This article was originally published in the Nature Physics Review
At the start of 2023, the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) switched to buying its electricity from renewable sources — a major step towards environmental sustainability at an organization that provides accelerator facilities for more than 3,000 guest scientists each year. The switch is one of the initiatives overseen by the sustainability office, which was created in 2019 in recognition of the need to dramatically reduce the environmental footprint of DESY.
The office is headed by Denise Völker, a political scientist with a doctorate in the area of climate change and security. Her previous work took her from the Amazon to Siberia, as she helped Greenpeace and other non-profit organizations campaign on issues such as deforestation. Völker spoke with Nature Reviews Physics about what difference a sustainability office can make, why environmental leadership at big science facilities matters, and what it’s like moving from working with activists to working with physicists. [...]
What are you most proud of from your time so far at DESY?
That I am invited to physics symposia. Just today I gave a presentation at the iFAST (Innovation Fostering in Accelerator Science and Technology) annual meeting. I am probably the only non-physicist in the room, I talk about the problem of rare-earth mining and how physicists need rare-earths for their permanent magnets, for example. And although I am not a physicist (and don’t even understand the title of most of the other presentations) they invite me, listen to me and discuss with me. That I would be able to get into ‘their world’ so deeply I did not expect. [...]
Does your work ever come into conflict with the other goals of DESY?
Sure. Change is never easy. It costs human resources, sometimes money. Sometimes people are afraid that cost could limit or postpone other projects. DESY switched to renewable energy by the beginning of this year, which is more expensive than energy was before. That’s money that can’t be used elsewhere. On the other hand, each scientist understands the significance of the science-based facts on climate change and other planetary boundaries. And no one wants to leave a rubbish planet for their children and grandchildren. So normally we find a good compromise.
And we are also successful in finding third-party money. We are very proud that so far, each proposal for third-party funding of sustainability activities we started in the last four years was successful — from money for a more efficient power transformer, to funding for the waste heat recovery, to an EU project on sustainable accelerator development.