Monday, December 18, 2017 It’s time to abandon our dirty status quo and embrace clean growth

UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador Dr Bertrand Piccard makes the case for embracing a circular economy. 

Stories

 

By Dr Bertrand Piccard, UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador 

Climate change is intangible, daunting and for certain people, even deniable. But pollution is indisputable. And it affects everyone. We all experience it in our lives daily, regardless of where we live. Yet, solutions that can beat pollution while creating profit exist. If only they were implemented, we could drastically reduce polluting emissions globally, benefiting people, the planet and the industry. 

When I was a child, with my family we used to go on vacation in a chalet in the Swiss Alps. At the time, people would drive five kilometres to go and drop their garbage in the forest – be it food, glass, metals, plastic or bulky items such as consumer electronics. This resulted in a huge rock pile of waste – smoking, fermenting and smelling awful. When regulations on sorting and recycling were finally adopted, more than protecting health or the environment, it resulted in a new industrial market: creating jobs and generating profit. 

Today, waste management is becoming even more restorative and regenerative. By rethinking and redesigning products and the packaging they come in, we can develop safe and compostable materials that create profit, not just once, but again and again. This is the defining characteristic of a circular economy, where the waste of today becomes the resources of tomorrow. This is especially true for developing countries, where – like in my mountain chalet 50 years ago – waste is often left in open dumps. 

By rethinking and redesigning products and the packaging they come in, we can develop safe and compostable materials that create profit, not just once, but again and again.

Investing in new clean solutions is becoming increasingly profitable for investors and consumers in both rich and emerging markets. It makes financial sense. And for that reason, decision makers should stop compromising for minimal targets, but rather should base their negotiations and objectives on the reality of modern technologies and processes can offer. Not only for future generations, but for our current well-being. We need these regulations to incentivize change. 

So you see that it is not enough to speak only about problems; we have to offer solutions. It is a fact that air pollution alone is the single biggest environmental health risk, causing 7 million deaths each year. It also costs $3 trillion annually, that is 6 per cent of the global GDP. 

And it doesn’t stop there. Around the world, some 2 billion tons of human waste are disposed of in freshwater courses every day, containing chemicals that can have severe impacts on human health. Nearly 30 per cent of the food produced worldwide every year is lost or wasted, leading to methane emissions that cause climate change. And an estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans yearly, affecting numerous marine species. Where do we go from here? 

I remember when I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean with Solar Impulse and saw an oil tanker that was gas-freeing – leaving in its tracks black toxic traces stretching away in the waters. The contrast with my situation was striking – alone in my solar powered airplane, looking at the sun that was giving energy to its four electric motors and their huge propellers. There was no noise, no pollution, no fuel... And I could fly forever. I was thinking “This is science fiction, I’m in the future.” And then I realized, “No, it’s wrong, I’m in the present; this is what the technologies of today already allow me to do. It’s the rest of the world that is in the past.”

I remember when I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean with Solar Impulse and saw an oil tanker that was gas-freeing – leaving in its tracks black toxic traces stretching away in the waters.

That is why last month during the climate conference (COP23) in Bonn, I launched World Alliance for Efficient Solutions: to federate the actors in the field of clean technologies and shed light on existing solutions that are both clean and profitable. We have already pledged to select #1000solutions by next year's climate conference (COP24), and bring them to governments, companies and institutions to encourage them to adopt more ambitious environmental and energy policies. 

At present, we count 474 members that together combine more than 500 potential solutions, many of which directly tackle pollution. Kermap processes satellite images to analyse and map the air pollution in cities or regions, advising urban planning companies. TIPA produces biodegradable packaging, relying on an innovative material from biomimicry. Ecosoftt develops waste-water treatment plants, which aim to directly re-insert water into the house cycle. C-Gon produces hydrogen-based devices that can be added on cars to increase fuel efficiency. And SeAB develops an anaerobic digestion technology that transforms organic waste into power. 

Today, we urgently need to understand the absurdity of still using old and polluting devices. Fortunately, a more efficient and solution-oriented narrative is already making its way in global forums. The UN Environment Assembly, the world's highest-level decision-making body on the environment, met earlier this month under the overarching theme “towards a pollution-free planet.” Environmental leaders attending the meeting adopted a political declaration on pollution as well as 13 resolutions that will drive new action to clean up the world around us. 

We have the technologies and solutions to grow while transitioning to a pollution-free planet. And they are much more than “ecological”; they are “logical” because they represent the biggest new industrial market ever, and at the same time, the only way forward to improve our quality of life on Earth. That is why we have to be ambitious in setting targets.

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