Actions against fossil fuels at universities: cooperation or not?

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  • Judith van de Hulsbeek

    editor Climate and Energy

Climate activists have campaigned at career fairs at the University of Twente and Amsterdam. They protested against the universities’ ties to fossil fuel companies such as Shell, BP and Exxonmobil. In Enschede, a Shell information stand was cordoned off as a crime scene. In Amsterdam there were demonstrations at an event where Tata Steel and Shell were guests.

Recently, demonstrations have been held at universities across the country against cooperation with fossil fuel companies. This concerns, for example, the financing of scientific research or the establishment of a chair.

Several universities are now reconsidering that collaboration, but proponents of collaboration are also reporting. Thirty scientists from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) wrote an open letter this week pointing out the importance of contributions from the fossil sector.

How to produce and distribute on a large scale, you really need the expertise and capital of these companies.

Joost Reek, researcher at the UvA

One of the signatories of the letter is professor of chemistry at the UvA, Joost Reek. Among other things, he conducts research into converting CO2 and light into fuel. He has also received money for this from a consortium including Shell.

According to Reek, the money these companies invest in research is important, but their knowledge about scaling is even more important. “I can also easily make 1 gram of the clean fuel in a lab without their help,” says Reek, “but how you produce it on a large scale and distribute it across the Netherlands, you really have the expertise and capital of these companies.” necessary for.”

Reek also sees the importance of action against climate change, but the fossil companies are needed for that, he says: “If you want to do it without them, the energy transition will only take longer and we don’t have that time.”

That is also the purport of a statement that the board of Eindhoven University of Technology put online at the end of last year. “We cannot afford to exclude strong parties that can help create the needed sustainable solutions, including fossil fuel companies.”


The promotion at the career fair in Twente was, among others, an initiative of Guus Dix, lecturer at the University of Twente and climate activist at Scientist Rebellion. As far as he is concerned, all ties with the fossil industry should be severed. Because they do greenwashing, he says: “Companies derive their legitimacy from the research. With that they can say: look how well we are doing. While the majority of their investments are still in fossil fuels.”

But also in terms of content, Dix finds cooperation with companies such as Shell, BP or Exxonmobil undesirable. “It is often said that it is only about research that benefits the energy transition. But here at the University of Twente, research is also being done with a clear link to fossil fuels.” Dix mentions, among other things, a project that investigates how to extract more oil from an existing well.

Another risk, according to Dix, is that fossil fuel companies will gain too much influence on the research agenda of universities. That is a point about which Derk Loorbach, Professor of Transition Studies of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, also warns.

The Executive Board in Rotterdam declared an ecological emergency last week. This means, among other things, that it will consider cooperation with oil and gas companies, but will also examine the curriculum: does the teaching material pay enough attention to the energy transition? One of the concrete plans is to ban meat from the canteen and to be completely vegan by 2030.

At the university, students have different ideas about the green plans:

Whether or not to cooperate with oil and gas companies: ‘Knowledge is still going there’
  • Thirty arrests after occupation of university building in Amsterdam
  • The professor and the connection with the fossil industry
  • 768 climate activists arrested at climate demonstration on A12 in The Hague
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