Rotterdam councilor Arno Bonte, who holds the climate portfolio, proudly stated in an opinion piece published in AD on Wednesday that thanks to the municipal climate agreement, Rotterdam had already reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by one million tons. He stepped into Greta Thunberg’s footsteps by saying that ‘the time for bla, bla, bla’ was definitely over now and the time had come for genuine action designed to minimise climate change.

Sustainability plans

Erasmus University was one of the signatories of the Rotterdam Climate Agreement in 2019. Among other things, the agreement stated that the campus would be carbon-neutral by 2024. However, no one is quite sure how the university is doing in that regard.

The university’s sustainability plans are outlined in a so-called ‘Sustainable Campus Road Map’. Among other things, this document describes how the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the on-campus catering services can be measured, how the university can make more use of local transport companies and how the university can promote business trips and daily commutes that don’t involve major carbon dioxide emissions. It specifies a clear target: to have the campus carbon-neutral by 2024.

CO2 strooisel1 – Elzeline
Image credit: Elzeline Kooy

New target date

Earlier this month, University Rebellion, a group of activists affiliated with Extinction Rebellion, staged a protest against climate change on the Woudestein Campus. During the early stages of the Glasgow COP26 climate summit, the protesters wanted to ‘sound the alarm regarding climate change’. After a rather original protest action, they presented interested parties with their manifesto, in which they stated that they wanted the university to uphold its original ambition of getting the campus carbon-neutral before 2025, and that they were sorry that the university had decided to aim for 2030 instead.

Many students and staff were not aware that the university had revised its target. We contacted the protesters to ask where they had found this information. They told us they had read it in an interview with the Sustainable Campus Coordinator, Jan-Cees Jol, on the university’s own intranet. Jol does indeed state in this interview that the campus will not be carbon-neutral until 2030.

Not the most important matter

Jol understands why University Rebellion was confused and indignant, but is happy to explain why he mentioned a different target date in the interview. “Our Strategic Plan 2019-2024 does not actually include a formal decision by the Executive Board stipulating that we must be carbon-neutral by that date.” He goes on to say, “We should not get fixated on that 2024 target date. We will definitely be able to realise a smaller footprint, which is to say, reduced overall emissions. But whether we realise our exact target before 2024 is not the most important matter here.”

Jol said that a great deal was being done to reduce the university’s carbon dioxide emissions. “We have already made significant progress in the last year, and in addition to the targets specified in the road map, we’re already looking at additional solutions, such as carbon-neutral new buildings.”

Not the most important matter

Jol understands why University Rebellion was confused and indignant, but is happy to explain why he mentioned a different target date in the interview. “Our Strategic Plan 2019-2024 does not actually include a formal decision by the Executive Board stipulating that we must be carbon-neutral by that date.” He goes on to say, “We should not get fixated on that 2024 target date. We will definitely be able to realise a smaller footprint, which is to say, reduced overall emissions. But whether we realise our exact target before 2024 is not the most important matter here.”

CO2 strooisel2 – Elzeline Kooij
Image credit: Elzeline Kooy

Jol said that a great deal was being done to reduce the university’s carbon dioxide emissions. “We have already made significant progress in the last year, and in addition to the targets specified in the road map, we’re already looking at additional solutions, such as carbon-neutral new buildings.”

No serious calculations

Jol’s colleague, Sustainability Programme Manager Mariecke van der Glas, agrees that the university’s approach should not be judged on whether or not a target is attained by a certain date. “It’s tricky to focus on fixed dates. As far as I know, no serious calculations were performed to determine how to get to zero emissions, but that doesn’t mean that this is not our target.”

She goes on to say: “The fact that I can’t say for sure whether we’re going to attain our target is due to the fact that sometimes we lose sight of categories that should be included for a proper calculation. These are things that we would like to include in our calculations of our footprint. In the last few years, we’ve made a point of including the catering services’ emissions. Some other time, revisions may be made to some other category.”

Happy with the steps made

Van der Glas says that because of this, the way in which emissions are calculated often changes. “lf these numbers change, we must also be happy if we make progress in other important aspects, such as staff now being required to travel by train when going on business trips, even if we may fail to attain our target by a certain date. What matters is that we make progress, by implementing changes with respect to things that have a great impact. We’re still committed to attaining carbon neutrality in the short term because this will keep people focused.”

The pandemic, too, has made it harder to measure the impact of the university’s policies. “2020 was an absolutely bizarre year,” says Van der Glas. “Due to the lockdowns, our total emissions fell rapidly, but this is making it hard for us to determine whether our new policies are effective. For this reason, we can’t tell you either whether we’re really on the right track for the long term.”

Loss of face

Student and University Council member Bram Heesen does not entirely agree with the positions held by Jol and Van der Glas. He does not like the fact that they have let go of the 2024 target date. “Failing to honour a commitment made to the municipal government will involve a loss of face for the university. If anything, the university should act as a guide to society in this matter. And it’s pretty confusing that the various parties within the university don’t seem to agree on the target date.”

For her part, Van der Glas disagrees: “We can demonstrate that we are making real and specific changes, and we’re still committed to getting things in order by the year 2024. And because organisations and companies can never be entirely carbon neutral, we’ll have to compensate for our emissions anyway, locally by planting trees on our campus, and also by means of special initiatives and projects.”

plantje-sustainability-duurzaamheid-hub

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Progress

Heesen and Van der Glas do agree on the main culprit, which is the transport of people and goods. “Seventy per cent of our emissions are due to transport,” says Heesen. “If we are to attain our targets by 2024, we’ll have to change things in that regard very soon.”

Van der Glas says the first changes have by now been implemented. “Starting from the 1st of January, everyone who’s going on a business trip to a destination less than 800 kilometres from here will be required to take the train. That will definitely make a difference.”

Although she does not want people to focus purely on numbers, Van der Glas understands the confusion expressed by Heesen and the students affiliated with University Rebellion. “It’s crucial that they keep us on our toes. But we are on the right track. Sustainability is a vital part of the university’s strategy, so we are doing our very best to make our operations, research projects and degree programmes more sustainable.”

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