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New climate demands: Students want to close down research centre

Green transformation — Student organisations are collecting signatures for new climate demands aimed at the University of Copenhagen. They include the closure of a research centre in oil and gas. University management rejects the demand with reference to the freedom of research.

Make campus CO2-neutral in 2025. Have a travel policy. And close down the Centre for Oil and Gas.

These are three of the five climate demands that a number of student organisations now want to impose on the University of Copenhagen (UCPH). They are currently collecting signatures for a petition before they hand them over to the rector on 20 September during the next climate strike.

The five climate demands

1. Teaching in climate and sustainability for all students

2. CO2-neutral campus by 2025.

3. Research for the future with Sustainable Development Goals as a guideline

4. Introduction of a travel policy

5. Closure of the Centre for Oil and Gas.

The demands are from the following: Casus Clima, the Green Student Movement, Green Forum, IMCC Earth, Rhea – The Humanities Climate Association, SIMA and the Student Council at the University of Copenhagen

»The time is ripe for this initiative. There is a great deal of focus on green [policies], especially after the [last Danish] elections, and many green student organisations have been set up,” says psychology student Anina La Cour, co-founder of SIMA (Social Science Climate Initiative). With the Green Student movement and the Student Council at the University of Copenhagen, she has been one of the initiators of the climate demands.

She says that the University of Copenhagen has a particular responsibility in the climate struggle, because it is an educational institution that conducts research in societal problems, and educates the people who are to deliver the solutions.

She criticises the fact that climate does not have a larger share in the university’s study programmes. This is one of their demands: All students should have teaching in climate.

This applies to the social science programmes that she herself represents in SIMA, but also to study programmes that have no natural fit to the green transformation. Study programmes like French, computer science and theatre studies.

»We believe that climate is relevant for everyone at different levels. You mention theatre studies, and that is not because they have to get rid of everything else, and only deal with climate issues, but they can work on communicating climate. There is a relevant angle in all courses,« says Anina la Cour.

»Kicking in a door that is already open«

Management at the University of Copenhagen does not want to comment on the individual demands before they have discussed them with the Student Council. In an email to the University Post, Vice Director for Communication Jasper Steen Winkel writes that most students can already select courses on climate and sustainability.

»If students think that climate [issues] should take up more [of their study programmes], they can take this to their study boards, where it is they themselves that are responsible for the range of courses and the composition of the subjects,« he writes.

We are clearly not kicking in an open door, because right now they don’t intend to do anything about any of these things.

Anina la Cour, psychology student and co-founder of SIMA

 

He commends the students for their initiative, but adds that they »are kicking in a door that is already open«.

He mentions that the University of Copenhagen has reduced CO2 emissions by 51 per cent since 2008 and energy consumption per Full-time equivalent (FTE) by 29 per cent. The university is also considering »whether new initiatives and drives are to be implemented,« when the current green plan Green Campus 2020 expires next year.

Anina La Cour acknowledges that the University of Copenhagen has carried out many green initiatives that have also had an effect. But, she says, »things are not going fast enough«.

She mentions that the reduction in CO2 emissions is primarily from energy efficiency improvements, while the more painful measures are still lacking. A more aggressive policy on aircraft travel, for example, that to a much higher degree is in conflict with the university’s core objective of internationalisation.

The student organisations demand that difficult decisions are made. Decisions that will interfere with research and teaching.

»We are clearly not kicking in an open door, because right now they don’t intend to do anything about any of these things,« says Anina la Cour.

You want the University of Copenhagen to be CO2-neutral by 2025. This requires drastic changes right now. Why not give them to, say, 2030?

»The idea is that it is so close that they have to do something now, but you can, at the same time, move a lot in five and a half years. We could have said 2030, but what often happens with long-term plans is that people say ‘yes, sure, then we can start in 100 years time’,« says Anina la Cour.

»Our point with these demands is that these things are urgent. The research, that this university has helped carry out itself, shows that we have a very short time to get society back on track.«

Management has previously been hesitant about changing its aircraft transport policy, and 2025 is not far away. Do you find it realistic that they will buy in to these five demands?

»We have to try. Our overall goal is that the University of Copenhagen is the greenest possible university on all fronts – on its operation, on its teaching, and on its research. And if the university has better proposals, then this is fine. We are not throwing paint and shouting slogans, and the most important thing for us is not to win an argument. The most important thing is that a lot of action takes place on their part,« says Anina la Cour.

Does freedom of research also include oil and gas?

Two of the demands can be interpreted as a discussion point prior to a negotiation. The student organisations say they want a aircraft transport policy, but not specifically what. Just like they say they want to have climate and sustainability on the teaching syllabus, but not how much.

Other demands are more inflexible. The students, for example, demand that the University of Copenhagen closes the Centre for Oil and Gas, which is based at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and is run in collaboration with Aalborg University, Aarhus University, GEUS and UCPH.

Many things got invented as a result of wars, but nobody suggests that we start a war to see what kind of exciting inventions come out of it.

Anina la Cour, psychology student and co-founder of SIMA

 

On its website, the centre writes that »they have been set up to find responses to the falling oil and gas production through the research and development of new and improved technological solutions.«

Jasper Steen Winkel commented on that particular demand directly.

»There is freedom of research in Denmark. This means that politicians, stakeholders or management do not decide what is being researched, as long as the research is legal and meets adopted ethical standards. It is important to safeguard academic freedom. And there are always many different perspectives in research,« he writes.

He writes, moreover, that part of the centre’s research may benefit a green transformation.

»UCPH geologists and DTU engineers are looking in to how to reuse old, empty oil and gas wells to store CO2, which can be taken out of power stations, the atmosphere, etc. The research and development that is taking place is relevant as one of the key solutions to the world’s climate challenges.«

Anina La Cour rejects the idea that shutting down research in, say, the extraction of oil and gas, is the start of a cut into research freedom.

»What if you started doing research in the good solutions rather than waiting for some good by-products to turn up? Many things got invented as a result of wars, but nobody suggests that we start a war to see what kind of exciting inventions come out of it. This is an absurd way to reach results.«

What about freedom of research

But one thing is a centre – what if there is a single researcher at the University of Copenhagen who has freedom of research and wants to conduct research in oil and gas, should he or she not be allowed to do that?

»I find it problematic if you do research into fossil fuels in order to pull them up out of the underground. Of course we need free research, but we need a framework, and this is already the case. You cannot, say, conduct research in how to most effectively abuse a child,« says Anina la Cour.

»It is this, culturally constructed, limit to what it is okay to do research in, that we would like to move. We know that the climate crisis will be harmful to many people. So why do we still think that it is okay for us to conduct research into something that we know contributes so much to it?«

Rasmus Larsen, Prorector at DTU which hosts the Centre for Oil and Gas, points out that Nordsøfonden, the Danish state-owned oil and gas company, is part of the collaboration. The Centre is part of Denmark’s long-term national strategy for energy, he says.

»We are all agreed that we are on our way towards a fossil-free society, but this transformation will take years, and for many years we will be dependent on oil and gas to maintain our society as we know it. It is therefore reasonable to support Danish oil and gas production taking place with the least possible environmental cost and in the most cost-effective and safe manner. This is what the research at the centre is to support,« he says. He adds that there is a need for engineers with knowledge in the area when the drilling platforms need to be closed down and abandoned, and the holes in the North Sea seabed have to be closed.

But do the students not have a point in the fact that it is time to shift the limits on what is ethically responsible for research? Should it not be shifted to take the climate into account?

»DTU and other universities cherish our freedom of research. This is fundamental, because we see it as the best way to generate new knowledge – and also as a prerequisite for the independence and legitimacy of research,« says Rasmus Larsen.

»We are, of course, part of Danish democracy, and I do not think that it is the universities’ responsibility to have a different set of rules and restrictions than those adopted in the Danish parliament.«

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