How Clean Technologies Can Improve Health Worldwide

A guest post from Bertrand Piccard, Initiator, Chairman, and Pilot of Solar Impulse and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador

Humans have always been conquerors. But after continents, oceans, the skies and the moon, we have not yet been able to conquer global health and quality of life on this planet. Far too many people lack access to water, food, medical treatment, and the reason is not always lack of money. It is very often the lack of access to energy — and here I mean to clean and renewable energy, because energy derived from fossil fuels cannot be used by a large part of the population due to high cost and distribution problems. As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala — former finance minister of Nigeria and a managing director at the World Bank from 2007 to 2011 — would put it: “it is clear that we cannot tackle poverty successfully without also tackling climate change.”

With local production of cheap and inexhaustible energy coming from the sun, wind or biomass, we can purify, desalinate and transport water. And with water, we can irrigate crops. Thus, there will always be enough food and water as long as we have enough energy. That is why more and more microgrid projects, which are small electricity generation and distribution systems that operate independently of larger grids, are burgeoning in Africa. Steamaco, which provides solar power to remote areas in Kenya, is one of them. But decent standards of living amount to more than just covering these basic needs. People also need jobs and access to medical care. Clean technologies represent the biggest opportunity to create wealth that we’ve witnessed in a long time.

Bertrand PIccard in the cockpit of Si2, Solar Impulse’s zero-fuel plane.

Because of the world’s need for cleaner air and saving energy, clean technologies have the potential to create jobs and thus improve quality of life all over the world. Here’s a concrete example: according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, India is expected to create over a million new jobs in its endeavor to have 100 GW of operational solar power capacity by 2022. And that’s only in one country and in one branch of energy. Imagine how many people could be given decent standards of living if ambitious goals in terms of renewable energies were set by all governments.

In 2015, investments in clean energy in the Middle East and Africa were at $13.4 billion, 54% higher than in 2014 according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. These investments and the expansion of the clean energy industry have encouraged sustainable growth in the region. African countries like Kenya have put a primary focus on establishing a microgrid system to avoid building complex energy structures, and therefore enabling rural villages to have access to energy. The opportunity cost of implementing a 20th-century energy grid is apparent for governments. Thus, using clean energy would encourage political leaders to spend more time and resources on improving social benefits in the form of medical facilities and schools. This begins a virtuous circle, as better education, especially for girls, strikingly raises life expectancy, lowers the birth rate in overpopulated areas and reduces the rate of infections such as HIV. And with less poverty come fewer conflicts, and a more peaceful world.

But let’s not forget the major advantage here: it’s not only about growth, but about clean growth. Existing clean technologies, if implemented in our daily lives, could cut our energy consumption by half. Action does not need to come in the form of mega projects, either. Simple things, such as installing LED lights, properly insulating homes, building with lightweight materials and using electric vehicles are all examples of where consumers and businesses can make a difference. We need to get our head around the fact that lower greenhouse gas emissions and less waste mean having a healthier planet.

The issue of global health will be at the center of the second session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in May. As a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme, I intend to spread this message as much as possible to raise awareness about the opportunity that clean technologies represent for us all.

What we now need is for global leaders to act with courage and sign the Paris Agreement on April 22nd in New York.

Connect with Bertrand Piccard on Twitter and follow the Round-The-World clean voyage of Solar Impulse.