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Economic recovery needs to be not just green, but efficient

A green recovery supports the environment. An efficient recovery works for both the environment and the economy.

Solar Impulse

The Solar Impulse aircraft, the first solar-powered plane to circle the globe. Source: Shutterstock

Across the globe, people are looking at life differently. Because of COVID-19, we take less for granted. Life on autopilot has been disrupted and the whispers are growing about a new path forward — letting go of the old ways of thinking.

If ever there was a right time to create a profitable circular economy, it is now. In fact, if we don’t act now, we probably never will, and if we don’t embrace sustainability as an economic path, we won’t last on this planet because we will run out of resources. It’s that simple.

When we talk about a green economy, people think wind and solar and electric vehicles. People hear about infrastructure and smart cities, but where do you start to build a true circular economy built on qualitative growth, creating jobs by replacing what is polluting with what is protecting the environment?

Increase efficiency, reduce waste

Half of our energy, food and natural resources get wasted. A circular economy increases efficiency by turning one company's waste into another company's resource. For example, you take a shower and the hot water goes down the drain. What if you recover that hot water and use it to reheat new clean water coming in? Families would recoup the investment is just a few months and then save money with every shower.

In aviation, Illinois company LanzaTech has developed carbon recycling technology that turns an airplane's carbon waste emissions into ethanol and converts it into a drop-in jet fuel. LanzaTech cites the potential to displace 30 percent of crude oil, reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent.

As someone who has studied the human mind as a profession, I understand people's reluctance to change.

I look at this environmental challenge through the lens of an explorer. Within a year, the Solar Impulse Foundation will have identified and certified at least 1,000 solutions that protect the environment and are profitable, creating new green jobs in the process. As of Sept. 1, we have vetted and labeled 682 solutions — ranging from a hydrogen-powered steam boiler that produces both heat and water without any greenhouse gas emissions to a solar dryer that allows farmers to protect their harvests to sell at a later date, avoiding market speculation that can ruin a farmer’s business. In Hawaii, green entrepreneurs have developed a seaweed-based natural food additive for cows and other large farm animals for 85 percent methane reduction in livestock. New production processes for cement and concrete use up to 80 percent less water and reduce concrete’s carbon footprint up to 70 percent.

Technology exists to retrofit old buildings with networking systems for smart city evolution, and we have a solution to retrofit combustion engine-vehicles into electric ones. This is much less expensive than building new electric buses, trucks and cars to expedite clean mobility for smart cities and smaller municipalities. In the past, sustainable innovations were expensive and needed subsidies to make them viable, but that has changed. Now, wind and solar often cost less than traditional forms of energy.

Three generations and the human psyche

It took years of planning and dedication to achieve the "impossible flight" I made around the world in a solar-powered plane. I proudly carry on my family’s legacy of exploration — my father, Jacques Piccard, made history when he submerged in his bathyscaphe to the ocean floor in the Mariana Trench to find sea life and stop governments wanting to dump nuclear waste into the ocean. Years before that, my grandfather Auguste Piccard was the first to witness the curvature of Earth after he literally rose to new heights by inventing a pressurized capsule for a balloon, which opened the door to modern aviation.

As a third-generation pioneer, it’s very important to me not only to set records, such as the solar-powered flight around the world, but also to inject a philosophical dimension into technology. I want my adventures to serve a useful purpose. Understanding how to push the boundaries of the human mind is one reason I became a medical doctor — a psychiatrist.

As someone who has studied the human mind as a profession, I understand people's reluctance to change. This explains why giving up the comfort of fossil fuel for environmentally friendly, renewable alternatives is so difficult for policy makers who have trouble letting go of old ways of doing things. All of us will suffer as a result if we allow this to continue.

Dare I say, "thanks" to COVID-19 we are entering uncharted territory. The whole world has been rattled. This is why I firmly believe that now is the best time and the planet's best chance to protect our environment. People are finally willing to think differently. Hiding beneath the blanket of comfort isn't working, and people know it.

That "impossible" solar flight in 2016 proved that the technology for clean energy already exists. We have the way; we need the will to push for aggressive policies that support both financial profitability and environmental protection in areas such as infrastructure, energy, manufacturing, mobility, industry and agriculture. Policy that supports sustainability gives business the confidence to invest in a green economy. Commercializing clean innovation supports a scalable circular economy with the ability to reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

A circular economy creates qualitative economic growth by replacing what is polluting by what is protecting. I envision a world that no longer pits the interests of environmental activists against those of major economic and industrial players. After all, we have the same goals — to create jobs, participate in social welfare and improve the quality of life on this planet.

It’s not too late. Using ingenuity, innovation and the creativity of humankind, together we can get there.

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