Solar Impulse Foundation Chairman, Bertrand Piccard, on creating value.

Tony Concil speaks to Solar Impulse Foundation Chairman, Bertrand Piccard, about the need to create value and jobs while protecting the environment.


Where did your passion for sustainability come from?

It is the passion of three generations. When my grandfather made the first flight to the stratosphere in 1931, he invented the pressurized cabin. He showed that by flying above the weather, aviation could improve reliability, speed, and fuel efficiency. He was tapping into the sustainability debate long before the current concerns. 

And then my father’s dive to the deepest spot on earth in the Mariana Trench in 1960 found life at depths of 11km. He proved the existence of vertical currents that would spread pollution and destroy the oceans if governments continued with their idea to dump radioactive wastes in the deepest trenches. And that became prohibited. 

From my childhood, I had these exciting examples of how scientific exploration could help protect the environment. I have the same exploration desires of my father and grandfather, but an education in medicine and psychiatry. From that I know that human nature is to always want more. So, de-growth as a response to protecting the environment would be counter to our nature. It would never work.

My proposal is qualitative growth. Let’s make money and create jobs by replacing what is polluting the environment with activities that protect the environment. This will decouple GDP from pollution. The 1,000 Profitable Solutions challenge of the Solar Impulse Foundation puts this in the language of key decision-makers—businesses and politicians. They will be more profitable. They will create jobs and reward shareholders because they will use fewer resources and become more efficient. With this language, I believe that we are being heard.

You cannot change human nature. But instead of wanting more, you can want better. You can incentivize people with profit to achieve economic growth with sustainable solutions. 


Were there solutions that surprised you?

There were completely logical solutions that nobody had thought about. When you take a shower, you know that water goes down the drain. With it goes heat. One solution captures the heat from the wastewater and uses it to heat water coming into the shower. 

Similarly, there is a solution that recovers factory heat. The system investment has a cost that is recouped through lower energy use within a few years. 

This changes the dialog from consuming less, producing less, to being more efficient and earning more money as we transition to a sustainable future. 


Can the same apply to aviation?

Aviation has already done a lot to be more sustainable—reducing noise, fuel, and CO2 emissions. And it is not the biggest polluter. But aviation has become a scapegoat with people thinking that it is the cause of all the problems in the world. 

Yet, these same people continue to do video streaming knowing that information and communications technology is a bigger polluter than aviation. They buy clothing knowing that the garment industry contributes 7% to emissions—several times more than aviation. 

Aviation’s approach has not helped its public perception. The world is focused on the Paris Agreement and reductions compared to a 1990 baseline. Aviation has CORSIA to stabilize emissions from 2020. Then it adjusted this to 2019 because 2020 was a bad year. And while the world is focused on net zero, aviation’s longer-term goal halving 2005 levels by 2050. People want to know what you are doing to be sustainable today, not 2050.

There may be good reasons why the industry chose this path. But it is a mistake psychologically not to link aviation’s efforts to where the rest of the world is aiming. 


What should aviation do?

Why not commit to be completely carbon neutral from today by offsetting 100%? It could be done for as little as €5 per short haul sector. You would simply be pricing in the external costs. It would be like paying recycling costs in the initial purchase price of an appliance. If the purchase price includes the cost of externalities nobody can complain.

This would help marketing the industry as sustainable. I love aviation. And I suffer each time the industry is attacked. When a local aero club faces closure because the mayor doesn’t want children to dream of flying, it tells me that the industry needs to do something more to protect its future. For thousands of years humankind dreamed of flying. And now too many people are saying that aviation is bad.


Offsetting alone can solve aviation’s sustainability challenge?

It will contribute. The industry has a problem today and so needs solutions today. In our work with Air France, we identified ways to reduce emissions about 20%, such as SkyBreathe, which looks at fuel burn gate-to-gate based on data, constant descent approaches, direct routes, electric tractors on the runways, and so forth. If you offset the remaining 80% the criticism that aviation is not paying for its externalities disappears. And when technology enables a further reduction of 40%–80%, the amount of offsetting necessary decreases until aviation is truly operating on sustainable technology.

It’s no excuse to say that there are not enough quality offsets. These can be found, particularly today when there is so much money looking for good investments.

Technology is the long-term answer. A small airline flying between Vancouver and Victoria in Canada is planning to convert to electric seaplanes. Battery technology is not sufficiently advanced to power larger commercial jets. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and hydrogen will be the long-term winners.

I love aviation because of its drive to innovate. There were just 66 years between the Wright Brothers and Apollo 11 landing on the moon. There is no reason why aviation cannot become cleaner in 15 years. And in the meantime, save the industry’s reputation with offsets.


Would you pursue SAF or hydrogen?

Both. Hydrogen has a cost advantage right now, but there is a weight problem with the tank needed to keep liquid hydrogen at -253 Celsius. Today, we carry the passengers in the fuselage and the fuel in the wings. With hydrogen burnt directly in the engine or producing electricity with a fuel cell, that will likely be reversed. No matter how you plan to use hydrogen, it would require major design changes and a completely new fleet. Airbus is already working on it.

SAF doesn’t require that level of technical change. The challenge is to scale up production to get the cost down rapidly.


And are carbon offsets preferable to carbon capture?

Carbon offsets have had negative press, but there is an established system of quality control. It can be done in a correct way at reasonable costs. That is not the case with carbon capture, which needs a carbon price of $200 per tonne to be profitable. 


Airlines struggle with governments to implement the Carbon Offset Reduction for International Aviation (CORSIA), deliver a Single European Sky, or support an energy transition. What can be done?

The industry must ask governments for modern regulations. It needs to avoid competitive distortions and provide certainty to investors. For sure, governments are moving more slowly than the industry. But that is not unique to aviation.

What I think is interesting is that some government financial relief on COVID-19 has been tied to environmental performance. That sets up an alliance between governments and airlines. 

Governments need help. They set targets, but they don’t know the solutions to achieve them. This is one thing that we do a lot at Solar Impulse; pointing governments to the solutions that are available so they can be more ambitious in a realistic way.


Should governments provide aviation with incentives for energy transition?

There is so much private money in the world today. If there is any chance that a project could be profitable, investors can be found. But if something needed cannot generate profit in a reasonable timeframe, then government incentives are the way forward. That was the case with the energy transition to solar and wind—even with internet and GSM. 


What would you say to Greta Thunberg?

I would say thank you because Greta points to a real problem. But she doesn’t show solutions. That puts people in a panic. 

I go to governments and businesses with profitable solutions. They are relieved and open to what we have to say. The sustainability message cannot be about doing less, it must be about doing better.


Do people understand the value of aviation and how it supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

The industry does not make communicating this a big enough priority. For a long time, there was no pressure. Everybody was congratulating aviation for making travel possible. And the industry was surprised when it started being attacked. 

We need to make people more aware of all the advantages brought by aviation to society. Quite frankly, many of aviation’s contributions are taken for granted. 

After the Global Financial Crisis, the pressure on environment dissipated. That is not happening with COIVD-19. The concern is intensifying. 


Why do you think that is? 

Awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis is now shared by everyone. That wasn’t the case a decade ago. People know there will be a big mess if we don’t change. But they don’t know about the solutions. Promoting solutions is the purpose of my 1,000 Profitable Solutions initiative.  

Interestingly, the people who are the most reluctant about solutions are some green activists. They are convinced that de-growth is the only way forward. And they are suspicious when you talk about being sustainable and profitable at the same time. But taking society backward will never work. It is against human nature.

I believe that industry needs to take the lead in driving solutions. The Solar Impulse Foundation has big supporters—banks, energy companies, major industrials. They understand because they all work with technology in their businesses.


Has COVID-19 been an opportunity for your work?

The loss of the freedom to fly has shown people how valuable aviation is. The lockdowns are an example of de-growth and nobody is satisfied with it. Millions are unemployed. Companies are going bankrupt; workers are losing their jobs; and people miss the freedom to travel for many reasons. 

We may have reduced carbon emissions 8% as a result of the crisis but the suffering is enormous. 

We have a fantastic window of opportunity, with billions of dollars flooding markets for recovery stimulus. We must focus not on regaining what we had, but on being more efficient by using new types of fuels, new energy sources, modern technologies, and so on. This is what I believe, and it is the aim of the Solar Impulse Foundation to contribute to it.