Change the system, not the climate

September 9, 2022

“Only through far-reaching collaboration, including among science and academia, can we keep climate change below 1.5C degrees of warming.” So argues Heleen de Coninck during her inaugural lecture at TU/e.

Heleen de Coninck. Foto: Bart van Overbeeke

From an early age, Heleen de Coninck felt a sense of urgency on boosting knowledge of environmental issues. Not only her own but also that of the people around her. As a professor at TU/e and lead author of influential IPCC climate reports, she tries to prevent global climate change through her research. Today, she reflects on this in her oration.

Heleen de Coninck is a sought-after researcher and speaker at home and abroad as professor Technology, Innovation & Society at the department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences, researcher at EIRES and associate professor Innovation Studies and Sustainability at Radboud Universiteit in Nijmegen. Today is an excellent day to reflect on her role and the impact that she has.

“I’m very much aware of the necessity of that impact. As a scientist, I am absolutely driven by the impact that I can have with my work, especially compared to colleagues who are more driven by scientific curiosity in their fields,” De Coninck says. “But you can hardly escape social involvement in climate science. Everything about the climate has become politically charged, including the choices that you make in your research and the research topics. It’s inevitable.”

Starting young

At the age of 12, De Coninck already had the feeling that something needed to be done about the environment. That was when she started gathering knowledge and disseminating it, although at the time this was done via a modest newsletter with practical advice. She never stopped in these endeavors. While studying Chemistry and Environmental Science at Radboud University in Nijmegen, she became acquainted with researching the relationship between cause and effect.

Through her international graduate studies and research positions thereafter, she was introduced to international collaboration in climate research. “That’s still what strongly attracts and motivates me in our field. After all, everything is connected when it comes to the climate,” says De Coninck. “Also, the solutions for mitigating climate change are only possible with international collaboration."

“It is evident that we are changing the climate, and the disastrous consequences are equally obvious. To prevent that, the systems that contribute to climate change need to change. And I mean systems in the broadest definition. Think, for example, of the transport and mobility sector. The problem will not be solved by just replacing petrol cars with electric cars, because that will only cause new problems. We also need to look at the demand for mobility and how it can be met in a different manner (on foot, by bicycle or public transport) or whether, for example, hybrid working can change the demand for personal mobility. We will not be able to do without cars completely, and electric cars will certainly emit less greenhouse gases, but they cannot be the only solution we put in place. System transitions in mobility need to be taken further.”

“There are many stakeholders and interests involved in transitions like that. And these will only come to pass, when a critical mass is willing to act. Together, we could all still keep the temperature increase below the critical limit of 1.5O C warming,” adds De Coninck. “And what must not be forgotten is that the solutions we seek and develop must also be just. This means looking at the capacity and means for change but also at the ones contributing most to the problem.”

Connections increase the effect

With her participation in IPCC as one of the lead authors of the report that came out last April, De Coninck is actively seeking international collaboration and synergy. There are also initiatives for synergy in the Netherlands. In a report published today, a task force from NWO and KNAW recommends organizing climate research in the Netherlands in a new partnership: Klimaatonderzoek Initiatief Nederland (‘Climate Research Initiative Netherlands’, KIN). De Coninck chaired this task force (see box).

Climate Research Initiative Netherlands, KIN

“We will have to look at systems such as food or mobility differently, but it is still difficult for us to imagine the urgent changes needed to mitigate climate risks. These will continue to require scientific research in order to work with practitioners to develop and execute strategies immediately. We have no time to lose,” said De Coninck, who chaired the task force.

“To realize the ambitions of the KIN, change in academia and science is also needed. We must collaborate better in order to achieve ‘missions’. The KIN must serve society and deliver results much faster in order to be relevant. This requires different skills from researchers. It also means that we should not primarily focus on academically interesting outcomes; societal impact is crucial. And, of course, this requires multidisciplinary collaboration from academics and scientists.”

The task force’s report comes out today. It has already been presented to the boards of NWO and KNAW, who have embraced it and are currently working on an implementation plan.

The six enabling conditions for accelerating systems transitions in the IPCC SR1.5. Source: Heleen de Coninck

System transitions and hope

In her inaugural address, De Coninck also elaborates on her own research agenda. “My central research hypothesis is that if several parties create the conditions to make systemic changes possible, the chance of success is high. Research into system transitions and system dynamics shows that they can sometimes happen very quickly because conditions influence each other, effectively creating a snowball-effect.

That acceleration is necessary to stay well below 1.5 O C global warming. And I think that this is still possible,” says De Coninck. She likes to illustrate this point by showing the available puzzle pieces (see image) according to IPCC-reports, emphasizing that all pieces are needed to bring about the necessary changes.

“Even though all of them are important, you still see that technology and policy instruments (such as price points, subsidies and tax breaks) in particular are popular with decision-makers. As tempting as it is to believe in technology as the only solution, I think that it’s short-sighted to focus on that alone. It has to go hand in hand with ways in which the technology can and will be implemented. And it has to be just for all those involved in the development-production-distribution-recycling chain,” adds De Coninck.

And that brings us back to the most frequently asked question for De Coninck, which is whether she’s an activist. “I’ve thought about that a lot. In another field of research, such as Parkinson’s disease, it’s fine to call yourself an ‘activist’ as a scientist. But in climate science, this is a bit more complicated.”

“However, that question always brings me back to my 12-year-old activist self. I am now a scientist, but still one who sees it as her duty to use science to make the world a better place, both societally and environmentally. So, am I an activist? I honestly don’t know, but it’s a question I will continue to ponder in the years to come.”

Inaugural Address

The inaugural address is broadcasted live on YouTube, and will remain available for viewing afterwards. You can download the integral text of her oration here.

Nicole van Overveld
(Science Information Officer)

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