A Dutch University Just Set a Powerful Precedent for Climate Research

A Dutch University Just Set a Powerful Precedent for Climate Research

A Dutch University Just Set a Powerful Precedent for Climate Research

VU Amsterdam will reject collaborations with fossil fuel companies that fail to demonstrate a commitment to the Paris Agreement.

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As part of its commitment to furthering an energy transition, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, a research university in the Netherlands, announced on April 20 that it would reject research collaborations with any fossil fuel company that fails to demonstrate a commitment to the goals of the Paris climate accords.

The adoption of the first-of-its-kind Fossil Free Research (FFR) policy came against a backdrop of increasing demonstrations throughout the Netherlands. The University of Amsterdam explicitly referenced this activism last February when announcing its decision to place a moratorium on research collaboration with oil and gas major Shell and similar companies. While the VU Amsterdam commitment does not stop ongoing projects funded by fossil fuel corporations, the university has banned future research collaborations with companies that do not “demonstrably commit” to the Paris Agreement.

By doing so, the school is making a historic and far-reaching commitment. This unprecedented institutional response recognizes the vital role of research in driving societal decarbonization, as well as the reality that fossil fuel companies are grossly unaligned with climate action goals.

The announcement sends a clear signal about the power of student organizing amid the surging Fossil Free Research  movement, which calls on universities to unequivocally reject fossil fuel industry funding for climate research and cut ties to the industry more broadly. Jonathan Leggett, a student campaigner at VU Amsterdam, praised what he saw as the university’s fair and inclusive stakeholder engagement process, which he argues shows that “disruptive action works.” Petra Verdonk, an associate professor at the University Medical Center of VU Amsterdam affiliated with Scientist Rebellion Netherlands, said concerns about the occupations and direct action on other Dutch campuses played a significant role in motivating administrators at VU Amsterdam to pursue dialogue and ultimately take action. She also noted that the move follows a Dutch court order ordering Shell—which currently funds three research projects at the university—to massively reduce its emissions.

Last November, hundreds of students took action—from Boston and the Bay Area to London and Toronto—calling for universities to reject fossil fuel funding. These activists maintain that industry money undermines the integrity of climate research, given the fundamental conflict of interest between these companies’ continued plans for increased oil and gas extraction and the aims of climate research. Activists around the world hope to leverage the victory at VU Amsterdam as a powerful precedent for their universities to follow.

Studies have shown a clear bias in research results funded by fossil fuel corporations. As we’ve seen with research partnerships between the University of Oslo and energy giant Equinor, there can also be a silencing effect on researchers—including through explicit greenwashing clauses written into their contracts. Industry-funded climate research has been invoked as part of efforts to weaken climate policy and amplify industry narratives elevating natural gas while fossil fuel companies deploy research partnerships to greenwash their reputations. The BP-funded Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton was recently implicated in documents subpoenaed by the House Oversight Committee around the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation efforts.

For Mathis Cleuziou, co-coordinator of the FFR chapter at the University of Toronto, the win provides “a blueprint for what the practical implementation of a Fossil Free Research policy can look like…as FFR becomes the international standard for effective, objective research.”

While this is still the most comprehensive fossil free research policy to date, the school will not ban the oil and gas industry from recruiting on campus or participating in university events, as activists had demanded. According to Verdonk, these limitations allow the fossil fuel industry to continue wielding an outsize influence on the discourse around climate solutions. Nonetheless, she expressed hope for this commitment to serve as a new baseline, and called on university faculty to support students in pushing for further action.

The VU Amsterdam announcement builds on a string of FFR victories in the United States and the United Kingdom which—while still limited in scope—provide a growing foundation for greater institutional policy change. Last September, Princeton announced that it would dissociate from 90 fossil fuel companies, including by ending a long-standing research partnership with ExxonMobil. Months after a student occupation in March 2022, the University of Cambridge renamed its “BP Institute” the Institute for Energy and Environmental Flows. Meanwhile, the number of and implementation of university commitments to fossil fuel divestment continue to grow.

Already, students and academics are gearing up for further action, including occupations demanding an end to the fossil fuel economy and new efforts to map out ties between universities and the fossil fuel industry. According to Debonne, VU Amsterdam is also in talks with other universities about the potential to replicate its policy. For Jake Lowe, executive director of the Fossil Free Research organization, “it’s not a matter of if but when more universities follow suit.”

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