something complicated and it can be oversimplified in the press. But we have to do it anyway because we work with public money. Fake news and one-liners have been grabbing the attention in recent years, which makes it all the more important.’

At the end of his inaugural lecture, he writes about the importance of a free and safe work environment, of critical yet constructive reflection and ‘perhaps most importantly’ of being able to laugh. Fortunately he has found such a place at the Institute of Environmental Sciences. Perhaps that is why he has been working at the university for 33 years now. ‘I can count the days that I haven’t felt like going to work on two hands.’

Text: Thessa Lageman
Poto: Unsplash

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