Cleantech champ Bertrand Piccard on the psychology of reaching net zero

Focusing on decarbonisation is an inherently flawed exercise, argues Bertrand Piccard. The environmentalist, psychiatrist and explorer explains how reframing the end goal will help us to achieve net zero

Interviewee, Bertrand Piccard

The world looks different when you’re 4,500m above it: flatter, quieter, blurrier. There’s also a unique perspective that comes at such an altitude: large landscapes shrink; unexpected connections emerge. 

So it is for the eminent sustainability expert and adventurer Bertrand Piccard when he observes humanity’s scramble to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. 

Our approach to the energy transition is fundamentally flawed, he argues. Why? Because it’s been framed with decarbonisation as its end goal, “whereas modernisation and efficiency should be at the forefront instead”. 

Establishing the correct destination is crucial to any journey, especially one that’s fraught with risk. Piccard knows that better than most. In 2016, he and fellow aviator André Borschberg completed the first global circumnavigation by a totally solar-powered manned aeroplane, the Solar Impulse. 

We need to throw everything at this problem as quickly as possible. If we try to map it all out perfectly, we’ll never get there

His beliefs about the misdirection of net-zero efforts derive from two distinct convictions. The first is conceptual: Piccard abhors waste. Again, he should know. When you’re flying an aircraft weighing more than 1.5 tonnes on solar power alone, efficiency is everything. 

“The waste of energy, of natural resources, of food is happening across the world,” he says. “If we are facing problems, it’s because we waste too much. We’re inefficient.” 

The science supports his point. Studies have shown that most standard processes of generating energy, converting it into a usable form and then consuming are hugely profligate, pumping waste heat into the environment.

Piccard’s second conviction has its origins in human psychology. If you say the word “decarbonisation”, people instinctively hear a call to do less of certain things or to stop doing them altogether, he explains. The word “efficiency”, by contrast, evokes more positive thoughts.

“If you put on the table all the solutions that allow the world to become more efficient, modern and profitable, people won’t resist them. They will embrace them,” Piccard argues. 

Energy production in a low-carbon future

If this sounds like pop psychology, it isn’t. Piccard has spent much of his career working as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Never one to underestimate the power of imagination, he depicts a future in which energy generation is clean, affordable and local. Your electric car powers your household appliances in off-peak hours, for instance, while your neighbours draw electricity from their own micro solar or hydro projects. 

“This isn’t a world of sacrifice and punishment,” he says. “It’s a modern society where residents are going to feel comfortable and pleasant.” 

The same logic extends to business. Well-meaning as some companies may be, conserving the world for future generations will never be their guiding rationale. Most are focused on minimising cost, maximising profit and keeping their investors happy.

“You could tell them: ‘Do this for the planet,’ and they would say: ‘We have thousands of salaries to pay at the end of the month,’” Piccard reasons. “But, if you tell them that their factory is losing heat and they can cut their energy bill by 40% through a heat-recovery system, they’re suddenly interested.” 

The energy innovations leading to net zero

Of course, such arguments stack up only if the building blocks for a low-carbon future exist. Do they?

Very much so, stresses Piccard, who says he could point to about 1,500 cleantech innovations that are technically proven, financially attractive and deployable on a large scale. These are linked to the Solar Impulse Foundation, the not-for-profit organisation that he and Borschberg established 20 years ago to support the development and uptake of such solutions. 

The projects cover a wide range of sectors, including core energy and infrastructure services, agriculture, transport and waste management. The viability of each one is verified by EY against exacting economic and environmental criteria.

If we are facing problems, it’s because we waste too much. We’re inefficient

One of the many success stories that Piccard highlights is that of Celsius Energy, a French company that uses drilling techniques honed in the oil and gas industry to tap geothermal heat deep in the ground and redirect it to buildings. Other projects are at earlier stages of development. One is Generma, an Italian firm that has invented a system to convert the energy of sea waves into electricity. Another is Sun-Ways, an early-stage Swiss venture that places mini solar power plants on railway sleepers.

Piccard’s background in psychology reveals itself again when he’s discussing these innovations. Emphasising the efficiency savings they can offer will always resonate better with a business than presenting them as, say, methods of ensuring regulatory compliance. Similarly, when talking to potential adopters in the public sector, he’ll focus on the benefits that cleantech can offer in terms of creating more green jobs and improving public health. 

How policy-makers can better support green innovation

When it comes to aligning innovation and opportunity with net-zero strategies, Piccard is not a fan of the neat pathways typically presented by governments and companies. He advocates a more experimental and piecemeal approach. This may sound “untidy”, but the urgency of the climate crisis dictates it. 

“We need to throw everything at this problem as quickly as possible,” Piccard argues. “If we try to map it all out perfectly, we’ll never get there.” 

That’s not to say he’s averse to having a plan. Policy-makers have a huge role to play in enabling innovation and the uptake of cleantech. To this end, Piccard has been using his profile as a successful adventurer to help him secure meetings with influential politicians around Europe. In recent months he’s spoken with Spain’s environment minister, Romania’s energy minister and Poland’s under-secretary of state for climate. 

Piccard explains: “Our argument to them is always: ‘Look, these are some of the things you can do to become more efficient and profitable.’ That way they can reach their energy and climate policy targets in a very ambitious manner without speaking of controversial issues such as coal.” 

Identifying incentives for sustainability

Many people contend that, at some stage in the transition to net zero, the private sector will have to make sacrifices and incur significant costs. The idea that the climate crisis can be solved without massively disrupting how most companies go about their business is simply naive, according to environmental campaigners. 

Sasja Beslik, chief investment strategy officer at private equity firm SDG Impact Japan, agrees with this argument. The influential ESG investor says that, while any plan for a “win-win” future that doesn’t include “painful changes” might sound compelling, it’s unrealistic. “The core point of sustainable optimisation is to address the shortcomings of the existing system,” Beslik says. “This sometimes includes very costly implications, such as impacts on short-term profits or fundamental changes to a company’s core operating model.”

Piccard doesn’t dispute the shortcomings of incentive-based systems; he simply chooses not to focus on them. If senior decision-makers care about profitability and job creation, he says, so should any argument designed to persuade them of the need for change.

“My goal is to remain realistic,” he concludes unapologetically. “I am not losing my strength trying to alter the entire capitalist system. I am using it to obtain a faster ecological transition.”