Technology is no silver bullet or get-out-of-jail-free card, but it’s a major weapon against the climate crisis, and many people believe that we already have the technology we need to win the battle. It’s just a question of deploying it. In a moment I’ll be talking to a man who has assembled 1000 solutions to climate problems.
Also this week, a follow-up to Fukushima, COP26 - why Greta won’t be going, why she certainly won’t be going in an SUV, Seaspiracy- that Netflix film, Ade Adepitan on the front line, lab-grown meat and growing your own pan scourer.
First though, let me introduce Bertrand Piccard.
My guest today is Bertrand Piccard, from the Solar Impulse Foundation. In the past he has been described as an explorer, as an entrepreneur, and I think he's probably best known for being a pilot, a pilot of a very special aircraft, Solar Impulse II, which I think you will remember. It is already five years since you made the flight, I believe, but just remind us a bit about that, Bertrand, please.
Yes, it's already 5 years but it was 15 years to get to the point of the success of flying around the world in a solar powered airplane without any fuel, because everybody told me it was impossible. People calculated that the sun would not give enough energy for an airplane to fly. So what we had to do basically was to make an energy-efficient airplane that could cope with the quantity of the sun that we would get and this is why we had these huge wings wider than the Boeing 747, like a very light weight family car, small power, but so efficient that we could stay in the air day and night as long as we wanted without any fuel and traveling around the world. And showing -- because that was my goal from the beginning -- showing that clean technologies and renewable energies can achieve absolutely impossible goals.
Fine. So where does this take us? Are we all going to be flying around the world on electric power, on solar power, or what are the conclusions that you draw from what you were able to achieve?
You know, the Wright brothers in 1903, had an airplane with a gasoline engine -- like ours on solar power with an electric engine. It was an airplane flying with only one pilot in good weather at slow speed, and everybody thought it useless. And 66 years later there were two men on the moon, Chuck Yeager had broken the speed of sound, Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic and there were thousands of people traveling around everywhere. So we see that we should never underestimate the capacity of innovation. So today, like for the Wright brothers, we don't see exactly how we can put hundreds of people in a solar powered airplane, but what we know is that everything can be much cleaner, everything can be much more efficient. And even if you don't produce the electricity of the airplane from the sun during the flight, like Solar Impulse, you can charge batteries of electric airplanes on the ground, you can put hydrogen -- clean hydrogen produced with renewable energy -- into a fuel cell for an airplane. And today you already have small airplanes flying on batteries, smaller planes flying on hydrogen, and you have Airbus getting to the goal of having a fully carbon-neutral airplane in 2035, so things are moving.
Absolutely. You say that you spent 15 years before you could get this project off the ground. You had a big team behind you -- is that team still together and what are they working on now?
Lots have continued to work in clean technologies. Some are still with Solar Impulse II, which has been taken over by a startup called Sky Dweller -- to get rid of the pilot of Solar Impulse and have just an observation platform staying for months in high altitude. Andre Borschberg, my partner and friend from Solar Impulse, has created H55, which is a company to electrify the propulsion of airplanes. And part of the team has stayed in the Solar Impulse Foundation to identify financially profitable solutions to protect the environment. And all these incredible team members had the purpose of being useful and this is why they could dedicate so much energy and persistence into a project for so long, although it was a very difficult project.
Tell me more about the Solar Impulse Foundation. You mentioned profitable solutions to protect the planet. You're talking…I believe…you're aiming for 1000 profitable solutions to protect the planet. How are you getting on towards that target?
We have 980 today, at the end of March, and by beginning of April we will have reached one thousand solutions. They can be technologies, devices, products, materials, systems, that are able to be of use in the field of water, energy, mobility, construction, agriculture, and industry to reach more efficiency, to protect the environment and at the same time to create jobs and to make a profit. So it's a huge program. I started after the flight of Solar Impulse around the world with a lot of people telling me again that it's impossible. People calculated that there would never be more than 300 of them. Well, we have the 1000 Solutions now, and it just shows the power of innovation, and the fact that we have changed the paradigm. This has to be known, this has to be understood. We have changed the paradigm now. The protection of the environment in the past was expensive, it was boring it was requiring behavioural sacrifices. Not anymore today. Today innovators from all around the world are bringing the solutions we need to replace the old polluting systems with modern efficient systems and this is the market of the century.
That's very interesting because, as you say, the problem in the past has been that solutions have been boring and expensive. And therefore, given that an awful lot of environmental protection depends on behavioural change -- if people think things are boring if they think they're expensive -- they're not going to do them. Now, you're indicating you've got over that barrier, and that that must be quite an achievement.
Yes, because you know I'm not only an explorer I'm also a medical doctor. I'm a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, and I have known for a long time that you have to speak the language of the people you want to convince. And the language of the key decision makers today is job creation and profit. So you need to speak about environmental protection and fixing climate change using these two words. If you manage to bring the proof that it's profitable and it's created jobs you have won the battle, because all the key decision makers will jump for these solutions, will beg to have these solutions, in order to reach not only their environmental targets but also their financial targets.
OK can you give me some specific examples of some of these solutions?
Absolutely with pleasure. There is a startup who has created a way to recover the heat that would be lost in every factory, to store it, and give it back to the factory in order to reduce the energy consumption. Another company who has developed a system to recover the methane that is emitted from the landfills. There are 20,000 landfills in the world. They’re emitting methane that is 80 times more dangerous than CO2 in terms of climate change and they recover this methane and turn it into energy. Also a fantastic thing. There is for everybody's lives a module for €500 that you put on your thermal engine in your car and reduces by 20% the fuel consumption, by 80% the quantity of toxic particles that are emitted. For a taxi it's payback time of six months and for the lungs of the citizens in the city, it's salvation. So you see all these solutions they're profitable because they pay for themselves and I can give you 997 other solutions! Also big corporations, big companies, who are diversifying, like Schlumberger, who is known for drilling for oil and they made a spin-off that is called Celsius, that is drilling for geothermal energy in the centre of the cities in order to install heat pumps in all the buildings. And the heat pump is 4 times less energy needed than the normal electric radiator.
Yes, very interesting idea, yes, you were talking about this module which makes a car engine more efficient and cleaner. Is this already commercialised - is this available on the market?
Yes, it is available on the market, but in some countries you have a regulation that prevents people from using it because you need to re-certify your car, and once you've done that you are not allowed to use this car during the peaks of pollution, which you should be able to do because you don't pollute anymore, or almost not. So you see one thing that is very important today if we want these solutions to flow into the market to be used by everyone, you need to adapt the regulation, because the regulation today is what's the problem. It's based on outdated technologies and it is outdated regulations. So if you want to use modern regulations then you can use modern technologies, and this will put in place the standards, the norms, the authorisations also, to bring all these new solutions on the market.
So solutions exist, but the legal framework is not ready yet for it and presumably you are lobbying governments and organisations. Will you be at COP 26 presenting your case?
Absolutely and I prefer to use the word “advocating” rather than “lobbying” because we're not for profit, so we're offering all these solutions -- we don't have anything to sell. But I'm a special advisor at the European Commission, and the goodwill ambassador of the United Nations for Environment. I am going to every COP also, and the goal is really to bring these profitable solutions to corporations and governments in order to allow them to reach their neutrality targets, because today everyone says we want to be carbon neutral in 2050 but they don't have the tools to do it. Our role at the Solar Impulse Foundation, with all these innovators everywhere in the world, all these experts, all these companies, that have invented new technologies, our role is to bring the tools in order for the governments and the corporations to reach their goals. To hold to their promises basically.
Well, I think we all hope very much that their promises can be kept because in a number of cases, countries – very, very many countries -- are saying yes we will be net zero by 2050 but very many of them are nowhere near on the right track at this moment, so I hope your messages and your solutions can be heard and accepted and adopted.
Yes, that that's our goal. We need to show them that today there are two ways to do it. Either we stay in the past, with all technologies, all the regulations, and we will increase the problem and really have a miserable quality of life on this planet. And you lose, lose all the business opportunities of the clean technologies. Or, we go for some new technologies, renewable energies, we create more jobs, we make more profits, and we improve the quality of our life on the planet. So you see you don't need to believe in climate change to use these solutions. You can be a climate change denier if you want. I don't care. As long as people understand that it’s to their personal advantage to create jobs and to make profits to use these new technologies.
Yes, what I was going to ask you, then, was: as a result of the pandemic, which is by definition affecting the whole world, it is affecting the global economy as we come out of the pandemic and the economies begin to recover, are we going to have the resources and the investments to adopt these new ways of doing things? Are we going to be able to have a truly green recovery?
The answer is yes, if we take the opportunity right now. Because now, we have trillions of dollars in euros flooding onto the markets with interest rates that are extremely low, extremely low. This money has to be used to go towards the future, not to go back in the past. Just imagine if this money was helping the automotive industry, which makes more combustion engines that will be in any case prohibited within five or ten years in the cities. It's useless, it's wasted money. But if you use all this money to modernise infrastructure, to put renewable energies -- smart grid, storage, electric mobility, new industrial processes, new agricultural processes, insulation of all the buildings, then you get out of the COVID crisis with investments that pay for themselves, because you save money with the energy and with the saving of resources. So the money can be paid back and you make pure profits, with a modern country, with modern infrastructure, and much less CO2 emissions. But this we have to do now. If we if we wait it will be too long.
That's a great vision, but do you believe that our political leaders have the courage and the vision to do that?
If they understand that it's in their advantage, yes. You know a political leader needs one thing -- it's job creation -- to be re-elected. And they need support from the population today. The climate strike, all these children in the streets, they are helping the governments to move in the right direction because governments, now they can say “we take these decisions because the population is asking for it, we take these decisions because it will create jobs, because it will make the country richer.” So it's not anymore a question of making sacrifice putting a lot of public money for subsidies, and protecting the climate in a nonprofitable way. No, it's exactly the opposite. So I think if the leaders are open to the new opportunities, they will do it. Now of course some of them will not do it -- because it's a dogma, because it's their political alibi to stay in power…But I would say that most of them can do it and lot of corporations are starting to do it -- even oil companies were making diversification into electricity and hydrogen. So if it is possible to do it, if we see that some of them do it, then it needs to become mandatory for the others, the ones who are resisting. They have to be obliged to do it. Also, otherwise it will make a distortion of competitiveness. And this is the only thing we must avoid. It's this uncertainty and distortion of competitiveness that will block all the system.
Well, thank you very much for that. Can I ask you to leave us with one thought: what should everybody listening to this podcast do tomorrow to make a difference?
They can go to our list of the 1000 solutions that is on the website of the Solar Impulse Foundation. It is free and these are not our solutions, they are the solutions that have been invented by hundreds and hundreds, thousands even, of innovators around the world, and they cover every field that everybody needs. And then, you look what you can use, you look at what will solve your problems. And even more than that, you take as many solutions as possible and you just implement them in your life: to insulate your house, to have cleaner mobility, to have more efficiency in your lighting or heating system. Just to give 3 or 4 examples. But there are so many of them, and you can just take them and use them.
Bertrand Piccard, thank you very much for sharing your ideas with us, and every success with your thousand solutions in the future.
Thank you very much, Anthony, it’s been a pleasure to share this vision with you.
You can find all those ideas on the Solar Impulse website at https://solarimpulse.com.
Nuclear energy is generally emissions-free in operation and very safe, until things go wrong. If you’re old enough you’ll remember Three Mile Island where the radiation leak was contained and Chernobyl, where it wasn’t. Then there’s Fukushima, which released emissions and caused evacuations on the same scale as Chernobyl and the containment problem is still going on.
Fukushima is in an earthquake zone and part of the failsafe procedures of the plant was to shut down all the reactors at the first signs of an earthquake. This meant that all power to the site went out, but there were diesel back up generators which quickly restored power to all the control systems. Like many power stations of all types, Fukushima is on the coast. After the earthquake came a tsunami which overwhelmed the sea defences and flooded the generators which stopped and the cooling pumps stopped as well. The resultant loss of reactor core cooling led to three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and the release of radioactive contamination.
In the clean-up operation which has been going on now for 10 years, tons of water are still used for cooling the wrecked reactors. 170 tons each day. This contaminated water is being stored on site and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks. They are running out of space and the Japanese government has decided that from 2023 it will start releasing the water into the sea. By then they claim that all radioactivity will have been removed from it, apart from tritium, which is not considered harmful. The local fishing industry is against the idea and the governments of China and South Korea have both registered their opposition to the plan. It’s difficult to see what else could be done.
In the meantime reflect on the fact that most nuclear power stations are by the sea and that sea levels are rising. Are their sea defences adequate for the climate of the 21st century - and beyond?
Reactors in current nuclear power stations use nuclear fission. Next week we’ll talk about nuclear fusion. Theoretically it’s a clean and cheap form of nuclear energy, and the reactors cannot explode or melt down and they don’t produce anything that can be used as a weapon. Unfortunately, up to now no-one’s actually been able to make one work. Or have they?
You know, the UN Climate Conference scheduled for November in Glasgow.
Greta Thunberg says she won't be going to COP26. Recently interviewed by the BBC, she said that the conference should not go ahead because of the inequality of vaccination around the world.
“Of course I would love to attend the COP26. But not unless everyone can take part on the same terms,” she said.
She believes that the conference, originally scheduled for November last year, should be postponed once more. Not good news for the British Government which is hosting the event - the five-year review of progress towards net zero following the Paris Agreement - but a similar message comes from Yvo de Boer, who ran the UN talks at the ill-fated Copenhagen summit in 2009.
“I think a hybrid whereby you have the high-level ministerial segment in person and the rest virtual that might work," he said.
"But can you cover all the ground that needs to be covered in a virtual meeting, given the fact that generally the process relies very heavily on bilateral meetings and backroom deals?
"My overall sense is that delay is better than messing it up, overplaying your hand and having a failed meeting."
We keep being warned that time is getting shorter, and as I commented recently, the UN Secretary-general was saying back in 2007 that the time for talking was over, it’s time now for action. Let’s hope that if COP26 is once again delayed it won’t be taken as an opportunity for governments to ignore the issues for another year.
Greta won’t be going anywhere in an SUV and nor should anyone, according to recent reports. Sports Utility Vehicles or 4x4s with enhanced off-road capabilities are increasingly popular among city drivers. Where’s the logic? They are expensive to buy, inefficient on fuel, heavy on emissions and difficult to get into a standard parking space. And the average car of any size is unused for 95% of its life. As a spokesman for the AA, the Automobile Association, said, people like a high driving position and they like the style. To see and be seen, apparently. Interestingly, the spokesman for the UK’s other motoring organisation, the RAC, was much more concerned.
“We should all choose the right vehicle for the right trip to cut the size of our carbon footprint,” he said.
"It is right to question if suburban drivers need a car capable of ploughing over rivers, across fields and up steep hills just to pop to the shops.”
The comments come after a report from the think-tank New Weather Institute which said: "The numbers stand up long-held suspicions that these vehicles ostensibly designed for off-road are actually marketed successfully to urban users where their big size and higher pollution levels are a worse problem.”
The report, “Mind Games on Wheels”, says areas where SUV owners dominate are also the places where road space is most scarce, and where the highest proportion of cars are parked on the street. It says many large SUVs are too big for a standard UK parking space. Three quarters of all SUVs sold in the UK are registered to people living in towns and cities.
I was interviewed on Talk Radio last week and the conversation turned to the banning of fossil fuel cars from 2030. At this stage it’s only the sales of new FF cars that will be banned. Banning their use would be a phenomenal exercise. Think of all the money tied up in the global car fleet. Maybe there’s an opportunity for a new industry to retrofit electric motors to petrol cars. The whole transport question is far more complex than that. A topic for a future episode.
Seaspiracy, a new documentary about the global fishing industry, has attracted much attention this week. I have to say I haven’t seen it because I don’t subscribe to Netflix, but it seems to tell much of the story that I covered on 1st February when I reviewed “What a Fish Knows” by Jonathan Balcombe. It talks about fish as sentient beings, about how wild fish are suffocated and slaughtered and widely overfished.
The BBC Reality Check raised questions about some of the documentary’s conclusions. In particular it stated that predictions of empty oceans by 2048 were based on a 2006 report which has been overtaken by subsequent research. The BBC article raises questions about the relative dangers of different types of plastic waste but endorses the conclusion that micro-organisms in the oceans absorb far more CO2 than the Amazon forests. For the moment. No grounds for complacency, though.
Incidentally there’s news this week that French bottom trawlers are devastating the seabed around Jersey. Local fishermen claim that this is because there is a post-Brexit concession which allows French boats to operate in the area until the end of April so they are dragging up everything they possibly can before the deadline. The Jersey fishermen criticise the heavy gear in use and fear that there will be nothing left.
One of my correspondents says she wept when she’d seen Seaspiracy and vowed never to eat another fish.
Should we stop fishing? If you think we should, the problem is that you cannot abolish industries like this overnight unless there is an immediate way to replace all that fish with another equivalent foodstuff. And to replace all of the jobs. For hundreds of thousands of people across the world fishing is their livelihood and there are millions if not billions invested in fishing vessels, harbour infrastructure, processing plants and a vast supply chain leading to the markets, the shops, and your plate. That’s not to say we shouldn’t abolish fishing or at least control it, but we must recognise the difficulty of making such a change. First we need acceptance by governments that there is a scientific imperative for change. Secondly we need to inform and convince all those involved of the reason for making the change. Then we’ll need a plan and the international consensus and resources to implement it. It will cost billions.
Ever since lockdown began we've been having a takeaway every Friday night. This is partly out of a desire to avoid washing up and partly to support our local restaurants. Recently we had a vegan takeaway. It contained vegan chicken and vegan prawns. Sadly for those of us who know what the real thing tastes like the vegan substitutes were most disappointing. I think that if vegan cuisine is going to become generally acceptable it has to develop its own ideas and its own signature dishes and not try and replicate things which meat eaters might like. Having said that, there are several reports in the last few days of lab-grown meat and lab-grown fish. In fact fish is much easier to replicate, because it doesn't have muscles in it like beef. Could artificial fish avoid some of the devastation currently caused by the fishing industry? Will vegans eat it?
Ade Adepitan on the front line,
A new documentary from the BBC this week - Climate Change: Ade on the front line - in which Ade Adepitan takes his wheelchair and his crutches to parts of the world where climate change is having a visible effect. He took us from the Solomon Islands where the islands are sinking beneath rising sea levels, to the Barrier Reef to Queensland in Australia where they are mining coal and wildfires are increasingly common. We met a sheep farmer desperately trying to preserve his stock after successive years of drought and we finally ended on Tasmania where Ade interviewed Paul Gilding, a former director of Greenpeace.
There were mixed reviews, with some people saying it was just same-old same-old, but it’s very easy for those of us who think about these issues every day to say that. I think Ade Adepitan is likely to reach a different audience and the first stage of behaviour change must be informing people, so let’s enlarge the audience.
The Guardian reviewer said, “This is hard-hitting, because it has to be; few can deny the urgency of the climate crisis now, and the ones who do are looking increasingly as if they live on a different planet to the rest of us.”
Yes, but while the denialists are a problem, so are those who are totally unaware of the issue.
All were agreed that the Paul Gilding interview was the most important part. He admitted that he’d moved to Tasmania because he saw a reasonable chance of a catastrophic impact globally as a result of climate change. Tasmania is sparsely populated, it's relatively cool, there is plenty of water and plenty of food. We also saw the new windfarm which will make the island more than self-sufficient in electricity.
Gilding said that the total collapse of global civilisation was perfectly possible and in his view on the path we are on today, it's the most likely outcome. As billions of people try to move we will see the collapse of whole continents, unstable states and military conflict. Yet he believes it is solvable but it is an emergency which requires mobilisation on the same scale as World War II. He believes the key action is the elimination of the burning of fossil fuels inside 10 years. He believes that governments have the power to do this and will do this if they are forced by the public to do it. That is why XR and the school strikes are so important in raising awareness and motivating the public. Yes, he thinks it will be messy and vested interests will fight back, although he doesn't believe they can win.
It’s an amazing, worrying, almost dystopian vision. I fear that we don't have a government anywhere in the world of the calibre and imagination to undertake such a change. I think we have a very long way to go to convince the public that such changes are needed.
The key phrase must be “just transition”, where everyone has equal protection and equal chances. Given that we have such wide and growing inequalities in the prosperous western nations I find it hard to believe that the developing nations will come out of all this well.
…and on a lighter note. Be green and grow your own pan scourer.
Do you have a loofah in the bathroom? You know, that cylindrical mesh thing you use to scrub your back. You could just as well use it in the kitchen, well a different one, of course. Did you know it was a plant? It’s not a sea creature like a sponge, it’s like a cucumber. There’s been a rash of articles in the press explaining that you can grow it in your greenhouse. You can eat it if you want to, or you can hang it up to dry until all the flesh falls off and you’re left with a scourer. Biodegradable or what?
Nurseries are selling plug plants for planting now and the Natural History Museum has a video to show you how to do it.
And that’s it…
…for another week. Before you rush off to the greenhouse I’d just like to thank you for listening, and, if you are, for being a patron. Details about that at patreon.com/sfr.
Next week I plan to talk about
New Insights from NASA
Breaking windows at Barclays
Future of Fusion
Reactions to Bill Gates’ book
The consequences of 3 degrees for Australia
..and whatever other ideas cross my desk.
Until then have a great week. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere enjoy the sunshine as much as you can; if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere you’re very lucky (or are you just well-organised?) and look out for another Sustainable Futures Report next week.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.
Oh, and let me know about the tune.
Greta won’t go
What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe
Seaspiracy shows why we must treat fish not as seafood, but as wildlife