Emilie Vandenbegine, a 19-year-old student from Montreal, is an active environmentalist in both Korea and Canada. She came to Korea to take a break from her studies and immerse herself in a project that interests her before starting her bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Montreal next September. She applied to Solvay and was given the opportunity to work as an intern at Solvay’s Ewha campus Research & Innovation Center.
Solvay is a Belgian chemical company founded in 1863 whose chemistry and technologies have been used to bring advancements in planes, cars, batteries, smart and medical devices, water, and air treatment. Its purpose is to solve critical industrial, social, and environmental challenges.
Ewha and Solvay held a signing ceremony in 2011, making Ewha the first university in Korea to form a university-industry collaboration with Solvay. They agreed to build a research center, establish joint research infrastructure, and foster talented women in the sciences. Consequently, the school founded the Solvay Research & Innovation Center at the Ewha University- Industry Cooperation Building in 2014. Since then, the two have been actively interacting with each other as mutual research partners.
“As environmental activists, big corporations like Solvay are usually our enemy, so we criticize them for holding responsibility in the climate crisis,” Vandenbegine said in an interview with Ewha Voice. “However, as I diverted my thoughts, I realized that engaging in Solvay could become a huge learning opportunity to me. Being able to see in person how Solvay is adapting in an era where environmental sustainability becomes a priority definitely seemed interesting.”
After arriving in Korea at the end of January, Vandenbegine started her internship on Feb. 7. Hoping to leave a substantial report of her honest opinion on the company and exchange points of view with others, she is studying multiple aspects of Solvay, including whether there is any sort of greenwashing. Also, she is examining the employees’ understanding of climate change and sustainability and what the priority of environmental sustainability is inside the company.
So far, she has conducted a few interviews with employees whom she asked “uncomfortable” questions mainly concerning the company’s sustainability policies. Vandenbegine explained that she tried to have open and honest discussions in which she did not hesitate to point out things that she did not understand or thought were detrimental to the environment.
According to Vandenbegine, she plans to visit Solvay’s silica plant in Gunsan and is also anticipating meetings with other company executives, Ewha professors, and Ewha’s environmental organizations to push discussions on the environment even further. She shared her goal of establishing a solid relationship between Ewha’s environmental organization and Solvay to encourage collaboration between them even after she leaves. With the help of organizations, big companies will be reminded that it is in everyone’s best interest to keep environmental sustainability as a top priority.
Vandenbegine’s strong interest and passion in the environment traces back to three years ago when issues related to climate change began to be popularized by a few student strikes in Europe.
“I wondered why no initiatives like such were taken in Montreal,” Vandenbegine said. “As it turns out, I was not the only student who was uncomfortable with the lack of initiative from the government’s part as well as the population. So, six other students and I decided to get together and create the DEC (short for Collective Environmental Duty in French). We teamed up with two other student organizations, started to organize strikes, and advertised them around our schools. Our goal was to catch the government’s eye as well as to sensitize other students to the scale of the crisis.”
At the first strike, around 150,000 people showed up when Vandenbegine expected only 60,000 students. She thus described it as “a big win.” Afterwards, she organized more strikes and direct actions to sensitize people. The student organizations gained structure, and now there are sub-committees in every high school, college, and university in Montreal.
Every Friday, following Greta Thunberg’s example, Vandenbegine and her team participated in Fridays for Future, which is a worldwide initiative to strike every Friday until the government starts treating the climate crisis as what it is: a crisis. The last student strike that was organized before COVID-19 gathered half a million people, which “was the biggest one yet.” The team succeeded in talking with government officials, but none of the discussions led to anything concrete.
“We live in this fantasy world, in this illusion where money rules and humanity is set aside,” Vandenbegine said. “We have lost sight of what really matters, which is a life full of connections with people and with nature. We need to abrogate our arrogance in thinking that we are above nature when we are a part of it. We value luxuries and privileges like shopping every other day or keeping a house warm inside while it is freezing outside more than we value and respect life itself. While we still have a few years to pretend it is okay, the wake-up call will be brutal. That will be millions of human deaths, the loss of almost all the wildlife, and deplorable living conditions for the lucky ones.”
Taking this into account, Vandenbegine believes that it is essential to protect nature by abandoning our excessive lifestyle and minimizing waste.
“Taking action is much easier than you think; you just need to set your mind to it,” she added. “I think that it is important for us, students, and the youth from all over the world, to fight for our future. We have educated opinions that easily get lost in the discussions of policymakers. Don’t be afraid to take a stand!”