Spinoza laureate Detlef van Vuuren: ’Let the future not only be sustainable, but also just’

The "greenhouse gas accountant of the world," as Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant once described him. Not an undeserved qualification for Detlef van Vuuren: his research has contributed to, among other things, the Paris Climate Agreement and plays an important role in multiple reports of the IPCC. This year he has been awarded the Spinoza Prize for his scientific work, the highest honour in Dutch science. The prize is accompanied by a monetary award of 1.5 million euros to be spent on scientific research and activities relating to knowledge utilisation. "There are attractive solutions ready for us which are not only economically beneficial, but would also improve the lives of billions of people worldwide."

Humanity faces the great challenge of managing the current global climate and sustainability crisis. To achieve this, knowledge from socio-economic, technological and natural sciences is needed. The research of Detlef van Vuuren (1970), Professor of Integrated Assessment of Global Environmental Change at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development and a climate researcher at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency has been instrumental in connecting these disciplines through the IMAGE model. For this groundbreaking scientific achievement, Van Vuuren receives the Spinoza Prize.

Club of Rome

Detlef van Vuuren studied Environmental Science and Chemistry at Utrecht University, a year of Public Administration Science in Leiden, and completed his studies in Utrecht in 1995. In that same year, also in Utrecht, he took his first steps towards climate research. In 2007, he obtained his doctoral degree on long-term scenarios for energy systems and climate policy, followed by his appointment as a Professor four years later. What made him want to become a climate researcher? Van Vuuren says: "In the 1980s, at the point where I was choosing what to study, environmental issues were becoming a real concern to the public. This made it a logical choice for me. And while I was studying, Beyond the Limits, a great book by the Club of Rome was published. The authors created a relatively simple model in which they described various future scenarios: what could go wrong, but also how things could be done differently. In their foreword, they thanked Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) researchers Klaas van Egmond and Bert de Vries, who would both later become professors at the Copernicus Institute. I immediately reached out and asked if one of them could supervise my graduation thesis. I ended up working with Bert de Vries on climate research and never left the field!"

Studying environmental issues was a logical choice for me.

Prof. Detlef van Vuuren

Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development

Relevant

Combining his two roles - senior researcher at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and professor at Utrecht University - enables Van Vuuren to convert his IMAGE model research into practical solutions. The researcher always felt strongly connected to Utrecht, because of both the city and the university. "I consider myself fortunate to have been able to combine my research at RIVM and PBL with a chair at Utrecht University." He is a passionate and successful proponent of combining academic and policy-relevant research, and is living proof that it is possible to work mostly outside the academic world and still do research of great scientific and societal importance. "Because I combine scientific research and applied policy work, what I do becomes immediately relevant."

Detlef’s work is the integrator of climate science, connecting the physical changes in the climate with economics and ecology.

Prof. Wilco Hazeleger

Dean Faculty of Geosciences

Connection

"Detlef’s work is the integrator of climate science, connecting the physical changes in the climate with economics and ecology," says Prof. Wilco Hazeleger, dean of the Faculty of Geosciences, of which the Copernicus Institute is a part. "This integration is his strength. His visions of future society feed climate models to determine the impact on the climate. His future scenarios provide policymakers and politicians with tools to substantiate the choices they need to make. Detlef’s integrative work fits seamlessly with our faculty, from the impact of climate change determined by his models to the transition pathways we can envision based on his results."

Interdisciplinary work

"Detlef has fully integrated interdisciplinarity into his research team, teaching, and impact activities both inand outside the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development," adds Prof. Ellen Moors, head of the Copernicus Institute. "In his work he effortlessly combines insights from modelling, policy, and transition studies with current challenges in sustainable land and water use, energy, food supply, and the circular economy. He is truly a showcase for all’interdisciplinary work within the Copernicus Institute and beyond."

Leading position

Prof. Marko Hekkert, director of PBL, adds that the award of the Spinoza Prize is a recognition of his leading position in international climate science. "We are thrilled to have someone of Detlef’s caliber as a scientist working with us and contributing to the development of policy-relevant knowledge, precisely why PBL was founded. This recognition underscores the significance of his work and the importance of this type of knowledge."

Detlef has fully integrated interdisciplinarity into his research team, teaching, and impact activities.

Prof. Ellen Moors

Head Copernicus Institute

Van Vuuren’s research teams often consist of scientists who are at the start of their careers and come from broad research backgrounds. His work at PBL enables him to put his PhD students in direct contact with climate policymaking and let them experience research outside the academic setting. Conversely, these doctoral colleagues are a priceless source of inspiration to him. "Supervising PhDs is one of the most beautiful aspects of my work. You help people embark on the path to becoming researchers and developing themselves, while at the same time seeing all the brilliant ideas they contribute. Very inspiring!"

Attractive solutions available

Back to climate research. The impact of Van Vuuren’s work with the IMAGE model is far reaching. His research has contributed to multiple reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the climate panel of the United Nations. These reports form the foundation of international climate negotiations and policies. For instance, his team used the IMAGE model to design the standard scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5 C and 2 C, which played an important role in the Paris Climate Agreement. The Spinoza Prize selection committee describes Van Vuuren’s research as ’highly relevant and broadening in the discussion on climate, biodiversity and the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations’. What goals and ambitions has he set for himself? "We need to better understand how we can find solutions to sustainability challenges that are both effective and fair. It’s incredibly unwise that we are heading towards a global average temperature that will adversely affect billions of people. This is also true economically speaking. There are attractive solutions available to us that are not only economically beneficial, but would also improve the lives of billions all’over the world."

Justice

This touches on a theme that is becoming increasingly important in his work: justice. His model accounts for variables such as energy and land use, emissions and demographic changes. This approach enables the development of scientifically-grounded scenarios which explore the future impact of climate policies. Similar scenarios can also be developed for other sustainability issues such as biodiversity loss and air pollution.

"It’s about an integrated approach. In the past we mostly focused on the end goals: demonstrating how they can be achieved, proving it’s possible to stay within 1.5 C and certainly far below the 2 C of warming, and also showing how appealing this can be from many different perspectives. But meanwhile we have spent far too little attention to justice and how to distribute responsibility for climate action."

In this context, Van Vuuren points out the role coal plays in climate change. "Our research shows that phasing out coal is the "cost-optimal" solution. But the majority of coal use takes place in India and China! Economists have often said: okay, but wealthy countries can then pay for reductions elsewhere. But does this actually happen? If you only focus on cost-optimal solutions you can create situations which are simply unfair. You cannot expect countries to take the lead in solutions to problems caused largely by other countries. Climate justice must therefore play a much more central role in our scenarios, so we can outline future scenarios which are not only sustainable, but just too."

You cannot expect countries to take the lead in solutions to problems caused largely by other countries.

A new role

And which role does Van Vuuren still see for the IPCC? "The issue of climate change emerged in the late 80s, but at the time we still lacked certainty about the scale of the problem. Did we really have to fundamentally change our energy system and the way in which we organised our society? The IPCC was established to answer these kinds of questions and played a pivotal role here. By around 2005, however, the most critical questions were largely answered. Despite this, the IPCC remains useful today, primarily for new insights, of course - but also for different reasons. Each time an IPCC report is released, it refocuses global attention on climate change. This creates a platform where science, policy makers and the media all’over the world briefly concentrate on this enormous problem. Timing is crucial here, too. For instance, the 2014 IPCC reports were published to provide knowledge to the 2015 negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement."

Looking to the future, Van Vuuren believes the IPCC needs to think hard about how to stay relevant.

An integrated narrative

Looking to the future, Van Vuuren believes the IPCC needs to think hard about how to stay relevant. "The biggest challenge the IPCC finds itself facing is how to remain relevant in a society that is becoming increasingly polarised and where facts are disputed. They should think about alternative methods of communication beyond just publishing all these long reports. Additionally, climate change is not our only crisis. There are several others that have to some extent common causes. How useful is it that we have separate intergovernmental panels for climate, biodiversity and the environment? We need to tell one integrated narrative, but at the moment we are not doing that well enough."

Genuine knowledge

Van Vuuren’s greatest concern is that science is increasingly called into question. "If we were living in a world where we acted based on scientific facts it might still be tricky to achieve the goal of less than 1.5 C of warming, but I’m convinced we wouldn’t exceed the 2 C target. Unfortunately, at this moment we are also questioning genuine knowledge too much. Alternative facts are everywhere. But I’m optimistic in nature. Our society doesn’t always operate in the most sensible manner, but I’ve also seen how some developments gradually move in the right direction, whether or not in response to scientific advice."

Awards ceremony

Research financier NWO awards the Spinoza and Stevin Prizes - also known as the ’Dutch Nobel Prizes’ - annually to researchers doing outstanding, pioneering and inspiring work. For the Spinoza Prize the emphasis is on scientific work and fundamental issues, while the Stevin Prize primarily honours societal impact. Public administration researcher Paul ’t Hart (Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance) has been awarded a Stevin Prize. The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 2 October.