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Cleantech Podcast - Episode 1 : Sybille van den Hove (English version)

March 9, 2023

BXVentures recently had the pleasure of talking to Sybille van den Hove. Sybille has a background in particle physics and a PhD in ecological economics. She has spent almost 30 years working on sustainability issues and has been heavily involved in environmental research in the European context, in particular on climate, and biodiversity issues. Sybille now supports companies in moving towards sustainability and is an Independent Director at IBA. She is also involved in European environmental research strategy issues and organises training for scientists.

BXVentures:  Hello Sybille. Thank you for having us. Nowadays, there is a real call for degrowth. What is your position on this subject?

Sybille van den Hove: The fundamental problem is growth. From a purely scientific point of view, our planet is finite and so it has limits. Therefore, it is physically impossible to have unlimited growth in a finite world. This fact is non-negotiable, these are the laws of physics.

We have built an economic system that is fuelled by this myth of ‘growth’, but it has come at the expense of the natural capital and the very foundations of our life-support system. So, the question is not whether it is right or wrong to degrow. We simply have no choice. Infinite growth is a myth, it is impossible. We must therefore ask ourselves how we can reorganise our systems so that we can live within the limits of the planet and live well there. That’s why I like the approach of Kate Raworth, who developed the Doughnut Economics. She takes into account planetary boundaries, including all the different environmental dimensions that make up our environment, but also the social, societal and human foundations.

BXVentures: As you have studied physics, perhaps you are also well-versed on nuclear physics and its implications. In light of this, what are your views on nuclear energy?

Sybille van den Hove: To begin with, I would like to say that I am not a specialist in nuclear energy, but I am a relatively well-informed citizen. The other day I attended a meeting at a Belgian political party and the subject of nuclear power came up. I took the opportunity to explain why I thought nuclear energy is not a very good idea (and this is an understatement). I told them how much I wish I was pro-nuclear. It would be very convenient for me to believe that we have a clean, cheap, safe, and abundant energy source. Unfortunately, the more I look into the issues surrounding nuclear power, the more I think it doesn’t have much to offer. Apart from the fact that it is relatively carbon-free, it has many serious flaws.

First of all, it is extremely expensive. Often, when people mention the costs of nuclear power, there is an impression that its relatively inexpensive, but this is only because there are other expenses related to nuclear power that are not directly included into the cost.

Secondly, it is extremely dangerous and carries the risk of accidents such as those that occurred in Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island and other places in the USSR. Moreover, nuclear power plants are a potential terrorist target and therefore a threat on our security. It also poses the problem of nuclear waste management, which we are leaving to future generations, as well as problems of uranium supply. Finally, it is a highly centralised energy source that requires a strong and peaceful state.

This last point of a peaceful state can be analysed further. The lifespan of a nuclear power plant is about 50 to 60 years. However, it’s only recently where we have been able to celebrate a window of more than 60 years of peace in Europe, and I’m not sure if we’ll be able say the same thing in 2023. What makes us think that we can restart huge nuclear programs and have peace on a continent that has been ravaged by wars throughout history?

When the Russians and Ukrainians fought near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the operators were unsure what to doin the event of a bombing. This is not the type of information you find in plant operating manuals! Investing in technologies that require rich, peaceful, police states seems like wishful thinking to me. When I consider the stakes, whether they are economic, security, environmental, or societal, on top of what I saw in Fukushima and Chernobyl, I become more convinced of the dangers surrounding nuclear energy. Of course, some people will say that nuclear accidents are extremely rare, but when they do happen, it's a real catastrophe!

BXVentures: What other options are there if we do not pursue the nuclear path?

Sybille van den Hove: Again, I'm not a specialist in energy systems, I'm speaking from the perspective of someone trying to grasp the systemic dimension of sustainability. We have to realise that our wasteful use of energy  cannot continue, with or without nuclear power. We need to seriously rethink our relationship to energy, as well as our energy consumption. This is a fact. In my opinion, we will have to give up some of our “comforts”, or reduce our consumption to prevent continuing to feed the myth of growth. Huge efforts will be required, from all of us.

In terms of energy system solutions, I personally believe in an ultra-diversified and relatively decentralized system, so that we can use not one, but a combination of many solutions. We would not be where we are today if we had spent as much money researching alternatives as we did on nuclear power.

BXVentures: What do you think about clean technologies?

Sybille van den Hove: I think it's important to contextualise technologies, including clean technologies, and ask oneself what one is trying to bring to the world. Are you facilitating consumer growth that adds little to the world's needs or are you creating something interesting and useful? Secondly, we need to broaden our assessment of clean technologies to try, as far as possible, to avoid unpleasant surprises.

We are so motivated as human beings to find answers to our problems that we tend to develop a myriad of solutions, some of which can have unintended perverse effects. Admittedly, we cannot always anticipate them, but nevertheless, we must try to avoid putting ourselves in systems of irreversibility. Before deploying a technology on a large scale, one must carefully consider how to test it, as well reflect ex ante on the issues and risks it may pose.

BXVentures: What do you mean by an irreversible system?

Sybille van den Hove: Take geoengineering as an example. This is, for instance,  the concept behind fertilizing the oceans with iron so that plankton absorbs more carbon to combat global warming, or loading the atmosphere with aerosols to limit solar radiation reaching the Earth. In other words, it’s like deciding to do a scientific experiment on a planetary scale, with the only planet we have. It’s insane! It means that if the experiment fails, there is no turning back.

The concept of irreversibility has always helped me to focus on and prioritize the most serious environmental issues. Take the climate as an example. Even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases, it is unlikely that it will return to its 1850 state. We can’t go back. It is irreversible. Where there is nuclear contamination, such as the one caused by the Chernobyl accident, it is reversible, but only over very long time periods which go way beyond human scales, and with irreversible effects on surrounding ecosystems. The ozone layer destruction, on the other hand, is a reversible issue: if we stop releasing CFCs into the atmosphere, it will rebuild itself.

BXVentures: Do you think that technology will help us deal with the many challenges we will face in the coming decades?

Sybille van den Hove: Absolutely, but not exclusively. That is to say, some technologies, but not all, have played and will continue to play an important role in transforming the world toward greater sustainability. However, we must be extremely cautious not to become overly optimistic about technology. Technological optimism allows one to believe that nothing (or not much) needs to be changed because technology will save us and solve all our problems, much like a Deus ex machina at the end of a play. However, this does not address issues of irreversibility, which arise from biophysical laws, over which humans have no control. This provides a false sense of security. We tell ourselves that everything is fine, that we shouldn't worry because we, as human beings, are so intelligent and eventually we will find solutions.

BXVentures: With regards to technological optimism, recent news has emerged that we have made significant advancements in the field of nuclear fusion. What do you think about this announcement, as well as the fact that this energy source is proposed as practically limitless and clean?

Sybille van den Hove: I studied physics and when I graduated in 1988, we were told that fusion would be available in 30 years. Then, during my career I met a brilliant Swedish physicist who was 15 years my senior and he also was told when he graduated that it would be 30 years. Today we are told that fusion is 50 years away. So we are still nowhere with fusion! We have an energy problem today, tomorrow morning, … actually yesterday . When I saw this excitement in the press a few weeks ago, I couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry.

BXVentures: Of course, we are not there yet, and the horizon still seems far away. But isn't it worth the wait if it means unlimited energy?

Sybille van den Hove: First of all, there is no such thing as unlimited energy. You must understand that whenever you create an energy-capture system, you use materials. Energy is required to construct a solar panel. But where does this energy come from? We are not yet on the verge of producing solar panels entirely from solar energy. Unlimited energy would imply capturing the sun's energy and managing to transform it with minimal materials. Again, we have created a false sense of security. We've reached a tipping point in the game. We either act quickly to transform our societies, our ways of producing, consuming, being, and communicating, or it will catch up with us, and the consequences will be far less pleasant. It’s already proving difficult to voluntarily reduce one's consumption, but if this imposed upon us by system failures it’s going to be much worse. 

BXVentures: Regarding energy conservation, Belgium is currently considering solutions to avoid this “forced energy sobriety” later down the line. One option is to expand the operation of two nuclear reactors. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Sybille van den Hove: If it is "only" about to extending the operation of two reactors for a few years, with nuclear safety authorities  hopefully doing their jobs seriously, then be it. But, in any case, we must realise that we will have to manage the end of life associated with nuclear power plants. This includes managing the waste and dismantling of reactors, which will not be easy, nor cheap.

What worries me about nuclear power is that we continue to invest massive sums of money into new power plants that will not be operational for another 15 or 20 years. For example, France has announced the construction of new EPRs* despite the fact that progress is slow at the Flamanville EPR and that the Finnish EPR is much more expensive than expected. In no way does planning new plants solve our immediate problem. In my ideal world (perhaps naïve), we would focus on the development of energy solutions related to production, storage, use, and efficiency as well as changing our relationship with energy itself. Simply put :diversification and energy sobriety.

EPR : Third generation pressurised water nuclear reactor.

BXVentures: While we're on the subject of solutions and expectations, the scientific community's predictions are quite startling. We are on the verge of a climate disaster, and instead of reducing global emissions by 45%, we are on course to increase them by 14%. What exactly are we waiting for?

Sybille van den Hove: To be honest, I'm not sure why we're waiting. There is no straight forward explanation. Scientists have warned us for a long time, whether through the Club of Rome or the numerous IPCC reports since 1990. I'd also like to emphasize that sustainability issues  do not only include environmental concerns, but also social and economic concerns. Similarly, environmental issues are not only climate issues, climate is not only a matter of CO2 and CO2 is not only a matter of energy. These conceptions are still far too common.

I've done a lot of work on biodiversity, and I can tell you that there are strong feed-backs between climate change and biodiversity loss. Whether it's the destruction of ecosystems, the loss of genes, or the extinction of species. There are also numerous other stakes such as contamination, pollution, and resource overexploitation.

Why aren't we doing more? There are various explanations, namely: humans typically only act when confronted to a crisis; vested economic interests; technological lock-ins ;geopolitical stakes, and so on. There is, once again, no simple explanation. There no simple cause that can be singled out. Perhaps we remain ignorant to the issues at hand because they are not palatable enough and not perceived as directly attributable to our actions.

This is what we've been doing with the climate for years. It’s only been a relatively short period of time since the consequences of climate change, that are attributable to our actions, have been felt by everyone. Today, it is difficult to deny climate change, but we have spent decades doing so. And it is important to realise it was climate denial not just climate scepticism. I dislike the term “climate sceptic”, because science is built on doubt and it is through doubt that we improve our theories. Scepticism is not inherently bad. Denial is another thing.

Why aren't we doing more? Perhaps becausewe are too comfortable and we haven't suffered enough, yet.

BXVentures: Who should take action to face the challenges that lie ahead?

Sybille van den Hove: Everyone. It’s too easy to dump all of the responsibility on our politicians, especially as we are the ones electing them. If they fail to act, perhaps that’s because they were the wrong person for the job. We also cannot place all the blame on consumers, advertisers who manipulate our desires, or companies. It is a complex system with numerous entry points to attempt to change it. No one has a perfect vision of what the "right thing to do" is. However, it is pretty clear there’s a number of things that we're going to have to give up. The rest will require trial and error, adaptability, humility and curiosity. At the same time, we must remain optimistic and joyful or else we won’t even get of bed in the morning! It’s important to find the joy to tell oneself: "I'm doing my part, I'm contributing, I'm trying to move forward"(smile).

Picture of Sybille van den Hove by Martin Sharman

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