Science - January 8, 2009

GREEN IMAGE HIDES GREY REALITY

Wageningen UR’s image is bright green, but the reality is a lot greyer. When it comes to sustainability, the WUR enterprise just scrapes through with a grade six. Students have been calling for changes for years. And behind the scenes, people are now working on improvements, and on new policies that aim to brighten up the pale green.

WUR’s wind park – the electricity is sold off.
There’s nothing wrong with the WUR’s corporate image, and Wageningen UR is indisputably the greenest educational and research institute in the Netherlands.
This image is vigorously promoted everywhere: Wageningen UR. For quality of life.

But preaching sustainability is not the same as practising it. Particularly in the WUR’s internal business management, there’s a lot of room for improvement, as was clear from the sustainability scan that Pricewaterhouse Coopers carried out half a year ago. For students, this finding comes as no surprise. Their dissatisfaction with internal environmental policy led to the establishment in March 2007 of the Wageningen Environmental Platform (WEP). A few months later, VHL students in Velp followed suit with the Sustainable Larenstein Action Group (SLAG).

The researchers from the PWC were discreet in their reporting, but the message was crystal clear: for sustainability Wageningen UR gets no more than a six. PWC made a distinction between education and research on the one hand, and internal business management on the other. Education and research are doing well, internal organization is not.

What is most striking is the lack of policy. Nowhere have the ambitions of Wageningen UR in terms of sustainability been stated. PWC is also amazed how little the institution does with the results of its own research. For example, Wageningen does nothing with its own hard-won knowledge in the field of sustainable energy. There are some nice initiatives here and there, but everybody just seems to do their own thing – that sums up the conclusions of PWC.

It looks as if the WUR management is taking the criticism seriously. A Sustainability project group, set up by the executive board, has just put the finishing touches to a vision in which the board outlines four ‘levels of ambition’, explains Anna Harnmeier of the national student network for sustainable development (Lhump). A student of Environmental Sciences, Anna represents Wageningen students in the project group. ‘Ambitions range from doing nothing to playing a pioneering role. We describe the ambitions and their consequences for the organization , focusing on catering, building, energy, purchasing and mobility. We’ve outlined as neutrally as we can all the positive and negative sides of the possible changes.’ But the exact contents of the document remain secret – the executive board will only receive it this month.
According to Harnmeijer, there’s a lot of scope for improvement at Wageningen UR. ‘Within the Netherlands we compare quite well, but compared to other countries we're lagging far behind. So much more can be done than we think. There is so much knowledge here in this field. How come it’s not being applied in our own organization?’ / Roelof Kleis

ECO-FRIENDLY TIPS WANTED
Between them, the WUR buildings in Wageningen, Lelystad, Ijmuiden, Yerseke, Den Helder and Texel have used more than sixty three gigawatt hours of electricity over the last year – enough for seventeen thousand three-person households. With the gas they use as well, their energy bill runs to about ten million euros. So says the latest WUR energy monitor.

Resource calls on its readers to help come up with ideas on saving energy. Mail your eco-friendly tip to email('roelof.kleis','wur.nl'); .

‘DO MORE WITH YOUR
OWN KNOWLEDGE’

’VHL has the image of a green school. And that’s true if you look at the subjects that we cover in our classes, but sustainable we certainly are not’, says VHL student Loes Verbiesen from the Sustainable Larenstein Action Group. SLAG tries to put pressure on the institution to increase its sustainability.
And at the University, the Wageningen Environmental Platform works towards the same goal. 'What we ultimately want is for sustainability to be part of all aspects of policy’, explains spokesperson Marlinde Koopmans. 'There is a lot of knowledge within Wageningen UR, but none of it gets used in our own policy.’ Students think that the WUR should aim at being completely CO2 neutral, for example. Other ideas Koopmans mentions are recycled paper in the printers, using rainwater in the toilets, and a better system for sorting and recycling rubbish.

‘MAKE THE CAMPUS CO2 NEUTRAL’
‘In one year's time we’ll be using green electricity – I’m convinced of that’, says energy coordinator Cees de Korte decisively. At present, Wageningen UR is still using grey electricity, but the current contract runs out this year. ‘For your image there’s no way round green electricity any more. It’s a development that you see in all the universities.
But is it enough? No. ‘I would like to see us make the campus completely CO2 neutral. It would be great if we could organize the heating so that we didn’t need to use natural gas any more.’ De Korte thinks the best bet is geothermal power: bringing heat up from deep in the ground. ‘Wageningen UR should draw up a sort of masterplan on this.’

‘HAVE THE COURAGE TO MAKE MISTAKES’
’Wageningen UR should be setting its sights incredibly high’, thinks Louise Vet, associate professor of Evolutionary Ecology, and director of the ecology institute NIOO-KNAW. ‘We do fundamental green research. So make sure that it's visible on the campus! I don’t see that happening.’
Vet is a fervent proponent of cradle to cradle, a philosophy that gives pride of place to the use of recyclable materials, sustainable energy and respect for people and nature. At the request of the executive board, a report has been written about what cradle to cradle means for Wageningen. Vet: ‘I don’t know yet what the board is going to do with it.’ She hopes that the second forum will be designed on cradle principles. ‘It is possible, if you have enough ambition and vision. And if you have the courage to make mistakes and take risks.’

Re:act