The remarkable career of Reinier van den Berg: from weatherman to garbageman

Weatherman Reinier van den Berg in front of a green screen in a television studio

Trailblazing the Energy Transition: A Conversation with Dutch Meteorologist and PyrOil Ambassador Reinier van den Berg

Fires raging in California, super storms, and arctic greening. Positive news surrounding climate change is hard to come by. It’s easy to get discouraged, but there are many people who are working to reverse this trend. Reinier van den Berg, a Dutch meteorologist turned entrepreneur, is among them. Reinier is known colloquially in the Netherlands as “the weatherman who became a garbage man.” Read on to find out why and what his experience on multiple fronts of the climate change battle tells us about the quest for a sustainable future.

Reinier, you’re a well-known person in the Netherlands, but our international readers may not be familiar with your work. Can you tell us about yourself and your background? 

That’s right. I’m quite a well-known weather presenter in the Netherlands. I studied air pollution at Wageningen University and after completing my studies, I became a meteorologist. My first job was at my brother’s company. He founded one of the first private weather companies in Europe (Meteo Consult). That was back in 1986. I started presenting the weather on television back in 1989 - more than 30 years ago. I still present the weather on national TV every now and then, but my main focus today is being a public speaker and driving awareness about the urgency of climate change and solutions we can implement. 

It’s no secret that climate change has become a major concern and a lot of the science has become more clear in these past 3 decades. The last 10-15 years, I’ve invested a lot more time on studying climate change, both by traveling to climate change hotspots like Greenland and countries in Africa, and by reading and researching. You could say that 70% of my time is currently devoted to studying climate change and 30% to weather presenting. I am also closely involved in a startup that’s developing solutions related to this problem and I’m working on a book about reforestation which will come out soon.

That’s very interesting. We’re seeing a lot more research on the importance of reforestation.

Yes, trees are part of the solution but we have a long way to go. As you know, we’ve seen a lot of forest fires in California, Siberia and the Amazon. We will see it in Australia in the coming months. These fires cause a positive feedback loop. Once you get these forest fires, a lot of carbon is injected into the atmosphere, worsening the problem. This is what makes climate change so dangerous, we don’t know how fast it will go because of these feedback loops. 

Another example is the melting of permafrost areas in the Arctic. The moment this permafrost melts, you get swamps. Swamps emit methane, a very strong greenhouse gas (21X stronger than CO2). This makes it difficult to forecast trends for the next decades, because we don’t know yet how far the consequences of these feedback loops will go.

In the Netherlands, there’s an ongoing discussion about nuclear power. What is your view on this?

Well, it’s an interesting discussion. Of course, once you have a nuclear power plant, the plant itself no longer emits CO2. But it takes 10 years or more before you have such a power plant and it comes at a very high cost. It’s estimated that it could cost up to €10 billion. Is the business case strong enough to attract investors for nuclear power? The price of solar and wind is decreasing. The uranium also has to be imported, so it’s not an entirely carbon-neutral process. You have to deal with the waste, which will become a problem for future generations. Why not invest in other energy sources, like solar, wind and geothermal? Energy storage is also important, and seen by many as the golden key for the energy transition.

Hydrogen is another hot topic.

Yes, hydrogen-based energy will become more important in the coming decades and just recently I read that Airbus is investing in hydrogen-powered aircraft. But we must not lose sight that it costs a lot of energy to produce. Up to about 70% of extra solar and wind capacity is needed to extract hydrogen from water and transform it into electricity. It’s a possibility, but the price is very high. We will need subsidies to make this happen. 

Currently you are also involved in refining plastics into oil. Can you tell a little bit more about the startup PyrOil? 

Yes, everybody knows that plastic is made out of oil. About 8% of the oil that is drilled is used to produce plastic. Chemically, you can reverse the process. You heat up plastics, even polluted ones, to about 480℃ without oxygen and that plastic will turn into gas. That gas can be cooled. It starts to condense and becomes a liquid: oil.

Cleaner and better quality than crude oil, I imagine.

Exactly. It’s a very interesting process that’s actually more than 50 years old. It’s been difficult to turn this into a business case, but we think we have a solution for this now. Our first reactor in Moerdijk (in the South of the Netherlands) is working and demonstrating that the technology works. Our next step is to do it at scale. It took some time to get the necessary permits for this sort of chemical industry. Our plan is to scale up in 2021, focusing on countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, the United States, Norway and of course the Netherlands. Countries like Kenya have a very big plastic pollution problem. Sometimes plastic is burned outside of towns. We want to help those countries with our technology, not only by generating employment but by processing this waste and turning it into a commodity like oil. 

It’s important to note that it’s not just those countries that will suffer from this problem. Almost every item of food we eat today has microplastics. Every year, an extra 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean. This comes into the fish we eat. It’s becoming a huge issue and we’re playing with fire if we don’t do something about it, as it pollutes our soil and our water as well. This makes it a pressing issue. The feedstock that we have is exactly this plastic waste, and the price we receive for taking in waste is increasing. It’s about €150-250 per tonne of plastic waste received. So, if your installation takes in 100,000 tonnes of plastic per year, then you get €10-20 million just for receiving waste. There’s a very compelling business case for cleaning up the world. 

Is it a carbon-neutral process?

Good question. Out of 1 tonne of plastic, 75% becomes oil and the rest remains gas: butane and ethane. These are these gases we use to keep the reactor going at 480℃. So, we produce our own energy. In the future, we will capture the CO2 released from the process and make methanol from it. 

Most people have the feeling that we’re doing something about CO2 emissions. Is the pace at which we’re bringing CO2 into the atmosphere accelerating or declining?

Well, we see that yearly emissions are not rising as much anymore. The coronavirus crisis is driving emissions down at the moment. It’s likely they will pick up again once the corona crisis is over. The issue is that keeping emissions from rising is not enough. Every molecule is too much, as their effect plays out in the atmosphere up to 100 years into the future. So, what we need to do is actually decrease the amount of emissions, not just prevent them from rising. We need a carbon-neutral society. 

Can you outline a scenario where we can achieve this? Are there viable alternatives for heavy industries, like iron foundries, car manufacturing, aluminum production, and concrete? Can we provide them with enough energy in a sustainable way?

This is a very important question. We need innovation and new technology more than ever for cleaner industries. But at the same time, the world’s population is on the rise and consumption per capita is increasing. We need more and more resources to fuel this. Yet, we only have one planet. We must also generate awareness and develop new societies that are less focused on consumption. Planned obsolescence is part of the problem. Our phones are produced in such a way that they stop working in 2-5 years. That’s the same for clothes with fast fashion. We need a radical shift. We can no longer be focused on growth. Can we live on a planet where there is always positive growth when the resources we have are finite? The earth does not grow by 2% a year in resources. Sooner or later, we will discover that it’s not enough to have clean technology. We need societies where we use less products, and share more products. You’re seeing more signs that this is becoming part of life. People are now more prone to share things like cars or tools, for example. 

That’s right. We’re seeing companies in Europe providing car subscriptions instead of ownership.

Yes! Younger generations especially are interested in mobility, but not on purchasing a car. Their priority is to use a car, not to own it. We need more of these sharing economy models. The price for our growth-led economy is sometimes paid in Africa, or parts of Asia and South America. The discussion about sustainability must also be about fairness and shifting our behaviors. We also need to deal with inequality and unequal access to water, education and resources. 

Can you talk a little bit more about circular models and how they can help us halt environmental degradation? 

Let’s take farming as an example. The Netherlands is one of the biggest exporters of agricultural products, but our agriculture industry is destroying biodiversity. We need to develop a system of circular agricultural production. The soil is the base of everything that lives, but it’s very poor in a country like the Netherlands. Micro-organisms have completely vanished from our soil because of pesticides and fertilizers. We have to restore the richness of the soil to produce in a carbon-neutral way. 

I’d like to turn to the issue of measuring and reporting. We see a trend towards broader and improved disclosure and ESG reporting. Do you agree that this is an important step towards improving? 

Absolutely. As we say in Dutch, “meten is weten” (measuring is knowing). If you do not measure in an objective way, you don’t know how to improve. You need to have a standard to compare with other companies and to benchmark yourself. I think this will help all companies change towards a new way of operating.

How does the startup, PyrOil, measure and report on these issues? 

It’s very important for us to know what goes in and out of our reactor. That’s why we have a lot of equipment just to measure the process. But at the moment, this is just a demo model. It’s not commercial. Once we scale up, measuring will be part of the product because we want to be able to answer questions about our footprint. 

I’d like to end by asking you why climate change is so important for you. Can you tell us why you’ve made climate change awareness your life’s mission? 

Climate change is like an invisible enemy. Right now, all countries are combating the coronavirus like an invisible enemy. We are convinced that it’s going to destroy economies and jobs, but we are not doing the same about climate change, which is even more dangerous. We’re seeing crazy heat waves, stronger storms, more flooding, longer dry spells...the list goes on. In rich countries, we can turn up the heater in the cold season and have advanced irrigation systems when there’s drought. Not all countries have that luxury. What this will result in is more forced migration. There are reports that predict that hundreds of millions of refugees will be forced to travel to other countries in the next 30 years due to climate change. This invisible enemy is affecting our flora, our fauna and ourselves in the most dangerous ways. It affects us all.

People can dream of a world without hunger or violence, but those dreams will never come true in a world where climate change continues. Not doing anything is not an option. We have to act now. It’s important to share this with as many people as possible to gain ambassadors. That’s why I’ve made it my life’s mission. A world without these problems is worth striving for. Image of forest