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Economic knowledge and understanding aid environmental transitions

Published: 27th September 2018 Last updated: 30th April 2019

Inaugural address by Professor Herman Vollebergh
PERSBERICHT 27 september 2018 - Environmental concerns loom larger than ever before. While the Paris Agreement evinces an ambitious challenge, politicians are struggling to press ahead and in the Netherlands, too, it remains to be seen whether this climate agreement initiates the great leap forwards. At the same time, criticism of the science of economics is rising, fueled by Kate Raworth’s advocacy of ‘doughnut economics’. She argues that economists have next to nothing to say about the structural social changes deemed necessary, ‘transitions’, given their preoccupation with non-existing rational people in a too limited linear world.

In his inaugural address ‘Haasje over? Instrumentering van transities: van uitdaging naar uitvoering’ [Leapfrog? Engineering Transitions: From Challenge to Execution] on September 28, Professor Herman Vollebergh will explain that in the face of such great challenges there is in fact a great deal to learn from economists.


Transitions are society-wide, fundamental, and related changes in technology, organizations, institutions, and culture. In the case of climate and environmental issues in a broader sense, these changes ultimately result in consumption and production processes that are much ‘greener’. The central question in Vollebergh’s inaugural address is: How can we persuade society to make consistent use of the opportunities to emit fewer greenhouse gases and to be considerably more economical with natural resources and to use radical innovations in the process? In other words: How do we get this ‘green frog’ to take the leap? In his inaugural address, Vollebergh will apply this challenge to the potential engineering of the future Climate Agreement in the Netherlands and he will also show what we can learn from the science of economics.

Climate Agreement and the science of economics

The question how the frog can be made to take the leap essentially concerns transition management and more specifically the question how transitions can be engineered. Using six propositions, Vollebergh explains what the science of economics can teach us about engineering transitions. For example, he asserts that major transitions require system-wide environmental costing to counteract the current system failure: for ungreen activities the full cost must be charged, while green activities must be given additional support. He also believes that bringing about the transition inevitably requires firm government intervention. For the Netherlands this implies a minimum price in the European emissions trading system and, even more important, improved application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle in environmental taxation. This will also resolve the distribution issue, as households currently carry a disproportionately large share of the energy transition burden.

Reasoning along these lines, Vollebergh insists that economic knowledge and understanding constitute a rich source that can be used to understand the underlying structures of our society, and he shows how policy measures can best be deployed to serve and secure public environmental interests.

Following his affiliation to Erasmus University Rotterdam, Herman Vollebergh (1961) has worked at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency since 2007. Between 1980 and 1986, he studied Economics and Sociology at Tilburg University. In 1999, he earned a PhD at Erasmus University Rotterdam with a thesis on the principles of economics and their relation with environmental issues. Since June 1, 2016, he has held an endowed chair in Economics and Environmental Policy at the Tilburg School of Economics and Management. This professorship is hosted at the Tilburg Sustainability Center.


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