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On the train recapping the ERSS 2022

I think it has been the first conference I traveled to by train. Sea change? As a kid, I was usually traveling by train, by car, or a combination of both (using motorail) to holiday destinations with my family. The train was usually the preferred option because we had much more space compared to the car. My father loved trains. He had booklets of the Austrian train schedule on his nightstand, he had an abonnement of some train magazine, and he had a little model railway. Throughout his career he would always prefer going by train to business trips. The train was thus also the family transportation means. We were in 5, hence we usually had a whole cabin to ourselves. We would appropriate it for the time traveling and have a lot of fun.

At some point, I got friends who went by plane on holiday, and I got jealous of me not having this experience. The first couple of times flying is indeed a great experience. After that, it is often mostly a hassle. Being there way ahead of time, all the security checks, being squeezed in a tiny chair with little legroom, the usually far distance to and from the airport. Though, I have to admit, I love to see the structures from high above. Mountain ranges look so beautiful from high up in the sky and sunsets on a plane are magic. I also love to sit slightly behind the wing, because I love to observe the mechanics of the wing during take-off and landing.

I would love to go by train more often, but every time I do, I can’t help but think, that rail companies are not ready for people really traveling (not commuting) by train. Apart from many direct connections missing, there is often not enough space for proper luggage on the train. I was luckily only traveling with a backpack. Though with a bigger suitcase I would have had problems. It was also interesting to note that there seemed to have been a direct connection between Rotterdam and London. I had to go via Brussels instead. I am not sure about this connection in particular, but I know that several direct connections were discontinued because of lacking demand. Thus, we have to hang in there, demand it and the connections will hopefully be re-established. Writing this I am on the train on my way back. The train is having a delay… so cross your fingers I make it on time to my connecting train.

I have never been to Manchester before. It is always nice to visit new places and I guess if it was not for the conference I would not have traveled to Manchester. To the disappointment of my brothers, I have not visited the stadium. I have checked out a boulder gym instead. My family will be proud to hear that I also did some sightseeing (mostly on the way to the gym). They were not understanding that when I traveled to Boston, I went to a boulder gym instead of doing some sightseeing… I guess I have strange preferences.

Anyhow, how was the conference? I will start with the bad to finish off with the good. The cost of the conference was exorbitantly high. For that price, I would have expected more. In another blog, I have described the whole poster situation. One would think that with such high fees more room should have been made available. Anyhow, while the food I could eat was great and the staff was friendly and helpful, I was puzzled by how the food situation was handled. I do not quite understand why a vegan and gluten-free diet creates problems in a “developed” country. The way they handled special food requirements (there were many vegans, vegetarians, and people not eating gluten) was a bit suboptimal. The conference app was not really good. I think the app was not that user-friendly and it was hard to keep an overview of the parallel sessions. I guess an app is more environment-friendly compared to printing the program. I still did not like the app much. Also, the poster voting was too much of a hassle. One would need to systematically go through all posters and note down the poster number. Frankly, I was too lazy to do that. I would have preferred to provide the preferred poster of the day every single day instead of a score at the end of the conference. The notifications were also a bit hidden. So, yes, not the most user-friendly app.

I just learned something new. Apparently, there are fast tracks and slow tracks for trains. We are having some problems with the overhead wires, they need to be repaired on the fast track. It seems we will switch to the slow track. Fascinating. My dad would have known, I am sure. That makes me think of me going for the first time underwater by train (Brussels - London) on the way to the conference. Admittedly I was a little excited (anxious). It reminded me also how silly this is. Similar to the first rail tunnels and people not wanting to use them because they were scared of them. We are moving again… backward, to change the track I guess.

Back to the conference. The good things: I was honestly blown away by many keynotes being blunt and calling researchers to take action. So to not only be a researcher but to also be an activist in some capacity. I guess it is because of the bubble I am in, but often the facilitation of transitions is focused on technology and market-based solutions. At this conference, many, maybe most contributions highlighted that it is not that simple. Even the negative sides of e.g. green technology have been highlighted several times. The downside of technology is often neglected in the whole green econ debate. Wrongly so. I am of the opinion that looking at and being open about the weak spots makes one gain strength. Instead of being open about the downsides of green tech I often have the impression people pretend there are no downsides. It was also indicated that there are no renewables. I could not agree more. Every technology is based on some resources, which are finite.

No slow track, we stay on the fast track. They fixed the wire and, as the conductor announced, we are the first ones to test it. Always good to be a guinea pig. Getting the connecting train is going to be a close call. 12.19 now, have to be on the train by 13.00.

I never had a chance…

Running with my heavy backpack from London Euston to London St. Pancras, arriving at the international gate to find out that the gate closes 30 min before departure. When I left the train in Euston it was 12.28. I ended up in a long queue to exchange my ticket. In line, I checked with the travel agency what to do with the next connecting ticked (Brussels – Rotterdam). I have to say all went smooth but took ages (not sure if I have ever queued for so long at a ticket counter and the passport / security controls). I guess this is still the effect of the strike the day before.

All the time in the queue I was wondering, if the railway system is ready for the energy transition, for the sustainability transition, after all. All this investment in biofuels to provide more sustainable substitutes for commercial jet fuels. Should we not rather focus on getting the railway system ready for people mostly traveling by train. For sure this whole mess is the exception rather than the norm. Still, I do not think that the railway system is ready for a surge in passengers (and their luggage).

At least a met a former collaborator from my times at UHasselt on the platform boarding the train. At least I have a comfy seat at the window. So privileged-people-problems after all. And it will serve me as a good anecdote for the rest of my life.

Back to my reflections on the conference. Although I was bashing the food logistics at the conference, I have to say, that the food that I could eat was delicious! The same needs to be stated about the conference dinner, which was a nice event. I am always in for Indian food. Before, I have already mentioned that I would have expected more for the money paid. On the other hand, I appreciated how relaxed the atmosphere was. I guess I want to say I expected it to be posher and more unrelaxed. People were generally relaxed and down to earth. Thus, despite the high fee, the conference hosts created a pleasant atmosphere.

I think for an overall impression, I would say I appreciated that the content of the conference provided a realistic image of the energy traction than is often provided otherwise. The energy transition is often about fancy tech, from electric cars to solar panels. But these technologies are not available to the majority of the global population. Not only most people of the “global South” are excluded, also within the wealthier nations, most people are excluded. That does not only apply to technology, but also to other options that would reduce energy demand, such as insulation. Many presentations and posters highlighted this problem of exclusion. For sure, the polluter elite needs to reduce their footprint. Though switching technologies will only solve this partly. That is, because the energy transition does not only need to be tackled via efficiency gains but also via increasing sufficiency. The sufficiency point is usually completely neglected. How could one ask someone to limit consumption? That does not match with the western worldview, which does not know limits and only asks for higher, faster, further, and more, more, more. In my own contribution, I focus on this “deeper transition” that calls for a mindset shift.

I suppose being a researcher contributes to losing things out of site. We usually have a relatively good income (even if conditions are precarious). Thus many, particularly once one is established, have no insight into the struggle of the average person, not to mention of those who live in poverty. Then we apply our shiny tech solutions, which do not at all fit the reality of the majority. There was one presentation illustrating energy and mobility poverty and the impact of this state. Though the solutions were rather simple. One of these solutions was the installation of bike lanes. Other contributions indicated the problem of cooking with firewood. Having to cook with wood is not only bad for one’s health (due to smoke) but it is also related to time lost fetching wood, which again has negative consequences for people’s overall ability to improve their circumstances. This is not a new problem, yet it has not been solved. When we talk about the energy transition, we often lose such realities out of sight. And yet another problem, which is, as I have indicated already, often neglected are the negative impacts of green tech throughout the lifecycle (from resource extraction to manufacturing to waste creation at the end of the lifecycle). I am personally always a bit frustrated when people focus on tech and the miracle of the market to solve all problems. I always wonder if those who suggest this have lost any connection to reality? I very much appreciated the much more complete picture of the energy transition that was provided during the conference. Don’t get me wrong the market works to some extent, and I like tech. I am sitting on a train writing on a tablet, so obviously I am not against tech. Increasing prices made me stop smoking, increasing fuel prices made me switch to an e-bike. But the price increase for cigarettes was not due to demand-supply dynamics, but governmental interventions. Even if increasing fuel prices are based on market mechanisms, what price do these increases really have? They are built on irreversible planetary destruction. Potentially prices should have increased via governmental intervention 50 years ago. Without wanting to expand further, I just want to express that it was a great experience hearing so many voices that provided a more comprehensive picture.

I am now in my train to Rotterdam. The alternative Thalys trains were booked up, so I had to take a slower train, which is fine. I have a good seat next to the window and my backpack found a place on the overhead bag rack. A quite adventurous day, which will end late.

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