Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
My father worked for the French foreign service, and when growing up we lived in very different countries, Brazil, Denmark, Spain, France, and Brazil again. I got the bug, and my first professional experience was in several South American countries, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. There I could see first-hand how poor environmental controls can lead to very adverse conditions for large populations. I saw a lot of it, the burning of refuse in residential buildings in postal card scenic Rio de Janeiro; the large “burning of the soil” in poor agricultural areas, leading to short-term gains but very quickly the exhaustion of the land; massive deforestation in the Amazon forest; and desertification in savannas.
During my childhood, my father drove us everywhere — literally. My parents took their four children all the way to the northernmost reaches of Europe, hundreds of miles North of the Polar Circle. And then, through the Amazonian forest in Brazil and all the way South to Argentina. Our Peugeot and Citroen family cars would take the six or seven of us (we often had an au-pair) in relative comfort, at speeds up to 110 mph on the German autobahns. Yet, these cars only had 100–120 BHP or so, much less than a VW Golf today. How could they go with such small engines? Because they weighted around a single ton or 2,200 lbs, also much less than a typical car today, not to mention a SUV. Our modern cars, their electronics et al., are far too bulky and heavy — there is an environmental lesson here.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
There was no “aha moment,” but rather a gradual evolution over my entire life, from what I observed growing up in many different countries, to my professional career first in aeronautics and then in energy. When you deal with either energy intensive machinery like airplanes, or energy production itself, environmental issues and solutions are a natural part of the equation. In Europe, where I spent part of my youth, energy consumption has always been taxed much more heavily than in the U.S. — most Americans who spend time driving in Europe know this first hand. The initial motivation for this was conservation of precious resources (Europe imports most of the hydrocarbons it consumes), but the path from energy conservation to clean energy is a very natural one. Even today, with renewables having proven they can substitute fossil fuels economically, energy conservation remains an essential component of the existential fight against climate change and its negative impact on our planet.
If there was no “aha moment,” there was one person that influenced me profoundly in this area: Amory Lovins. I had the privilege to meet Amory, the founder of the Aspen based Rocky Mountain Institute, in the early 1990s, and we worked together on a variety of projects over a dozen years. Amory is a scientist who also has an innate sense of what will work, practically and economically. He started his career helping industrial production units save energy just by optimizing the flow of gases and liquids flowing through complex networks of pipes, and from there grew to be one of the most influential environmentalists in the world. He always follows science and has contributed immensely to the very impressive growth of renewables in the energy world. Many of the changes he advocates for, such as the need in the U.S. for an extensive high-voltage “smart grid” and decentralized electric power production, still need to be implemented at scale, but we are getting there despite many attempts to go backwards by the current administration. Think about it, in California 35% of our electricity production comes from renewables and governor Newsom has just signed an executive order banning the sale of new gasoline cars by 2035. Texas, not generally viewed as a bastion of supporters of the “Green New Deal,” leads the country in wind power generation. Progress!
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
Follow science, and it will guide you to solutions that will also prove economical. Do it in that order — scientific imperatives first — because a blind focus on short-term economics will not lead you to the best solutions long-term, from both the environment and economics standpoints. Also, do not be dogmatic! Science is inherently pragmatic. This means that helping planet earth heal from climate change cannot rely on the “free” markets and private initiative alone — these promote the much-needed changes at far too slow a speed. But, on the other hand, we cannot just wait for our governments to do everything. We, as citizens and professionals, need to be fully engaged in this challenge, at work and at home. And then, choose a field and a path that will help you contribute. For me, it was energy. But they are many other fields that can lead to active engagement in sustainability and the environment.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
When I worked as a senior then global managing partner for two multinational consultancies, I was for fifteen years an active participant in the Energy Forum of the Aspen Institute. We had many passionate discussions on the environment and non-polluting energy, even though during the 1990s and the early 21st century most economists dismissed the potential of renewables to make a dent in the world’s energy consumption matrix — how wrong they were! I also founded in 2000 the Energy Advisory Board of a very large multinational technology company. Our charter was, “how to help the U.S. wean itself out of middle-eastern oil.” We had 25 CEOs of a variety of energy companies from a dozen countries, several academics and economists including a Nobel Prize, and our debates had a certain impact, since they influenced the strategies of many businesses with significant impact on the global scene.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
- Stop consuming plastics! It is time to declare war to most plastics, principally in the area of packaged goods, unless we want to completely destroy our oceans that are already suffering a lot from the gazillion tons of plastics we dump on them every year. We can start simple, by refusing to buy goods with plastic packages. Demand glass, paper and biodegradable packages. Glass bottles instead of plastic ones; paper envelopes and cardboard boxes instead of plastic wraps; glass cans for food, etc. Beyond this, we can also accelerate the trend against plastic fibers towards more natural ones in clothing. Short-term, this will be a little more expensive, until non-plastic solutions reach the required scale, but the time to do this is now — let’s not unleash Neptune’s fury.
- Eat less red meat. I am not suggesting here that everyone should become vegan (I am not even a vegetarian myself), but it has been clear for a few years that consuming too much red meat has very bad consequences for the environment — too much use of land for grazing, too much production of industrial grade feedstock for cattle, and methane emissions from the same cattle representing one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the planet. Also, less red meat means better health for most people, which brings a hoist of tangible benefits. Remember, we spent $3.6 trillion in healthcare in the U.S. in 2019, or 18% of GDP and over $11,000 per capita. We need fewer obesity, cholesterol and heart problems, not more. At the risk of going back in time, here is how my mother organized the dinners at home when I was growing up: Beef, lamb (or liver), chicken, duck (or turkey), fish and shell fish once a week each, with a seventh dinner composed of vegetables and fruits. I believe this weekly rotation is still perfectly valid today, again for those who choose not to be vegetarian or vegan, options which can also lead to healthy nutrition and lifestyles.
- Choose green mobility options. Remember that 26% of the energy we consume in the country is applied to our mobility needs, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. And today, 94 % of that transportation energy consumed is fossil fuels based, with only 6% contributed by electricity and biofuels. Therefore, whenever possible, drive instead of flying; use public transport and mass transit instead of driving; enjoy bicycling or e-scooting instead of being enclosed in a subway, all while remembering that walking at least half an hour per day is one of the keys to good health into an advanced age.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
In 2020, we have the lowest ice cap on record in the Arctic; blocks of ice the size of England melting and breaking off Antarctica; floods and damage caused by ever more frequent hurricanes; and half a dozen western U.S. states engulfed in wildfires, with deadly smoke covering a quarter of the country. No wonder the next generation is aghast at what has been done to Mother Earth!
Still, we have to engage with our children, would it be only to help them not repeat the mistakes we made. Here are the 5 things we must do:
- Start with a “mea culpa.” As a baby boomer and also a father of five, I feel like walking on eggs when talking about the environment to millennials and generation Z members — my children. This uneasiness comes from the fact that our track record as custodians of the earth over the last forty years has been disastrous. We boomers have focused all our efforts on economic growth and financial gains, with tremendous costs in terms of inequality and the environment. Our over reliance on unregulated globalization, market-based policies and ensuing short-term priorities have acted as a break on the required transformation. Let’s admit this as the indispensable prelude to any discussion on serious change.
After this comes a call to arms: Many institutions and governments say, loudly, that the time to act is now — lest we want to endanger seriously the health of the only planet we have. On October 7th of 2019, The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued an urgent call to action to governments all around the world: In its report, the IPCC stated that major changes are needed within the next decade to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degree Celsius, and prevent irreversible damage to Mother Earth.
- To establish much needed credibility, follow with some myth debunking, foremost the immobilizing fallacy that we can have a thriving economy or a habitable planet, but not both. This is a myth because the transition towards a sustainable and environmentally friendly world requires a gigantic green infrastructure push, which will both be a powerful job creator and purveyor of growth. Even though we have barely started the renewables development effort demanded by climate change, solar and wind energy companies in the U.S. already generate more jobs than oil, coal and natural gas combined, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. A recent report by EcoMotion shows that solar and wind industries in the U.S. employ 480,000 people directly (this figure grows to millions of jobs if every supply chain component of the renewables and energy conservation industries is included), versus only 190,000 for all fossil fuel companies combined. And this takes place in a context where renewables still only account for about 27% of our nation’s power generation (according to 2019 data from the International Energy Agency), versus 60% for all fossil fuels, including 23% for coal. At equal output, renewables create many more jobs than traditional fossil fuel-based solutions. Globally, the thriving green economy generates $7.9 trillion in annual revenue, including $1.3 trillion in the U.S. alone, according to 2016 data obtained by arstechnica.com.
The green economy is also viewed by many economic experts as a much sounder bet for GDP growth than staying dependent on fossil fuels. Spending trillions of dollars in building a new green infrastructure is one of the cornerstones of the Biden campaign for president in 2020. In contrast, Trump promises more fossil fuels growth, with the relaxation or elimination of EPA regulations that protect us from carbon pollution. Yet, according to Forbes in a September 25, 2020 article, Moody’s Analytics has estimated that implementing Biden’s proposals would add 7.4 million more jobs in the U.S. than staying the course with Trump. Over the next four years, the Biden program would also create 4.2% annual growth, versus 3.2% with Trump. Moody’s is not alone in finding that a Biden and Democratic party win this November, with their push towards a green economy and improved social programs such as healthcare, would mean faster growth and increased employment: Economists at Goldman Sachs and Oxford Economics also found the same in a series of recent analyses, according to an article in the Washington Post on September 25, 2020.
- Then move on with the good news: Despite our dire predicament on climate change, we have all the tools required to meet this global challenge — this is not like going to Mars and creating human colonies there. We do not depend on yet undeveloped and expensive solutions like industrial-scale carbon capture. The real challenge is how to deploy these existing solutions and technologies at scale and speed. “Faster! Better! Cheaper!” should be the mantra in deploying environmentally friendly solutions to our day-to-day consumption, energy and mobility needs.
Our objective is simple: To fulfill our role in limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius, the U.S. must reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Again, this is entirely feasible with the technologies we have at our disposal today. Essentially, what we need to do is electrify all our power generation, transportation, construction and heavy industry activities. This will demand a titanic infrastructure effort, one that compares with FDR’s New Deal and WW II War Effort in terms of scope and overall country engagement. Because of the time imperatives involved, we cannot afford to wait for technologies and tools that do not yet exist to solve the problem — a constraint, but one that should help us concentrate on immediate action. This means that carbon capture and sequestration is not part of this electrification effort. The focus should be on replacing fossil fuels, not on mitigating their carbon impact.
- Now it is time to engage in some specifics in terms of solutions to this climate change, conservation and environment problem. One word, “Electrify!” In essence, we have proven solutions to produce electricity cleanly, and use storage technologies to ensure that electricity is available day and night. We need to electrify, relentlessly, the transportation, building, manufacturing and heavy industry sectors. Replacing fossil-fueled assets at the end of their useful lives should be systematic. Every coal, natural gas or oil-fired power plant going off the grid should be replaced by renewable energy; every car with an internal combustion engine by an electric vehicle; every traditional building furnace by a heat pump, and so forth. The good news is this wholesale transition will also create a lot of energy savings, because for example electric motors are much more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines. Similarly, carbon free renewable power is much more efficient than thermal conversion of fossil fuels to electricity. Therefore, we will not need to replace all of today’s nonrenewable energy production, but about 50% — 60% of it, according to several recent analyses. Wholesale electrification in the country should also help produce a lot of hydrogen, a zero-emission fuel that can then be used in applications where renewables and batteries have clear limits, foremost in air and maritime transport.
Looking at a couple of fundamental sectors, fighting against climate change demands lower carbon dependency in electricity generation and transportation. Clean power solutions already exist: Today 40% of US power generation comes from non-fossil sources, if nuclear and hydro power are added to wind and solar. However, 94% of transportation energy comes from fossil fuels. The future of transportation will thus focus on its decarbonization: Cities will promote bicycles (high-tech bicycles that is, with electric motors to supplement human power, and flat-beds to carry useful loads), e-scooters and electric mass transit systems at the expense of individual cars; climate change will disrupt current disrupters like Uber, since the proliferation of individual rides is too energy intensive and leads to intolerable levels of congestion; energy optimization and electrification will help us not become prisoners to urban congestion, with its corresponding waste of resources and time: In the relatively near future large metropolitan areas will need to wean themselves off individual cars, and global efforts are underway to reduce urban congestion, from electronic road pricing to regulations limiting the number of on-demand vehicles. As a result, individual automobile purchases are declining worldwide, with electric cars becoming more common. Outside large cities, cars (and also trucks) will increasingly become electric, thanks to great advances in battery technologies; high-speed rail and Maglev trains (both powered by electricity) will replace air travel for distances up to 1,000 miles. In this case much lower energy use goes in-hand with greater comfort, since train stations are much easier to access than airports, and train travel offers a comfortable travel time free of interruptions and constraints such as airport security, boarding processes and seat belt restrictions. Elon Musk, today’s most impactful entrepreneur (Electric vehicles; solar energy; home storage batteries; space travel, etc.), is betting on Maglev technology as well, with his new Boring Company that aims to offer an alternative to congested urban transit.
The above-mentioned transition from four to two-wheel in large Western cities — viewed with some bemusement in developing world mega cities, where ascending the social order means no longer relying on bicycles — has even got a new fancy name, “micro-mobility.” But changes like this are not just happening in transportation: Climate change imperatives are forcing us to move to smaller, decentralized energy solutions, such as in micro-grids that create new, neighborhood level renewable energy consumption networks.
Beyond these transportation and renewable energy priorities, we need to tackle climate change with a comprehensive green public infrastructure program, encompassing a wide variety of other sectors: For example, Holland has spent billions and treasures of national ingenuity to ensure that the best system of dikes and levees known to mankind protects its whole population from flooding — after all, on average the whole country is below sea level. Unfortunately, the same attention was not afforded to the Louisiana levee system, which was physically overwhelmed by Katrina. In Europe, most countries have invested in putting their electric lines below ground, where they are less vulnerable to flooding and will not cause uncontrolled fires during droughts, as happened every year since 2017 in California. Here, every year is worse than the prior one — in 2020 the Golden State has already seen wildfires covering more than four million acres! Improved housing infrastructure, safe from areas prone to flooding and fires, with rooftop solar energy and battery storage, has a longer-term positive environmental impact. It is also necessary to ensure diversity in our neighborhoods and that low-income populations are not always at the front-end of the impact of devastating storms and other climatic events. If we spend the trillions of dollars we need to rebuild our public infrastructure, we will also achieve the additional feat of decreasing inequality in our country and improve living and working conditions for all.
This will have to be encouraged by regulations and policies, for example that any decommissioned fossil fueled industrial asset can only be replaced by an electric one. Strategic mandates will have to be enacted by the federal government and have teeth to apply across the country. Existing subsidies to fossil fuels, such as the several hundreds of millions dollar incentives to exploration and production of oil & gas, will have to be abolished in short order. These new regulations and mandates should be clear, short (no policy legislation thousands of pages long) and incisive. They should set a very clear direction for all individuals and businesses involved in energy, mobility, construction and heavy industries, and include low interest financing options. This government leadership is imperative because the challenge at hand is too urgent to be left to “the market,” which “invisible hand” transforms capital intensive industries far too slowly. Even sound fiscal tools, like strategic subsidies to support renewable projects financing or the purchase of rooftop solar panels, and a global carbon tax around $150–200 per ton of CO2, are not enough to achieve this wholesale electrification of our activities in a thirty-year timeframe.
- Contemplate the prize! Think about all the benefits that this engagement by the next generation and the green infrastructure transformation will bring to all of us:
- Tens of millions of new jobs that cannot be outsourced — involving all trades, from installing solar panels to financing the new “smart” high-voltage transmission grid. New jobs that will be available everywhere in the country, not just in talent-rich metropolis on the coasts. Unlike the 21st century technology industry, which is concentrated geographically and where the good jobs are only available to highly trained individuals with a strong university education, the new green infrastructure will be job intensive across the spectrum of qualifications. It will revitalize many regions “bypassed” by technology, mid-sized towns and rural areas — a bit like FDR’s New Deal, which included large infrastructure projects in the middle of the country such as the TVA, and rural electrification across America.
- Clean air everywhere, lakes and rivers free of pollution (think, no more coal ash), meaning much improved health for everyone. This “health dividend” from the wholesale electrification of our activities will be particularly beneficial in today’s geographical areas close to large fossil fuel assets, like coal mines, power plants, oil & gas refineries, etc. Since low-income people living in these areas have seen many pollution related illnesses, with negative consequences on their overall life expectancy, the health dividend mentioned above will be a progressive one, helping those who need it the most
- Strong reductions in inequality, with disproportionate benefits in industrial and crowded urban areas, typically with low-income populations. At the other end of the population density spectrum, rural areas, much neglected today, what with frequent lack of internet access etc., will also benefit handsomely from this program of electrification. Our country will thus gain the opportunity to move away from bi-coastal geographic elitism — green public infrastructure is by definition democratic, since it helps everyone, regardless of zip code.
- A powerful sense of national achievement against adversity. Our politically divided country needs a rallying challenge, one that can bring us together in a national effort. The Greatest Generation taught us that: It suffered from abject poverty for a decade during the Great Depression, and then rallied as a united nation through the New Deal and the War Effort to win World War II. Working together in rebuilding our country’s infrastructure to defeat the adverse impact of climate change could bring us together again.
- And at a much more micro and individual level, we would get to enjoy everything electric — clean, silent and quasi maintenance free. More comfortable homes, with self-sufficiency in electricity through solar panels and battery storage — no more worries about blackouts; cities free of air, water and sound pollution; and many other day-to-day life improvements. The best illustration of the advantages of this green transformation is the electric car — cheap to operate, no problem in icy cold or super-hot weather, with oodles of torque on demand, like a muscle car without exhaust fumes — what’s not to like?
- We need to mobilize to mitigate climate change. There is already a clear path ahead for the production of clean electricity through renewables. In transportation, the future will be made of a myriad private sector initiatives, from micro-mobility tools and electric vehicles to larger projects aiming to reduce urban congestion, as well as a few mega programs such as improved mass transit and high-speed intercity systems, typically government sponsored. A similar mix of private and public initiatives will transform other energy intensive sectors such as construction and heavy industry. But it should be “all hands-on deck” to ensure that we meet the challenge of the wholesale electrification of our activities in the quest of a sustainable future to make our planet great again.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
If your business is to build and operate a new electricity generation business today, you can base it on renewable sources like solar panels and wind power on an industrial scale (the mix depending on where you are located geographically, in the West with lots of sunshine or in the plains of Texas and the Midwest, with lots of wind), supplemented by a large array of batteries for storage. This environmentally friendly solution (no carbon emissions) will save a lot of operating costs relative to even the most modern coal-fired power plant — which still pollutes a lot. This is why the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects electricity generation from renewables to overtake coal and nuclear by 2021, or next year.
We were having a discussion about this almost twenty years ago at the Energy Advisory Board I had founded, with the CEOs of two very large utilities, a Spaniard and an American. The Spanish CEO had talked about how half the electricity generated for his utility, which covered over 40% of Spain, came from wind. This prompted his U.S. counterpart, dubbed “Mr. coal” in the industry because of the reliance of his company on large coal-fired power generation plants, to ask: “Well, I am impressed. But where are all these wind mills?” To which the Spaniard responded, “In La Mancha, of course! You have not read Don Quijote?”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I mentioned Amory Lovins earlier in this interview. Amory had a strong influence on my thinking, demonstrating to me in a variety of consulting projects for large energy companies that the more sustainable and environmentally conscious solutions can also be the more profitable. He also had a strong belief that when it comes to energy, “less is more,” and that conservation always beats low cost. Hence his coining of the term “negawatts,” and the successful (if not always followed, even today) argument that before a business starts planning for access to energy sources with the lowest possible cost, it should first plan to reduce its energy consumption to the minimum. Always extremely logical and disciplined in his thinking, Amory followed this “lean” approach with his “Hypercar” project, where the driving concept was the use of carbon fiber to reduce weight, even before advocating for the use of electricity and batteries to reduce emissions — very much like the story I mentioned earlier about my father’s cars, fuel efficient because of their low weight relative to cars today.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Make our planet great again! This is not a new idea, not even a new slogan, but it captures well the priorities we should all espouse for the next few decades. Everything we do, every day, can be a positive input in this existential challenge we face. I would be delighted to inspire and support any movement that would aim to mobilize everyone in this country to join the global effort to save and then heal our planet.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
I have the good fortune of being a serial entrepreneur. This is never easy, and above all requires infinite patience to follow a sound game plan that might unfold over many years. One can never claim victory too soon, even after a successful IPO with a share price growing nicely. My favorite life lesson quote, one that epitomized that there is always much to fight for even after a great achievement, comes from Winston Churchill. Just after the young Royal Air Force pilots had won the decisive “Battle of England” that prevented Nazi Germany from invading the U.K., Churchill was asked about the significance of this decisive victory and said: “This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
LinkedIn: etienne-deffarges-012a33ba, and my website:
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!