Where is COP21 heading?

Wednesday 2nd December 2015

There are two positive things about COP21. First of all, it’s now agreed by all Heads of State that climate change is a critical issue for the future. Secondly, there are more and more concrete private initiatives to improve the state of the climate, like Bill Gates’ research funding. On Sunday, he, Mark Zuckerberg, and a bunch of other wealthy tech leaders, launched a global initiative: Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which aims to spur private sector investment in clean energy.

Although I personally believe that many useful technologies already exist. It's clear that since we were able to fly day and night almost perpetually using energy efficient technologies, these techs could also have multiple applications on the ground. They could quickly make our world energy-wise and economically more efficient. It’s a fact that more research and development is needed in the field of clean techs, but we should not wait to implement what works.


The negative aspect of COP21 for me, is that the commitments are still not ambitious enough. And the clock is ticking. According to the IPCC’s latest report, at the current rate of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the average temperature should increase by 3.7 to 4.8°C by the end of the century, compared to the pre-industrial era. To limit global warming to the 2°C agreed upon in Copenhagen, we would have to reduce our GHG emissions by 40 to 70 % by 2050. Considering that they grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades, it seems rather ambitious. But not impossible hopefully.

I was recently on a business trip in the USA, and met Professor John Sterman of the MIT. With the nonprofit Climate Interactive, he creates tools to “help people see for themselves what options exist today to create the future they want to see”. One example is the app Climate Pathways which allows you to create various futures for the global economy and then learn whether these plans will stabilize the climate. A great way to realize what we must accomplish in terms of the fight against climate change. What the MIT’s analysis shows is that we are late in tackling the issue, and that it's not just one measure (like a carbon tax) that will solve it. It’s the sum of all the initiatives that need to be implemented.

157 countries have submitted their action plans to reduce their GHG emissions to COP21. But are these quantified targets feasible? India, the world’s 3rd biggest GHG emitter, has said in its plan that it will generate 40 % of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. When you take a closer look at how they came up with this number, you realize that they considered that their wind turbines could run 100 % of the time. In a perfect world maybe, but in real life they can never produce power 24/7. And who knows if this kind of assumption wasn’t made in the action plans of others countries…


Action plans are one thing, but it’s important to define how to achieve these goals. From vision to execution, there is a long way, and I know this from my experience at Solar Impulse. It took us 12 years and a lot of sweat to design and build 2 airplanes, which are the first ever to be able to fly indefinitely, thanks to solar energy. We are now halfway through our round-the-world tour, and have demonstrated that the airplane can fly non-stop over the ocean for almost a week. It’s this experience I want to share at COP21, how to make the impossible possible!