Green transition can be profitable in Romania and beyond: An interview with Swiss innovator Bertrand Piccard
Our planet is going through a climate crisis that compels the world to change. Or, as Bertrand Piccard puts it, to modernize. The Swiss aviator and clean technology pioneer, together with his Solar Impulse Foundation, identified 1,500+ profitable solutions that countries worldwide, Romania included, can use to power their climate-safe future. And as he embarked on a trip to offer governments these innovations, he also made a stop in Bucharest, where we met for an exclusive interview.
"Today, thanks to technological evolution, the solutions to protect the environment are more profitable than the systems that destroy the environment. And that's a big change." - Bertrand Piccard, explorer, environmentalist leader and psychiatrist.
Born and raised in a world-renowned, record-breaking family of scientific explorers and inventors, it was in Bertrand Piccard’s DNA to build a fascinating life for himself, combining adventure, curiosity, and innovation with an immense love for nature. Three generations of the Piccard family pushed the limits of what the world thought was impossible, conquering the stratosphere and the deepest parts of the ocean.
Although afraid of heights when young, Bertrand Piccard followed in the footsteps of his ancestors, overcame his fears, and made history by flying around the world twice - non-stop in a balloon and later in a solar-powered airplane. The latter was to show that clean technologies are no longer something of the future - they're here, and the world can use them to meet the much-needed sustainable development goals.
Further building on this success, Piccard and the Solar Impulse Foundation have identified 1,500+ solutions for a profitable green transition - a necessary tool that, for a change, reconciles economy and ecology.
Now, Bertrand Piccard embarked on a new journey, travelling across Europe to offer governments and decision-makers a manual of innovative measures that can help them upgrade their National Energy and Climate Plans and use renewable sources as an economic engine. After visits to Brussels, Madrid, and Warsaw, he also made a stop in Bucharest, where he met the Minister of Energy Virgil-Daniel Popescu and the Secretary of State Dan Dragos Dragan to discuss clean energy solutions and ways to boost the economy while protecting the environment.
In an exclusive interview with Romania-insider.com, Bertrand Piccard shared his inspiring views on transitioning to a low-carbon, greener world and explained how changing the narrative can make a real difference in this quest to save the planet. He also talked about Romania's strengths and barriers on its path towards modernization, what is being done and what else could be done. Plus, he offered a glimpse of what's next for him and shared a fun fact about two of his inspirational family members.
You're on a European tour to offer your eco-friendly, profitable solutions to governments. Why and how are you doing that? You often talk about changing the narrative, about the importance of speaking the language of politicians for a real change to happen.
You're absolutely right that we have to speak the language of politicians and the language of the economy. Because if I come back from my around-the-world flights in a balloon or a solar airplane and say "nature is beautiful, life is fragile, we have to protect it," it's not the language that the economy and the politicians can understand.
Because it's true they will not deny, they will agree, but their language is the one of job creation, of economic development, and if they miss that, they won't be re-elected. The CEO missing economic profitability for his company, is fired.
We really have to reconcile the two and show that today, thanks to technological evolution, the solutions to protect the environment are more profitable than the systems that destroy the environment. And that's a big change.
Everything I'm saying today was not possible ten years ago, because the solutions didn’t exist or were too expensive. Now it is possible, but the key decision makers are still thinking like ten years ago. We have to show them that now there's a technical evolution, there are new solutions, it's profitable, it's good for their re-election, it's good for economic development, for job creation, and so on. It's a change of narrative.
What was the feedback so far?
The feedback is good.
You know, once I was talking to a right-wing party, speaking about cheap, renewable energies, clean technologies that develop the economy, and they looked at me and said: "Oh, that's really interesting because, you know, we were afraid that you would talk about protecting the environment. But this language is good for us, for economic development, new technologies, technologies to be exported." This shows that you need a narrative that reconciles ecology and economy.
And my main message is that today, we have to modernize the countries, make them more efficient in energy, more efficient in resources. You have to create new business opportunities for waste management, renovation of building, heating systems, and so on. It's an economic opportunity to modernize the countries, and decarbonization will be a consequence of it.
If you put decarbonization as the primary goal, people will resist, they will not agree because they think it's detrimental to their economy. They’ll oppose it, and nothing will move. But if you make decarbonization the consequence of the country's modernization, then you can have much more people with you.
How can Romania contribute to this process of transitioning to a green economy? What are its biggest strengths?
Biggest strengths? You have a lot of resources.
You have agriculture. You can use the waste of farming and growing for biogas. That's a huge potential. And like this, you can include the gas industry. Don't fight against the gas industry, use it to produce your own gas - biogas. Locally. It's much more profitable.
You have sun. You have a lot of sun in Romania. Solar energy is now cheaper than gas and oil.
You have wind power on the Black Sea. You have hydropower. These are important assets.
Now, on the other hand, you have very old buildings and not the most modern transport fleet. And this is a challenge because you need to modernize the buildings, you need to put heat pumps instead of inefficient heating systems, you need to renovate the buildings.
And basically, what I've seen in Romania, and not only in Romania, is what I call an explosion of the responsibilities. Each ministry, each administration is responsible for something. There is no centralized responsibility to coordinate everything.
I'll give you an example: the Ministry of Energy is responsible for the production of energy but not for energy efficiency, not for saving energy. But if you do not save energy, you have to produce much more. Everything is linked. You cannot make a separation between all the responsibilities; they are linked, so there should be more coordination.
Would say this is a weakness?
Well, yes, we could call it a weakness. Or, let's say, a possibility of improvement. But it's not only Romania, many countries have the same problem.
Are decarbonization and energy transition threats or opportunities for an emerging economy like Romania?
It's only opportunity because you modernize the country.
If you produce less CO2, it means that you are more efficient in the way you produce. Efficiency means that you produce better with less energy, fewer resources, less waste. If you modernize the country by being more efficient, you develop the economy and at the same time reduce pollution.
If you are an emerging country where there is a lot to be developed and built, you can build it straight away efficiently. If you are in a country where everything is already built, you have to replace it, replace the polluting things with new systems. But in an emerging economy, you get to start from scratch.
Romania is running several government schemes, backing people’s efforts to replace an old car with a green car or install solar panels on houses. But is this enough?
You need to do everything at the same time, and this is maybe the big challenge. Because there is not a miraculous solution, but the miracle is that there are so many solutions. But all of them have to be implemented simultaneously.
This is why we made a guide of solutions for cities and a guide of solutions for the National Energy and Climate Plans. Just to show all the technologies or solutions available for water, energy, construction, mobility, agriculture, industry, circular economy, waste management. All that can protect the environment and, at the same time, create business opportunities.
And that's a really good tool, but it's true that you have to change every little thing in our world. And you have people who are afraid of change, although it is better.
What do you think could work here in Romania?
It's very important to make an alliance between all the parties on the topic of ecology. Like they do in California. There, you can have a Republican or a Democrat governor - it doesn't change the ecological or energy policies. They agreed this is outside of their political conflict. They fight on other things but not on that. That's clever. So this is one thing to do.
Also, I really think you have to study every type of solution and see how it can be implemented in Romania.
For example, you have a big problem with deforestation. But I think you can be much more profitable by turning agriculture and farming waste into biogas than by destroying the forest. Destroying the forest is not as profitable as producing biogas with agricultural waste.
Burning trees in pellets is not the best way to go. Instead, you take all the waste from agriculture - you have a lot of agriculture in Romania -, turn it into biogas, and then the residue from fermentation becomes a fantastic fertilizer. And you bring it back to the field, you go into the circular economy. And this means higher income for agriculture and a new industry that develops like this. That's just one example.
Talking about logging - aggressive and illegal logging is a major issue in Romania, in the Carpathians. How can we make the forests a profitable natural resource besides harvesting timber for commercial purposes?
You can exploit a forest in a sustainable way. It means you plant trees, and in return, you cut some trees, then you plant new trees - and this is something that works. You have sustainable exploitation of forests, but you have to do it correctly. If you do it without any rules, it's a very short-term profit. You destroy the forest, and then there's nothing left.
If you have a primary forest, it's true that you should not cut anything. This is clearly not acceptable. But in normal forests, you can exploit part of the forest - take some wood, plant new wood, and you can do it sustainably. And you can do it sustainably over decades or centuries.
Now for primary forests, I think the best income can come from tourism. People are keen to come and see a virgin forest. And what they have seen in Africa and some places in South America is that they have more income through tourism than by cutting wood.
You see, what I do is find economically profitable solutions to protect the environment. But sometimes, in some sectors, you don't have financially profitable solutions. And if you want to protect the environment, you need to implement rules, a legal framework. But if it is not clear, people will do what they want. So it needs to be clear.
It's like protecting the oceans: of course, you have people fishing everywhere illegally, destroying the bottom of the sea, destroying some endangered species, and so on. As long as the law is not enforced, people will continue. And I think this is also the responsibility of the governments in every country - to enforce laws that clearly protect the country's future.
Air pollution is another problem in Romania - what’s your intake on this?
It's basically the same as climate change because each time you emit CO2, you also emit toxic particles, NO x, small particles, and you pollute the air, killing many people. Eight to nine million people die every year in the world because of air pollution. Many more have lung cancer, chronicle bronchitis, asthma - a nightmare for public health.
And this is another example where you cannot separate the responsibilities. Because pollution is in the department of environment, and the people who are sick because of pollution are in the public health department. And it costs a fortune for the public health. And if the environment lacks funds to solve the problem, it can be covered by the public health department. So these are the type of things that have to go together. This is why the departments and the ministries really have to work together.
We also have difficulties with closing non-compliant landfills. How can we reduce the waste sent to landfills? How can we enforce better waste management?
Landfills are a topic I like very much. Because people don't understand enough that waste is a resource. And how can you think of putting all this resource in landfills and just lose it?
In the portfolio of solutions we have identified, there is a solution to transform all the unrecycled waste into construction stones and gravel. To recycle all the plastic into new plastic. To recycle mobile phones and electronics. All these types of things are business opportunities; it's a new industry to deal with waste. And you make a profit, you make much more profit than by throwing that in the landfill.
As for the existing landfills, you can recover the methane emitted by the landfill, put it in the network of gas, and use it to heat buildings.
There are many ways to not waste the waste.
Romania still has some catching up to do when it comes to recycling - what could we do more?
You have to install a system that allows recycling. Because if you want to recycle and you make five different bins, and then when collecting the waste, they put all the bins in the same truck, you'll not be able to recycle anything. So you need to put a policy into place for recycling.
Or you can also use this solution that we identified and works well - all the waste from the cities is put on electric belts, and then artificial intelligence detects what is what, and you have little sprays of compressed air that push the plastic on one side, the aluminum on another side, the wasted food in another place, along this belt. And at the end of the belt, you have sorted all the waste.
But is it feasible right now to implement solutions like these?
All the ones that we have labelled at the Solar Impulse Foundation can be implemented right now.
And are all available for European countries? Can Romania use these solutions?
Absolutely. The company may not be Romanian, so you have to bring somebody who knows how to implement it in Romania, to bring the technology, but it will be local workforce, local jobs.
What I’m offering to the Romanian government is to work with different ministries to select the best solutions for your country.
Major cities in Romania started introducing more and more eco-friendly means of transport to their public transport fleets. Some even announced big plans to build photovoltaic parks to cover their public consumption or use geothermal energy for local district heating. Is this the way to go?
That’s good. We also made a Solution’s Guide for Cities covering different sectors. For constructions, for example, you are now able to use low-carbon cement, you can use 100% recycled demolition waste, or use steel staples instead of arming for the concrete. If you do things like that, you reduce your footprint for construction in a significant way.
Now you can insulate much better. You can use heat pumps instead of fossil energy or electric radiators - it's much more efficient. But really, up to five times lower energy bill at the end of the month.
You can use systems that can observe whether somebody is in the room and cut light or increase or decrease the heating or air conditioning.
Buildings today can be net-zero. You put heat pumps, you put solar panels, you can really work in a decarbonized way. And it's profitable because you cut the energy bill.
Romania's first climate lawsuit started recently, initiated, and backed by non-profits. They want the judges to oblige the government to take real action against climate change and concrete measures to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Amid the growing wave of similar actions on the global stage, what do you think - is this a tool that can force a real change and action?
I think it's extremely good also for the governments. Because very often, the governments would like to do more, but they don't know how to do more, they are afraid that the population and the industry will resist. And if you have these lawsuits, it gives an obligation to the government to do something better.
So it's extremely useful to do it.
What can I do as an individual? How can I contribute?
You have to understand that the individual has some responsibility for how he/she consumes. But I would say that the big responsibility stands in the legal framework that rules how things are produced and brought to the market.
So, of course, you can put LED lamps, you can reduce your heater to 20 or 19 degrees instead of 25, you can consume locally. You save water, you save energy, you are respectful of the resources.
But maybe you would like to do much more. You would like to use renewable energy for your house's lighting or heating system. And if the government is not investing in this, you won't have it. There are a lot of things that you cannot do if the governments don't take the decisions to make it at a large scale. And what the population should do is encourage the governments to go in that direction.
I'd say this is the responsibility of the population - to support the governments that are doing well in terms of energy and ecological transition.
Now, let's shift the focus on you for a bit. What was it like to grow up in such a remarkable family?
It's an incentive to be a pioneer. Because growing up, in my education, all I saw was about pioneering, innovating, exploring, being curious, and never listening to people who say it's impossible.
You were afraid of heights when you were young. How did you get from there to flying around the world twice?
When I was a teenager, I started hang gliding as a therapy against my fear of heights. And that showed me that if you focus on the present moment, the relation with yourself, the awareness of being alive in your body, you don't need to be afraid.
Because fear is just a projection in the future. So if you really live in the present, you don't feel the fear, you don't need the fear, fear just doesn't exist.
Now going back to the future - when you made history with the around-the-world flight in a solar plane. Up there, did that flight really feel like something from the future? Or how did it feel?
In the beginning, I thought I was in the future but not at all. I was just in the present with what the current technologies allow me to do. And at that moment, I understood that it was the rest of the world that was in the past. And the rest of the world is completely in the past - with old systems, old technologies, thermal engines that are not efficient, badly insulated houses, old industrial processes, dirty energies, inefficiency everywhere.
And that was the real trigger that made me realize that today the goal is not only to protect the environment, the goal is to modernize the countries, modernize our world, modernize our way of living with all the new technologies.
What's next for you?
I'm preparing a flight around the world, non-stop, in a hydrogen airplane. Because I think we need big flagships for the protection of the environment.
But I'm also continuing with the foundation, the Solar Impulse Foundation, to really help the European countries reach more ambitious national and energy climate plans. This is why I am here in Romania; I was in Poland a few weeks ago, I went to Spain, and I'm also going to Italy. With these solutions, I'm just trying to bring a toolbox to the countries.
To end with a fun fact - is it true that both your grandfather and his twin brother inspired well-known fictional characters?
Yes. Captain Picard from Star Trek, Jean-Luc Picard was inspired by the twin brother of my grandfather, with a slight change in the spelling. And Professor Calculus from TinTin was inspired by my grandfather - Auguste Piccard.
The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Irina Marica, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Opening photo credit: Philipp Bohlen)