Combating Climate Change with a Pioneering Spirit
Solar Impulse Foundation Presents 1,000+ Efficient and Profitable Solutions to Combat Climate Change
In mid-April, the Solar Impulse Foundation announced that its “1000 clean and profitable solutions" initiative had reached its first goal. Founded by environmental visionary and explorer Bertrand Piccard, the organization dedicated to combating climate change over the past three years has identified and vetted more than 1,000 technological innovations for efficiently and profitably protecting the environment. By early July, the portfolio of “Efficient Solution”-labeled technologies has grown to more than 1,200 solutions. It is the only portfolio of certified technologies of its kind available to governments, businesses, and individuals. Piccard, who became world-famous for circumnavigating the globe first in a balloon and then in a solar aircraft, will present the project’s first Cleanprint at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021. Michael Reubold asked him about the ambitious project and its potential significance for global climate protection.
CHEManager: Mr. Piccard, for half a century, mankind has been aware that our way of living and doing business pollutes the environment and affects the climate. But the industrialized nations, in particular, have so far only taken halfhearted countermeasures. How do you explain this ignorance of the impending global catastrophe?
Bertrand Piccard: You know, I am a psychiatrist by training. So, preserving the environment interests me as much as understanding the human tendency to destroy it. As long as polluting the planet is cheaper than preserving it, humanity will continue to do so. A human being is not prone to care for consequences that outlive its existence. This is precisely where our work comes in. Protecting the environment needs to be lucrative; it needs to create profit and jobs. I want to prove to individuals, businesses, and governments that this is possible. Simply put, I am speaking the language of money and job creation as this seems to be a universal language that everyone is eager to understand.
Are we pursuing the wrong approaches to solving the global challenges?
B. Piccard: We still live in an inefficient world that is wasting the biggest part of its energy, food and resources produced as if they were infinite. Our priority must be to become more efficient. When I see that most of the world is still producing combustion engine cars when electric cars have become a viable and much more efficient alternative, then I think we don't embrace new technologies and industries fast enough. Buildings continue to be badly insulated; we even waste waste without understanding that it is a valuable resource; this must stop. We have all the technologies to stop it but not enough impetus and willingness to go fast enough.
Profit and profitability are powerful drivers of change in our market-driven world. Should we replace warnings and prohibitions with opportunities and incentives to save our environment?
B. Piccard: We should not stop the warnings, but we have to add the notion of benefit and profitability. I am always in favor of winning people over by making them believe in the opportunities that a particular behavior promises. We are much more effective if people are convinced as opposed to being coerced.
At the end of 2017, you launched the Solar Impulse Foundation's next initiative with the "World Alliance for Efficient Solutions" and the goal of identifying 1,000 efficient and profitable solutions for environmental and climate protection. Now you have reached this goal. Does this mark the successful end of your initiative?
B. Piccard: No, it marks an important milestone and allows us to go further. When we started this journey with the Solar Impulse Foundation, many thought that 1,000 such solutions didn't exist. We proved them wrong. Now we have a unique portfolio of solutions spanning all industries and sectors of our economy. The most important work still awaits us: we need to make sure that they get used. This is why I plan to see as many business leaders and government representatives as possible and convince them of the opportunities that are so numerous that it would be foolish not to embrace them.
Merely relying on the forces of the market economy to help these promising solutions achieve a breakthrough might not be enough. After all, we are facing challenges that can only be mastered through global cooperation. How can such projects be promoted worldwide?
B. Piccard: Global consensus has proven difficult to reach in diverse international climate conferences. In order to reinforce market opportunities, we at the Solar Impulse Foundation are pushing to modernize the legal framework as we believe it will create a need for clean technologies and will pull them to the market. Therefore, we are organizing meetings with decision makers from all over the world. We also screen solutions from everywhere and connect them with investors and potential customers. I hope to be able to inspire many more people across the globe to follow this vision.
You were the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon and in a solar-powered airplane, and your projects have proven that even seemingly impossible visions can be realized. What drives you?
B. Piccard: I have grown up in an environment where nothing seemed impossible. My grandfather invented the first pressurized cabin to climb into the stratosphere and he was the first man to see the curvature of the earth. My father was an undersea explorer and dived into the ocean's deepest point, the Marianna trench. Contrary to many others, I allow myself to go beyond long-held beliefs and explore their exact opposites. The freedom to think and imagine is what drives me, especially when it comes to improve quality of life on Earth.
What were the success factors that led your previous missions to their goal? And what do you derive from this for your future initiatives?
B. Piccard: My previous projects all started with an extremely ambitious vision. Ideas that some would have called impossible. The key to my successes was not believing in those who doubted but encouraging my team to overcome long-held certainties. As soon as you drop your preconceptions and allow yourself to explore the unknown, innovation sets in. You do things differently than others.
„As soon as you drop your preconceptions and allow yourself to explore the unknown, innovation sets in.“
Another critical factor in my explorations was the acceptance of potential failure. I failed many times before I succeeded. The worst is not failing but not trying.
In sporting competitions or adventures, the "material" is always highlighted as a decisive factor. What role did modern materials play in your missions?
B. Piccard: I would not have made it without modern materials, of course. The innovation behind Breitling Orbiter, the balloon that allowed us to fly around the world in a non-stop flight, and behind Solar Impulse II, the first solar airplane that carried me around the world in a potentially perpetual flight, was ground-breaking. We have innovative materials all around us to do more incredible things – we now need to be bold in using them.
The partners in the "Solar Impulse 2" mission included plastics manufacturers such as Solvay and Covestro. Plastics are the subject of criticism in many places today, especially because of the global increase in plastic waste. How can we produce, use and dispose of polymer materials responsibly, and what responsibility do plastics producers have to do so?
„Plastic is not bad in itself; it becomes bad when people throw it in the oceans or in landfills instead of recycling it.“
B. Piccard: After having been the problem, the chemical industry wants to now be part of the solution. Plastic is not bad in itself; it becomes bad when people throw it in the oceans or in landfills instead of recycling it. This is why I find it especially encouraging when big players like Solvay take concrete action and invest in cleaner materials and processes.
„After having been the problem, the chemical industry wants to now be part of the solution.“
We have to accompany them on their way to finding new ways of production and recycling that are profitable. We cannot do it without them, and this is why we need to work together. We need to implement technologies that already allow us to do so much better. Carbiolice, for example, is a French start-up that received the Solar Impulse Label for developing an additive that makes plastic of plant origin biodegradable. Imagine that we could throw yogurt cups into the compost.
How many of the 1,000+ solutions that will shape our sustainable development in areas such as housing, mobility or energy supply are based on advanced materials?
B. Piccard: We have solutions that cover adhesives, ceramics, coating, composite materials, glass innovation, green chemistry, nanotechnologies, and structural building materials, to name but a few categories. They amount to roughly 200 solutions, so about 20% of our portfolio.
Listing all 1,000+ solutions is beyond the scope of any article, but can you categorize the solutions or describe some of the most exciting approaches or fields of action?
B. Piccard: Solutions in the building sector are the most numerous in our portfolio, closely followed by circular economy solutions and waste recycling. One inspiring example in the field of recycling and renewable energy is Wagabox. Developed by a spin-off of AirLiquide, it allows you to collect the methane that develops in landfills and re-injected it as energy into the grid. Imagine we could install Wagabox for all the 20,000 landfills of the world. This could be huge. Solutions in the field of renewable fuels and water are currently the least represented. I am planning to change that and find more.
Established corporations are now developing more sustainable production technologies and products – often only as a result of external pressure. But many of the solutions are also being developed by SMEs or start-ups. How can this promising innovation ecosystem be made even more effective?
B. Piccard: It's an interesting observation. 90% of our solutions come from start-ups. They are the ones who strive to build the business of tomorrow, so, by nature, they are bold in their business ideas. What we see with most solutions in our portfolio is that they lack maturity and funding at one point in time. They need investments, partners, and a network to help them break through. The Solar Impulse Foundation does precisely that. Only recently we have set up investment funds with BNP Paribas and Rothschild/ALIAD that will invest in Solar Impulse-labeled solutions. We need to see more of this and on a large scale.
Many people see environmental and climate protection on the one hand and progress and economic growth on the other as a contradiction, giving the impression that they are progress resisters. How do you see the relationship?
B. Piccard: The Solar Impulse Foundation's raison d'être is to prove the opposite. Ecology and economy go hand in hand today, and they absolutely have to. Our 1,000+ labels have been awarded to solutions that are beneficial for the environment and our quality of life and, as importantly, profitable for producers and consumers. They prove that the old clear-cut division between growth and climate protection is obsolete and needs to be re-adjusted. In other words, we now have to link GDP with the quality of the efficiency and not anymore with the quantity of consumption.
The young generation is holding up a mirror to the world through the "Fridays for Future" movement, vehemently calling on the governments of this world to act to protect the environment and the climate. The Solar Impulse Foundation is also committed to the education of children and young people. What do you believe the next generation can do?
B. Piccard: The next generation must ring the alarm bell and push the governments to act. They are the new voters. This happens in synergy with our program at the Solar Impulse Foundation where we show governments how to act and how to implement solutions.
About Bertrand Piccard
Bertrand Piccard is a physician, researcher and pilot, founder and chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation, and initiator and ambassador of other charitable initiatives, programs and foundations. He studied medicine at the University of Lausanne from 1979 to 1986, specializing in psychiatry and psychotherapy. Coming from a well-known family of researchers, he was born to look beyond the obvious and achieve the impossible. As early as the 1970s, he was one of the pioneers of hang gliding and ultralight flying in Europe. In the 1990s, he won the first transatlantic hot air balloon race and captained the first non-stop round-the-world flight in a hot air balloon. In 2016, as the initiator and pilot of Solar Impulse, he achieved the first circumnavigation of the world in a solar airplane. Piccard set countless aviation world records and has been awarded numerous prizes and honors worldwide, as well as several honorary doctorates. A psychiatrist and explorer, he challenges certainties and habits and advocates a pioneering spirit to solve the challenges of our time.
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