MSI: frontrunner in sustainability
Are we really making progress towards the sustainable transition? One thing is clear: if we’re not, it’s not the fault of sustainability science. The Maastricht Sustainability Institute (MSI) is a frontrunner in the field, according to former director Ron Cörvers and his successor Professor Frank Boons. “As the time pressure increases, so do the ambition and the will to change.”
We know more about the global ecosystem than ever before. Human activity has been proven to be a source of climate change. At least one urgent problem—the hole in the ozone layer—has been successfully tackled. The transition to renewable energy sources (wind and solar energy) and the electrification of land transport are well underway. Last but not least, the younger generations are becoming increasingly activist.
The above summary is the sustainability scientists’ response to the question of whether we are making progress in the sustainable transition. And the MSI is making an important contribution to this end. The institute is a frontrunner in transition thinking, research on climate and society, and active learning in the management of large-scale change processes. “The European Environment Agency is steeped in these insights,” says Boons. The MSI was founded 25 years ago as a research institute focused on global processes. “We’ve since shifted to addressing regional and local issues, but in an international context,” Cörvers says. A successful study programme was later initiated. “Hundreds of our alumni now work in governments, companies, NGOs and academia.”
- Text continues below the illustration -
Frank Boons is professor of Political Economy of Sustainability and director of the MSI. His research focuses on systems approaches for sustainability and multiple transitions, particularly in relation to food supply and scarce metals. He is a senior academic fellow at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and one of the leaders of the UM wide programme Sustainable UM2030.
But are they being too optimistic? Fifty years ago, the Club of Rome predicted that the growing global economy would reach its limits by 2030. The UN climate panel IPPC subsequently began counting down: thirty, twenty, eight years left. Shouldn’t politicians, citizens and companies be doing more? Boons and Cörvers alike say no one party is to blame—indeed, they are all stuck in their own way.
“Politicians focus on the short term, while transitions require difficult and expensive decisions that are electorally unpopular. That’s the dilemma of our democracy,” Cörvers says. Citizens, too, don’t always think about the following generations. They are used to cheap, mass-produced products and not easily inclined to consume less. “We need to make our production processes cleaner and bring them closer to home, but people don’t want this if it makes things more expensive.” As for companies, Boons says: “Try being the CEO of a company with thousands of employees and customers. You don’t just decide to do things differently tomorrow.” That being said, unwillingness and even sabotage are not unheard of. Boon gives the example of the car industry, where built-in electronics have been used to trick emissions tests.
Society as a whole is responsible for tackling sustainability issues, they say. Boons studies this from a systems perspective. Consider the food supply or the transport system. “For me it’s about the interplay between government, companies and social parties. How do companies incorporate sustainability into their strategies, and what role does the government play? What are the consequences at the system level, and are we thinking nationally or internationally? You can easily make the Netherlands sustainable by moving all polluting industry to other countries.”
Cörvers approaches sustainability with an eye for policy processes and the role of knowledge. This involves issues such as how inequality plays out in the international food supply. “How can you improve supply chains? Can you strengthen the position of marginalised groups in society, such as small farmers in the Global South?”
Ron Cörvers is associate professor of Governance and Sustainable Development at the MSI, where he was scientific director from 2013 to 2021. He leads the Fair and Smart Data spearhead, an SBE programme with external partners aiming to empower small farmers in global production chains. He is also involved in the education component of the Sustainable UM 2030 programme.
For both, the recent decades have made clear that a sustainable transition cannot be left to the market economy. There are calls for more government regulation—a taboo, Boons says. “As a government, you don’t intervene in the market process.” Cörvers: “Governments will only intervene if companies exceed environmental limits. Instead, the rule should be that you can only produce something if you’ve demonstrated you can stay below those limits. Without legislation and regulations, this is impossible.”
So is a circular economy, where materials and products are constantly reused, compatible with capitalism, which is based on growth? “We ought to start thinking differently about growth,” Boons says. “Producing more efficiently, but in larger volumes, won’t solve anything. That’s why we have to think about wanting fewer but better things, or staying at a certain consumption level.”
We ought to start thinking differently about growth
Doomsday thinkers, they are not. Boons: “The COVID crisis showed that when faced with a threat, people are willing and flexible enough to do things differently. It’s not a happy message, but perhaps what we need is even more urgency. That should trigger more political will and ambition.” Cörvers mentions the Delta Plan. “In a crisis situation, governments are willing to act. But why wait for a crisis? Good governance also means looking ahead. There are many things we already know, and if we don’t change, it’s coming.”
The challenge for the MSI is to address complex issues such as climate disruption under increasing time pressure and urgency. “We have to pursue all options: net zero greenhouse-gas emissions, just transitions,” Boons says. “Regionally and nationally, we need an integrated approach to these ambitions. By building on our existing research directions, the institute can certainly contribute.”
Text: Hans van Vinkeveen
Illustration: Veronique de Jong