According to Ellen van Schoten, who oversees the Executive Board’s sustainability portfolio, the campus should be vegan by 2030. To be clear, going vegan is a good move: in 2018, agriculture accounted for 18,57 million tons of carbon dioxide and 11,89 million tons of methane in the Netherlands alone – mostly from cattle rearing. But announcing a plan to go vegan in 2030 just days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its devastating new report on the unfolding climate disaster is about as appropriate as announcing a plan to introduce mask mandates by 2025 the day after the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 pandemic.
University board wants campus to be completely vegan by 2030
Ellen van Schoten of the Executive Board would like to see the Erasmus University be…
Too late to avert disaster entirely
The IPCC says that by 2030, the world will likely have already breached 1,5 degrees of warming, heading towards 2 degrees. This means that by then, there will be more and bigger floods, storms, fires, droughts, heatwaves and species extinctions. Coral reefs and arctic ecosystems will be reaching terminal decline. People living close to the maximum ‘wet bulb’ temperature threshold for human life in the tropics will have to relocate or risk heat death. The poorest people on this planet will have the least capacity to adapt and overcome. By 2050, there could be up to 1,2 billion climate refugees worldwide – a number too staggering to process. The list goes on, these are just near-term repercussions of irresponsible greenhouse gas emissions.
The IPCC report clearly states that only drastic near-term action will mitigate the catastrophe, but even so, it’s too late to avert disaster entirely. That means everyone at every level – individual, local, regional, national, international – should be doing everything in their power to steer the ship away from the rocks. So what does the university come up with? Mandatory climate education for all? Pull out all the stops to achieve a CO2 negative campus by 2025? Massive rewilding campaigns for Rotterdam? Unfortunately, the latest communiqué seems to say: let’s wait another eight years, then take the least-costly, least-difficult measure we can, and pat ourselves on the back for doing something good.
Should the university only serve vegan food? ‘Sustainability and inclusion should go hand-in-hand’
The debate about vegan food still rages around campus. According to some, serving…
Sustaining unsustainable practices
The philosopher Ivan Illich once wrote: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We acknowledge goodwill in making the university eventually a vegan campus. Likewise, EUR’s new travel policy favouring low-carbon trains over planes for short business trips is a major step in the right direction. But the biosphere will not wait for the slow levers of institutional change to gently shift trajectories. As a leading European university, concerned with impact, we should be pulling out all the stops to pivot towards an exemplary ecological model. To be a leader, however, requires bolder moves and integration than tamping down student, staff, and citizen clamours for climate responsibility. As we saw with the pandemic response, leadership requires policies commensurate with the threat at hand. We shouldn’t wait for sea levels to reach our campus before taking drastic action.
Leading climate scientist Michael Mann’s recent book The New Climate War discusses the wave of ‘soft denialism’ which has replaced previous versions of blatant climate denialism. Instead of denying that our economies and politics are destroying the planet, soft denialists begrudgingly accept the science, but propose ‘managed’ solutions delaying the shift away from business-as-usual as long as possible. NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus criticizes government and business pledges of ‘net zero by 2050’. Firstly, backloading climate action until thirty years away makes it almost certain that runaway climate change will happen. Thus, ‘by 2030’ or ‘by 2050’ pledges deny that now is the best time to address the problem, suggesting it can wait. Secondly, ‘net zero’ is a complicated Ponzi scheme, carbon accounting based on abstractions, rather than reality. Until we reduce our destruction of the biosphere in concrete, preemptive ways – like instituting a vegan campus, or putting an accurate price on the environmental externalities of our economy – net zero schemes bank on empty promises.
We do neither our reputation as a university nor our planet any good by sustaining unsustainable practices for the sake of ‘giving everyone enough time to get used to the idea’ of change. The science of climate change and behaviour change lays out what we need to do to reduce the devastation of climate change. But we have to implement these policies – even when it is politically uncomfortable and there might be pushback. Suggesting that we can take care of it later is a predictable but unreasonable response to the crisis. If it is so hard for us to institute as simple a measure as a vegan campus in less than eight years, wait until we need to move our university onto a floating island.
Vegan university only logical choice? Employees are divided
For years now, EUR’s catering service, Vitam, has been increasing its range of vegan…
The university needs to wake up and step up
There are always more urgent things to tackle than environmental collapse – a pandemic, a war… but two things: firstly, if we wait for a moment with no crisis, we will never address this problem because we have entered an age of neverending crises. Secondly, these crises are interlinked: the pandemic was caused by human destruction of ecosystems, and Putin’s war is financed by fossil fuels. So cleaning up our act on the environment is a win-win.
The first point of order is for the university board to truly face the facts, and let the science lead. We have offered to help with this: we both give lectures on the climate crisis and would be happy to share these with the board. Once the facts are on the table, meaningful decisions must be made: go vegan, sure, by 2023. Get rid of disposable plastics on campus, by 2024. Ban fossil fuel-vehicles from campus, by 2025. Go CO2-neutral (and no cheating with ‘compensation’ certificates), including solar panels and green spaces on every roof, by 2025, and so on. We don’t have time to wait until 2030 to take action. By then, our university may have to buy floating real estate.