Opinion - December 4, 2017

The countdown has begun

Bertrand Piccard speech

Written by Bertrand Piccard 4 min read

Have you always dreamed of the tropical Fiji islands in the South Pacific? Then do I have a surprise for you! This year, COP 23—the 23rd United Nations Climate Change conference—was held in…Bonn, Germany. On November 12, the Solar Impulse Foundation team headed to Germany, where we were met with magnificent posters of tropical islands and coral reefs printed with the phrase “Bula Vinaka!”, the local greeting.

We had been planning our trip for weeks, scheduling 17 events and 12 political meetings in 5 days. It filled me with pride to see my team dive in head-first and take up challenges with gusto, setting up the most improbable of meetings and inviting the most in-demand celebrities to our events. The relationships we built with various institutions, especially UN institutions, and with the European Commission lent credibility to our foundation. That has been my goal since 2002, when I first began my flight around the world in a solar airplane: to construct a platform to spread my message of cleantech solutions that are both environmental and economical.

At the conference, there was a collision of worlds, one old, one new. There were those who already believe that renewable energy and energy efficiency are an irreversible current, a revolution as spectacular as the advent of gasoline in the nineteenth century; these are the ones now attracting the majority of the money flow. Then there are those who are holding out as long as possible, putting on blinders, and risking collapse due to missed opportunities for industrial diversification. This calls to mind the days when Kodak resisted the transition to digital photography and eventually went bust. Though the scales may be tipping, the shift may dry up funding for capital to fossil fuel holdouts, presaging the greatest stock market crash in history.

I’m clearly referring to Donald Trump, though it must be said that the closest coal mine to Bonn is only 50 kilometers away. In contrast, in Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich country, a whopping contract was just signed to produce solar electricity at 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour—a tenth of the rate consumers pay in Europe for conventional energy. So many contrasts!

But more than just the move from dirty to clean energy, conversations are being had on the switch from closed energy systems to open systems in which production, storage, and consumption are interconnected. The future is about more than just energy; it is about everything that technology can do for the energy industry. The transition on the horizon will be a fundamental disruption of the industry and of business. It may make more sense when you learn that China has already installed 400 million smart meters. And is preparing to ban combustion motors! Thus the importance of hydrogen, a topic on which the World Council met twice at the conference. It is certainly one way to accelerate the development of electric cars while avoiding the thorny subject of batteries. Fuel cells are attracting attention from oil and gas companies, who can distribute hydrogen at service stations; from governments, for whom it is easier to tax a fluid than electricity; and from users, who will be able to fuel up for a 600 kilometer journey in only 2 minutes.

One thing is certain. People are tired of hearing about intangible, and even questionable, changes to be made instead of the more immediate effects of our current energy waste: the air pollution that kills 6.5 million people per year and costs $3 trillion—6% of the world’s GDP. In that sense, developing renewable energy is not only ecological, it represents hope for prosperity, social stability, and peace for the poorest countries. One point two billion people live without electricity because they live too far from where it is produced. That is a one trillion dollar market for decentralized solar, biomass, and wind energy. The necessary investments will be easier to find if we stop begging donors for money with stories of an enormous, and enormously expensive, problem and start talking about investment opportunities that are extremely profitable to an investor looking to turn a profit. In order to be persuasive, we need to change the way we frame the issue.

The most progressive politicians are explaining how they have succeeded. Argentina has implemented a program and enshrined it in such a way that ensures the longevity of the country’s commitment to renewable energy, despite chronic political instability. This strategy led to near unanimous adoption by all parties. The Scandinavian countries are also pioneers with ambitious goals, as is Morocco, who has committed to producing 52% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. I find this to be a much better timeline than 2050, the date normally cited as a way to push the problem onto the next generation.

Jerry Brown, the governor of California, explained how he propelled his state, the world’s seventh largest economy, to the top of the list of climate change combatants: through sheer grit, at the cost of a merciless fight against conservative forces. He succeeded Arnold Schwarzenegger, who granted me a lengthy meeting to seal a partnership between my foundation and his organization, R20, a coalition of the most active regions in the industry. He was friendly, quick, and direct, especially when ordering his chief secretary to note that he was agreeing to become a sponsor of my work.

At meeting after meeting, seminar after seminar, I hammered home the same message: that technological solutions exist today that can slash CO2 emissions in half, and in a financially profitable way. So why aren’t these solutions being adopted, or why so slowly? Because for the most part, they are misunderstood by the public and by decision-makers and trapped within startups, universities, and even large corporations, and governments are not considering or building legal frameworks for them. Innovation is being pushed by subsidies, resulting in patents that disappear into the ether, but they are not being pulled by the demand for the fruit of those patents to meet the goals we have set. This is what needs to change: We must encourage governments to adopt much more ambitious environmental energy policies—made possible by the fact of what clean, profitable technology offers today—and stop bottom-level negotiations with skittish nay-saying parties. It is a way to promote clean growth (which is much preferable to the dirty status quo) in which replacing archaic, polluting systems with clean, efficient technology becomes not only logical but ecological.

It is for this reason that I formed the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions, the constitutional assembly of which met that week in Bonn. COP 23 even added the assembly to its official program. Out of our 460 members, 150 came from around the world to attend the meeting. The room was nearly full. The team piqued institutions’ interest with an array of extraordinary invitees from the UN, World Bank, International Renewable Energy Agency, and European Commission. Weeks of work concluded with a personal appeal for final assistive efforts. Even Prince Albert of Monaco kindly made the trip. It was impressive to gather so many people for our post-Solar Impulse project.

Alliance members were clearly enchanted by more than just the official lectures. Most were young entrepreneurs bent on growing their startups and getting their inventions off the ground. Their eyes were filled with so much hope and emotion as they stood grouped around the light of the projectors. They will be the heroes of the future. I am happy to have founded the Alliance if for no other reason than to have made that instant possible.

The closing ceremonies were a burst of joy. As a sponsor, Prince Albert kicked off the countdown: 384 days to select 1,000 solutions to bring to governments in December 2018 at COP 24. Members stood and sang along to Chinese violinist Zhang Zhang’s rendition of The Final Countdown. It was the last moment of euphoria before we would return to work to meet the next challenge: Creating a thousand solutions to protect the environment in a profitable way.

Written by Bertrand Piccard on December 4, 2017

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