Birka Wicke

Portretfoto Birka Wicke
My research is about the sustainability challenges around land use for food, energy and materials, with the aim to find new possibilities for agriculture and other biomass production.
Birka Wicke
Science, Management and Innovation
Current role

On 1 April 2022, Prof. Birka Wicke has been appointed as professor of Land, Climate and Sustainability at Radboud University. At the Radboud Institute for Biological and Environmental Sciences (RIBES), she will work on her Vidi project that will map the emissions of land use and who is responsible for them, among other topics and projects related to sustainable pathways for agriculture and the biobased economy.

Can you tell us something about your field of research?

“My research is about the sustainability challenges around land use for food, energy and materials, with the aim to find new possibilities for agriculture and other biomass production. I want to know how we can do this more sustainably. This fits with the mission of RIBES, Towards healthy ecosystems.”

“All kinds of different aspects play a role in sustainability. I mainly look at climate change and the greenhouse gas emissions from land use. But other environmental or socio-economic impacts are of course also very important for land use: water availability and quality, biodiversity, employment, health, etc. In my research, I analyse the current system and also consider options and alternatives for the future.”

What topics are you currently working on?

“My research focusses on three topics: the first is bio-energy and the potential and impact of bio-energy production, which I have studied since my dissertation. Nowadays, I’m more focussed on land use in general, so not just bio-energy but also food, animal feed and materials. With this comes my second topic: what is the influence of land use on the environment and people, and how can we improve this? From that, a third and complex question follows: who is responsible for these impacts?”

Palm oil

“An example of the complexity around responsibility for emissions is when these emissions occur far from the Netherlands, but for products that we import to the Netherlands. Palm oil is an interesting case. In the Netherlands, we use a lot of products that contain palm oil, imported from Malaysia and Indonesia. In those countries, palm oil often comes with deforestation: rainforest disappears to make room for oil palm plantations. So, who is responsible, if Indonesia produces palm oil for the Netherlands? Right now, emissions are attributed to Indonesia disregarding our consumptions as an underlying driver and ignoring that we as the Netherlands have a role to play in reducing deforestation in other countries.”

What projects will you be working on here at Radboud University?

“The example of palm oil is part of my Vidi project. This research is about greenhouse gas emissions from land use now and in the future, strategies to reduce these emissions, and the responsibility to do so. We look at three levels. The first is land use itself and how the production of different agricultural crops affects emissions from land use. The second is about companies that play a large role in where things come from and how they are produced. Companies usually do not account for the emissions of products they purchase and import. The third level is about the links between producing and consuming countries, looking at how emission responsibility could be shared across countries.

”Besides my Vidi project, I am also starting a new Horizon Europe project on sustainability certification for biobased materials and chemicals. The project aims to improve the effectiveness and robustness of certification and labelling schemes. My work in this project relates to the direct and indirect effects of certifying a production chain, for example, think about how stricter criteria regarding land use influence the greenhouse gas emission performance of the products.”


“In this research, a lot of different aspects and disciplines are involved. For the Vidi, you need the natural sciences to look at land use and land management, for example how these change over time and how the resulting biophysical changes affect carbon in biomass and soil. I also look at agricultural commodity trade by both countries and companies to establish links between production and consumption, so that’s related to field of economics. Besides that, the social sciences and humanities also play an important role to answer the normative questions: who is responsible and how can countries and companies be held responsible for emissions that often occur far away? Moreover, there’s also a policy and governance aspect of the issue, for which you need political sciences. I try to bring these fields together to make a step forward in figuring out solutions for the climate impacts of land use.”

What do you want to achieve with this project?

“Eventually, I want to identify strategies for mitigating the land use sector’s impact on climate change, including specific action that companies and governments can take. This is why we will also work with important stakeholders in the field. Next to the policy side, I also want to develop educational programmes aimed at children, so they can get familiar with climate change, our carbon footprint and our responsibility to reduce this footprint. I have worked with primary school pupils before and got a lot of energy from their curiosity and care for the environment. So I really look forward to it.”

Will you also be teaching?

“In 2022-2023 I will teach the course Energy and climate (a second-year Master’s course) where I combine my background in energy and my interest in climate. Moreover, I want to contribute to the proposed new Master’s programme on science for sustainability, which is being developed together with Nijmegen School of Management. I have a lot of experience in sustainability science education from my previous job in Utrecht, which I can bring to the table. In the past, I have worked with large groups of students.  Now I’m really looking forward to providing more small-scale education in which I can get to know students.”