Interview with Bertrand Piccard of Solar Impulse: « One single country can change the rules »

With his crazy solar plane project, Bertrand Piccard showed us how one can achieve his dreams. Now, his Fondation Solar Impulse is taking over to convince and rally both politics and businesses around an affordable, and, even more importantly, profitable ecology.

How did you convince your partners to contribute to the Solar Impulse project? How to rally people around such a crazy project?

As far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the “purpose”, and by “purpose” I mean sense, intention, goal and values. For a project as complex as Solar Impulse, where significant human, financial and technological means are involved, it was important that everyone understood why they invested.

That’s how we found partners who were ready to help us, by giving them the will to make what seemed impossible possible.

Our partners haven’t been pure sponsors looking for a return on investment, on a given date, with precise figures. We weren’t able to guarantee the success of the project, and we’ve been honest from the start. What we offered them was to make a try together. They decided to follow us while accepting uncertainty and risk taking, because they saw the value of this innovation and the place it would hold in history. Our partners didn’t come looking for visibility, but to support a project that would inspire their teams, promote innovation and make the world a better place. They helped us pave the way to success.

How exactly did you create that synergy? How to build a brand new ecosystem?

The secret could be this involvement that happened inside companies. All our partners wanted to promote values of sustainability and responsibility… rather than their corporate identity. They were actually involved in the project development, giving us access to human resources, engineers, services, in addition to their financial support. They also internally promoted the values of the project and bolstered it in their own ecosystem. Most of our supports came from BtoB businesses, such as Solvay and Covestro, Schindler, Altran, Swiss Corporate Solutions, Swisscom, Google… A few consumer brands, such as Omega, Moët Hennessy and Clarins, also decided to join the project.

Everyone ended up following you. How do you explain the persistent reluctance of politics?

I feel like when it comes to sustainable development, the challenge is, for politics, to try and pick as many winners as possible. Nowadays, politics are doing the opposite — a maximum of losers for a minimum of results. Asking car drivers to pay a higher price for gas, decreasing their purchasing power, while big transportation companies keep massively polluting, is inefficient. It would be better to tax airlines on kerosene, for example.

To succeed, one has to think big.

We need to explain what we are doing, why we’re doing it and how we are going to succeed, in order to get people on board without constraining them. We are led to believe that banning imports of polluting products is a violation of the WTO, but that’s not true, it’s an excuse for doing nothing. It is legal, at an international level, to ban polluting or energetically inefficient products as long as it doesn’t distort competition.

Countries don’t wanna take actions for fear of commercial losses. Nowadays, a huge, common mistake is to believe that we need simultaneous solutions on a global scale. Rather than waiting for everyone to agree, some countries need to be bold enough to make a start. Decisions can be made locally. One single country can change the rules.

Leading the way and changing the rules: is this the premise of your Fondation Solar Impulse?

Our goal with the Fondation Solar Impulse is indeed to show governments that environmental protection and the fight against climate change are both economic opportunities. Our approach is to provide them with an undeniable proof that environmental protection is profitable, that it boosts growth and creates jobs. Engie, for example, has seen its turnover increase since it started helping its clients consume less.

Thanks to the Solar Impulse label, we are connecting technological solutions developed by companies with politics. All the solutions we receive are checked, then labelled, provided that they are based on a solid technology, that would benefit the environment and society, and that is also profitable, or about to be. 1,536 companies have joined the movement, we have received about 600 solutions and 70 have for now been labelled. Our goal is to boost our expertise capacity in order to attain 1,000 labelled solutions as soon as possible.

It’s not about having just more of everything, but about modernizing and making everything that’s polluting more energy efficient. This will create many jobs and generate a lot of profit. For example, insulating every building nationally will create jobs, increase purchasing power and generate energy savings for all tenants. We need to renovate real estate, use heat pumps instead of electric heaters, which consume four times more energy, switch to LED bulbs, and combine production and storing of renewable energies in smart cities. Politics used to be forward-thinking, they used to try and make the economy thrive, but when it comes to ecology, governments haven’t been able to keep up with businesses. They now have to set up a clear legal framework, with strict and ambitious standards for energy saving, natural resources and emissions cutting to foster the development of new solutions.

Do you feel like this transition is on the right tracks? Do you have an optimistic view of the future?

I am extremely optimistic when I see how creative the companies that submit us their solutions are, and how positive their impact on the environment can be. And also when I spot very ambitious, local initiatives that make it possible to make decisions. But I’m also extremely pessimistic when I see how governments are wasting time trying to all agree together, when they could come forward on their own and build inspiration.