A Conversation with Bertrand Piccard, Chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation, Serial Explorer, Psychiatrist and Pioneer in Environmental Innovation & Climate Sustainability.

It is in Bertrand Piccard’s DNA to go beyond the obvious and achieve the impossible. From a legendary lineage of explorers who conquered the stratosphere and the abysses, he made history by accomplishing two aeronautical firsts, around the world non-stop in a balloon, and more recently in a solar plane without fuel. Pioneer in his way to consider ecology through the lens of profitability, he began working in the early 2000s to promote renewable energies and clean technologies. Solar Impulse was born to carry this message around the world.

His dual identity as a psychiatrist and explorer makes him an influential voice heard by the largest institutions which today consider him as a forward-thinking leader on the themes of innovation and sustainability. Founder and Chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation, he has succeeded with his team to identify 1000 efficient solutions to protect the environment in a profitable way. In a third round-the-world tour, he will bring them to decision-makers in order to help them meet their environmental targets while ensuring clean economic growth.

Aware that sustainable development is not limited to the protection of the planet’s resources, Bertrand is also actively involved in humanitarian causes, fighting for the eradication of Noma, a disease associated with extreme poverty, caused by malnutrition and lack of hygiene. Whether it is to protect the environment or to reduce inequalities, Bertrand seeks to highlight solutions by developing synergies where others see only oppositions. To support his approach, he strives to unite the forces involved, raise public awareness and encourage political action. He is currently United Nations Ambassador for the Environment and Special Advisor to the European Commission.

In this exclusive interview I spoke to Bertrand Piccard about his journey as an explorer, and how he’s bringing together the worlds of ecology, technology and the economy to solve the most pressing challenge of our time – climate change – and to ensure the quality of life on Earth.

Q: Where did you find your passion for the environment?

[Bertrand Piccard]: My grandfather made the first flight to the stratosphere in 1931. He was the first man to witness the curvature of the earth, and invented the pressurised cabin. One of his goals was to show that it was possible to fly in thinner air with less fuel consumption. Even at that time, his worry was to save natural resources. When my father made his deepest dive into the Mariana Trench, 11km down at the bottom of the ocean, in 1960, the goal was to see if there was any life at that depth as the government wanted to dump their radioactive and toxic waste in the ocean. His discovery of fish at that depth was the start of the movement that intervened to stop the dumping of toxic waste in the ocean. I was born in this spirit of scientific exploration; I was born into a spirit of protecting the environment and protecting life. The culmination of this education was my flight around the world in a solar powered airplane to show that clean, renewable technologies can achieve the impossible. From there, I launched the 1000-solution challenge to identify profitable solutions to protect the environment.

Q: What is the role of exploration in understanding how to tackle climate change?

[Bertrand Piccard]: Explorers can make a mission, come back and describe the beauty and miracle of life and say we have to protect it, but that’s not enough. Everyone may applaud the speech or the interview, but nothing changes. We must not only use the emotional part of exploration, but also the state of mind of exploration which encourages us to get out of our bad habits, beliefs, everything we know, our comfort zone, and even our way of thinking. The mindset of exploration encourages us to find new solutions.

For a very long time, protection of the environment was expensive, boring and required sacrifice from the population. I wanted to change the paradigm into the exact opposite. I wanted to prove that protection of the environment is something exciting that doesn’t require sacrifice. Protecting our environment offers a better quality of life and is financially profitable for industry, economy and for all of us.

Q: How do you approach conversation around climate protection?

[Bertrand Piccard]: What drives my approach is my experience- not just as an explorer- but as a medical doctor and psychiatrist. I learned you always have to use the language of the people you want to convince. If you speak to heads of states and corporations about the costs, that will be incurred to protect the environment, they will never invite you again. If you come and speak their language about job-creation and profit, they will welcome you with open arms and tell you to start implementing. That was my idea; and I wanted to prove my idea by making a strong action like flying around the world with no fuel. That gave me visibility and credibility to speak. Today, we have over 1000 solutions that are financially profitable and which protect the environment. Over a thousand examples of proof that we can protect the environment and make a profit in the process.

You learn as a medical doctor to observe the symptom, identity the origin of the symptom, and to find therapy to heal the patient. Today, the symptom is climate change- the origin is the way we emit pollutants, and how inefficient our technologies are- the therapy? Clean energy, renewable energy and efficient technology.

I think I am completely in my education as a medical doctor, also when I try to be the psychiatrist of the climate.

Q:  Are we at a key time in our ability to make progress on climate solutions?

[Bertrand Piccard]: Solutions were too expensive in the past; solar energy was 20 times more expensive than burning oil to produce electricity, same for wind energy. Everything we needed to make progress on climate was either too expensive or didn’t exist! Today, solutions exist – they are profitable- and I think that the change in paradigm is the fact that we can bring economic advantages to ecological action. This is the way we can reconcile ecology and economy- we can create mission driven ecology as an industry which gives a salary to a lot of people and creates economic growth.

We have to understand that the world has been inefficient for decades, producing too much, using too much and throwing away too much. We waste 75% of the energy we produce, half the food we produce and half of our natural resources. So much of our waste is waste because people don’t understand that it’s a resource that can be used! In many situations, things are expensive because we are depleting natural resources, putting waste everywhere and wasting our resource.

If we become more efficient thanks to new technologies, there will be less resource, energy and money wasted. It’s an additional source of profit, but also a source of environmental sustainability and – frankly – reduces the disastrous impact we are having on nature.

We can only solve our ecological problems by linking ecology and economy. If we can create the right economic environment, change will happen. If it’s more profitable to be efficient than wasteful, we will be efficient.

We need to include everybody in the solution; it’s absolutely clear that we are in a situation where a lot of people have not yet understood that it is profitable to protect the environment. These people have to be pushed by regulations and the law to stop them polluting, and to finally encourage them to become efficient in their use of energy and resource.

Q:  What has surprised you as you have been finding new climate solutions?

[Bertrand Piccard]: A lot of governments and corporations have made pledges to be carbon neutral by 2050 without having any way to do it. They don’t know how to do it. They don’t have the tools to do it. We have found over 1000 solutions that can help.

I have also been surprised at how logical many of these solutions are. It’s quite surprising that nobody was thinking about these ideas before! For example, we have seen a start-up in France which is producing a system to recover the heat that is lost in factories and which re-injects that heat into factory systems. For the past 100 years, the heat was going out through the chimney- wasted- but now it can be recovered. This is both logical and ecological!

I am also surprised that today, if you have a technological solution to protect the environment, it’s increasingly difficult to convince green activists! We are seeing increasingly worrying claims by green activists to dismantle the economy, dismantle industry, to dismantle innovation… they believe that is the only way to protect the environment. We have the same goal – we both want to protect the environment – I just want to make it more efficient, clean, usable, and beneficial, because this language is more convincing to decision makers than speaking of de-growth.

Q:  How can we persuade voters to think more about climate change?

[Bertrand Piccard]: My argument is this. Even if there was no climate change… even if there was no problem with the environment… we would still need to replace the polluting infrastructure we have because it is too expensive and too outdated compared to modern, efficient, infrastructure.

I am talking about creating better businesses which- by the way- also protect the environment. It’s a very pragmatic approach. My approach is not ideological, it’s about doing the best we can today, with what we have today, and to best use the technology and progress we have to boost job creation, profits, and well-being for everyone.

Q: Will climate technologies change some of our fundamental systems?

[Bertrand Piccard]: There will be a whole range of new business opportunities that have not existed before around how we deal with waste, how we recover heat, how we save energy, how we insulate buildings, how we build the next generation of heating and cooling systems, how we create biodegradable and compostable plastics, how we save water and how we make our industrial and agricultural systems more efficient. It’s fascinating.

Energy is a key area. Renewable energies like wind and solar have become four-times cheaper than gas or coal. We’re also seeing a huge trend around hydrogen- which is a clean vector to store renewable energy- and which can also be turned into fuel which is carbon neutral when burned. The hydrogen revolution also includes the big oil companies rather than kicking them out – which would be a disaster given they employ hundreds of thousands of people. Oil companies also have a lot of expertise in terms of production and transportation, along with having established sales channels. Hydrogen could – in their business – take the place of oil.

Q:  How should governments see climate innovation?

[Bertrand Piccard]: We have a fantastic opportunity to modernise our infrastructure. We have hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into our markets, the choice we have is whether we use that money to resuscitate old industries that are condemned… whether we support heavy, polluting industries that will be prohibited in the next decade anyway…. Or whether we help industries to diversify into clean mobility, renovation of buildings, efficient hydrogen, and the business opportunities of the futures.

Today we have low interest rates, and huge amount of capital; a combination that allows countries and continents to become modern and efficient. It’s unlikely that another window of opportunity like this will appear in the near future. We have to take this chance, if we don’t, we’re really going to be in trouble.

Governments need to use their money to develop the future, not recover the past. This also means modernising legal frameworks. Today’s standards and norms around technology and ecology are outdated. They are based on a world from half a century ago, a world where it was legal to pollute! We need to create very ambitious new norms and frameworks to encourage compliance and to develop the innovation pipeline we need to create the economic boom.

Sometimes you get more results when you explain how you decouple GDP and consumption and recouple GDP with efficiency. This is the language that policy makers and industry understand.

Q:  Does philanthropy play a role in creating climate innovation?

[Bertrand Piccard]: If we wait for philanthropic money to protect the environment, we have de-facto proven that it is not profitable to protect the environment. What we need is not philanthropy, we need investment. We need investment to demonstrate that protecting the environment is profitable, it generates returns.

If you can lower energy bills, lower waste, increase efficiency, recycle lithium-ion, turn plastic into fuel… if you can do these things, you will make a fortune.

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be? 

[Bertrand Piccard]:  I would like to reconcile ecology and economy. Far too often those areas have been seen as being in opposition instead of being in synergy.  Ecology is now the driving force for our economy, and economy will give the means to be successful in ecology.

I was thinking recently that my flight around the world was perhaps one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had, but that experience in isolation doesn’t drive change. There are plenty of people who don’t care about exploration, or who don’t care about the beauty of nature or the miracle of life. They are sometimes selfish- and need to be pushed to do better. Sometimes they may not even know they could do better. In this case, I need to inform and train them. When I did my round the world flight, it made me realise how fortunate I was, but when I came back to earth, I had to take practical action not just talk of the beauty.

There were points on my flight which really illustrated where we are today. There I was flying in my silent, pollution free, solar powered airplane, above an oil tanker leaving a long trail in the ocean. That made me realise that the old world is now on the way to being replaced by the new.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.