Future energy leaders

Future energy leaders
The longing for a society that is cleaner, more innovative and more equitable is how one of the three young professionals at our roundtable powerfully summarizes the essence of the energy transition. It is about time for policymakers, scientists, citizens and the industry to act together. Optimism is important, but must not take over. ‘Sit back with the idea that everything will turn out fine? We are f*cked!

In the run-up to the World Energy Congress 2024 in Rotterdam, Management Scope spoke with three young professionals closely involved in the energy transition: Dion Huidekooper (Chairman of the Youth Climate Movement), Fabian Dablander (Postdoctoral Researcher at, among others, the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics of the UvA), and Simone de Bruin (Policy Advisor Sourcing & Pricing at Vattenfall Heat and also a member of the Vattenfall Young Board of Directors). It is a conversation in which the young generation’s sense of urgency is made crystal clear. In addition to words like ‘optimism’ and ‘hopeful,’ words like ‘disgraceful,’ ‘immoral’ and ‘unacceptable’ pass the table.

All three of you play a specific role in the energy transition. What led you to make this decision?
De Bruin:
‘In Vattenfall, I work in a team that deals with the sourcing of heat and connecting new sustainable sources to our heat networks – think of geothermal heat, industrial residual heat, or data centers. During my master’s degree in Delft in the field of complex system engineering, I gained a good overview of the challenges at various levels of the energy transition, from technical to political and economic. I am intrigued by this challenging puzzle. In addition, the greening of the heat sector is quite neglected in the energy transition, while more than half of our energy consumption is used for heat applications. That is why I did my master’s thesis at Vattenfall Heat, which led me here.’
Dablander: ‘I have three roles in the energy transition. The first is that of researcher; I recently completed my Ph.D. focusing on early warning signals for tipping points in complex systems – think of sudden, drastic changes. My research focused on how to increase our anticipatory capacity in this area. Through my research work I became more aware of the scale of the climate crisis. For this reason, I last year started a postdoctoral program focusing on switching society to an ‘emergency mode’, so we can stop using fossil fuels faster. I am also involved with the research institute Polder, which connects policymakers with researchers in the field of complex systems. Among other things, we develop simulations in co-creation to increase understanding of the consequences of policy measures. Finally, I have a role in Scientist Rebellion Netherlands, with more than 500 scientists from various disciplines, focused on action and civil disobedience. I strongly believe in the power of collective action.’
Huidekooper: ‘I am the Chairman of the Youth Climate Movement. We aim to ensure that young people’s voices are heard in policymaking – the climate crisis affects the youngest and future generations the most. We sit on the Social and Economic Council (SER), bringing the input of young people to the table, and we aim to increase awareness among youth about sustainable lifestyles through education and workshops. We also facilitate international collaboration among youth and, for example, have drafted the Youth Climate Agenda, a hopeful vision of what our climate-neutral society should look like in 2040.’

How do you personally find the balance between pragmatism and dogmatism when it comes to sustainable lifestyles?
‘When travelling, I opt for the most sustainable form of transportation. I am vegetarian and I avoid fast fashion. In short, I try to minimize my own impact. It is important to think about what you can do yourself. Also, having ‘moral ambition’ – contributing to sustainability in your work – is valuable. But I do also find that there is currently too much emphasis on hypocrisy in the climate debate. We need to acknowledge that nobody is perfectly sustainable yet because we are stuck in a system that is grounded in fossil resources.’
De Bruin: ‘During the last energy crisis, turning on the heating in our student house was something we could not afford. We turned it into a game to be more conscious of our energy consumption, but the dependence on imported fossil energy was a true eye-opener. I limit my energy usage wherever I can, although it is often challenging to find the balance between ideals and practical feasibility. I enjoy traveling, but since flying is the least sustainable mode of transport, I have a small van which is converted into a camper. I want to continue doing things I enjoy whilst being aware of the impact.’
Dablander: ‘For the past few years, I have been living a more sustainable lifestyle: eating vegan, flying less, lowering the thermostat. But I also realize that I am one of billions of people on this planet: what difference can I make with my individual actions? If you are in a role like ours, ‘walk the talk’ is crucial. It makes you more effective as an advocate and enables you to avoid the hypocrisy discussion. I often hear people say they find it difficult to give up certain things. My advice is to join collective actions. It is more effective to make the catering in your organization sustainable than just not eating meat yourself. Collective action enables systemic changes. Flying is cheaper than taking the train, but those with a small budget cannot afford the train. You need public pressure to change this.’
De Bruin: ‘At Vattenfall we also recognize the value of collectivity. This is in fact about effectiveness and scaling up. That is why we recently established the Young Board of Directors here – originating from the youngest generation of employees who want to contribute to sustainability. We gather ideas from young colleagues and discuss with Vattenfall’s board how we can turn these ideas into improvements or changes. We encourage young employees to critically examine the decisions made within the organization and to make their voices heard.’

What do you see as the main obstacles in the societal discussion about the energy transition?
‘‘Whataboutism’ plays a significant role in our country: China opens hundreds of coal-fired power plants annually, so sustainability policies in our country would be pointless. It is a way to avoid individual responsibility. The principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ has been formulated by the UN: all countries are responsible for addressing environmental problems from an international environmental law perspective, but not to the same extent. This principle also applies to individual people and major polluters. The latter group has a greater responsibility for sustainability because they have more influence and impact.’
Dablander: ‘A hugely significant obstacle is the lack of urgency. The Netherlands aims for ‘net zero’ by 2050. That is an absolute scandal. We only have a global CO2 budget of 1.5°C for another four years. If you calculate more honestly – the 23 richest countries in the world are responsible for half of the emissions – the Netherlands would have exceeded its CO2 budget long ago. This is why a country like India says, ‘why should we bother?’ Additionally, there is a huge underestimation of climate risks. The more insight scientists gain, the more concerns increase. In 2001, a temperature increase of 5 degrees was still seen as no risk for tipping points, but now we know that exceeding 1.5°C can already cause multiple tipping points. We need to realize that we in Europe – the continent that is warming the fastest – are not safe. Even if you are wealthy. The Atlantic Gulf Stream, which determines our climate, is at risk of slowing down. This means a temperature drop of more than 3°C per decade in parts of Europe. Society cannot adapt to such rapid changes. Scenarios like these are not given space in public debate, let alone in policymaking. Although it is possible to intervene, far too little is being done. This lack of urgency justifies collective civil disobedience.’

That urgency was indeed high on the agenda for a while. Think of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ by Al Gore from 2006. What changed?
De Bruin:
‘Our goal is to achieve an affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy transition. In today’s debate, much attention is focused on the affordability of the energy transition, which requires significant investments. The way these costs are passed on to people and businesses is often seen as unfair – think of the recent discussion about the increased fixed rates of the Dutch heat networks. Low-income households are struggling, putting pressure on the public support for the energy transition. It is therefore good that alarm is raised so that solutions can be sought together. Actions by activist groups increase public awareness and help raise awareness of the urgency.’
Dablander: ‘The dilemma is clear: we want an affordable energy transition, but we also want the economy to be healthy. The underlying problem is that our economy is based on maximizing shareholder value rather than human well-being. What is not profitable is put to an end. What is profitable despite being harmful, persists. Think of Shell scaling back its own sustainability plans. That company says it is willing to aim for lower CO2 emissions, but it must contribute to their profits. So, it does not happen. And because fossil fuels are so profitable, they lobby against climate measures. We have legislation allowing multinational corporations to sue governments if their profits decrease due to sustainability policies – think of RWE going to the Dutch court via the Energy Charter Treaty. Renewable energy is less profitable than fossil fuels; even Vattenfall scrapped an offshore wind farm in the UK due to lack of profitability. Therefore, we cannot rely on energy companies exclusively. It is unacceptable that ‘lack of profitability’ stands in the way of the energy transition. Governments will need to intervene.’
Huidekooper: ‘To me Shell’s decision is just another example of the immoral shareholder model in oil companies. We should shift the discussion away from costs only because it is about investing in a safe future and preventing – also enormously costly – climate damage. Good luck with bags full of money in an uninhabitable world.’
De Bruin: ‘The energy transition comes with many challenges. There are many uncertainties as well: how will green gas and hydrogen markets develop, will residual heat remain available, what direction will policy take, who bears what risks? Despite this uncertainty, we need to act. There is a great need for efficient, effective, but above all predictable government policies to stimulate an attractive investment climate.’
Dablander: ‘In an uncertain policy environment, you think twice. I understand the challenges faced by energy companies. But companies remain driven by profit maximization – advantageous for them, but not for society. That is why we need a strong government for the energy transition and more public ownership of critical infrastructure.’
Huidekooper: ‘My fervent wish is for multinationals and energy companies – which so far have mainly lobbied for the status quo and thus against the transition – to truly get moving and join us in lobbying for more favorable market conditions for the energy transition and for stable and reliable government policies.’

Have you ever considered changing the established order from within?
De Bruin:
‘I did consider it, but I would like to contribute now with concrete steps. At Vattenfall, concrete steps are being taken to unlock sustainable heat, and that is heading in the right direction. That is energizing: doing things rather than just talking. Working at Shell? I think at this stage I can make less of an impact there than with the work I do now.’
Dablander: ‘Shell recently lowered its own climate goals. Shell is engaged in greenwashing. We should certainly keep an eye on what the individual can contribute concretely. My observation as a scientist is that the paradigm needs to change. The next question is: how to achieve it? Research shows that people are willing to contribute but are afraid to trust that others will do the same. What is lacking is leadership.’
Huidekooper: ‘Having a prime minister who says that if you are looking for vision, you should go to the optician, does not help. Populists take advantage of this: they mainly talk about what you can no longer do or have. We need leadership that can connect people and inspire them into action.’
De Bruin: ‘I think it is also difficult for many people to get a good understanding of the issues – there is a lot of information but also misinformation. A clear vision will help in this regard.’
Huidekooper: ‘It is quite remarkable that it is us who are now teaching young people about what climate change entails and the impact of their personal decisions. The government could place far more emphasis on this in education.’
Dablander: ‘Continuously emphasizing what cannot be done and what is no longer allowed does not contribute to support. We need to connect social issues and sustainability. People are not going to protest for increased electricity storage capacity. If you subsidize electric cars, you are giving money to people who can afford such a car. But wealth redistribution faces huge resistance from those in power.’

We are dealing with significant and often conservative and conflicting forces, which can make people desperate or even indifferent. What can we do in terms of optimism?
De Bruin:
‘There are many visions and plans, but we need to invest our time in realizing them now; what are the challenges and how do we tackle them? This requires active collaboration among policymakers, scientists, citizens, and corporates instead of waiting or focusing on conflicting interests. In addition, it is important to celebrate the small successes.’
Huidekooper: ‘The secret would be in how to reduce this complex, big picture into practical solutions that improve people’s lives. This might have to happen from person to person and from street to street: insulating homes, planting trees, having good public transportation. The encouraging perspective of the energy transition is a society that is cleaner, more innovative, and fairer. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it is important that we continue to see that light.’
Dablander: ‘Optimism is important, but determination and realism must form part of it. There is no time to sit back with the idea that everything will turn out fine. We are f*cked. Climate change is going to hit us hard. We need to act now and get ourselves organized. That, in turn, contributes to support, trust, and resilience. That is what I draw hope and strength from. To sit at home and wait? That way nothing can happen, except that you get depressed.’

This article was last changed on 17-04-2024