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Global Ideas

Private sector key to fighting climate change, Richard Branson says

British magnate Sir Richard Branson is a strong advocate of business solutions to tackle climate change. He told us about island economies offering a great chance for transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables.

British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson made his name as the founder of the Virgin Records music label in 1972. His company later branched out into areas including airlines, trains and financial services. In 1979, he bought the Caribbean island of Necker. The billionaire businessman now plans to use the tiny island to test the effectiveness of renewable energy systems for small islands. The project forms the centerpiece of the ‘10 island challenge’ launched at the Rio+20 climate summit last year.

Richard Branson is also the founder of the Carbon War Room, a non-profit outfit that pushes market-based solutions to advance the low-carbon economy.

Global Ideas: In November, the world’s governments are coming together in Warsaw for the COP 19 global talks to tackle climate change. What do you think a United Nations Conference like this one can and should achieve?

Head the Virgin Group, British, Sir Richard Branson stands in front of SpaceShipTwo during the rocket plane's worldwide debut at an event for dignitaries and future 'astronauts in Mojave, California, USA on 07 December 2009. Virgin Galactic unvieled SpaceShipTwo, on 07 December 2009 after secret development for the past two years. The company plans to sell suborbital space rides for 200,000 US dollars on134,695 euros a ticket, offering passengers two and a half hour-hour flights that include around five minutes of weightlessness. EPA/ANDREW GOMBERT

Sir Richard Branson: "We need to remember that tackling the issue of climate change will also allow us to empower and protect vulnerable populations around the globe and strengthen human rights."

Sir Richard Branson: We need a vision of a safer, cleaner, better world and the shared goal that increases in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius is that vision. And, it’s the target prescribed by the best available science. Let’s reinvigorate that vision. We need to remember that tackling the issue of climate change will also allow us to empower and protect vulnerable populations around the globe and strengthen human rights. We need a solutions orientated approach. This will allow us to have a more focused and more relevant discussion and engage the best and brightest people. Let’s create a fair level playing field at the national and international level. If we do, deals will be done, and money will flow to low carbon technologies.

We need to finance low carbon development. 20 percent of the European Union’s GDP and 20 percent of China’s GDP comes from public procurement. Using the procurement laws as an incentive for low carbon development would move huge amounts of finance and create new market opportunities for business. Invite the private sector to play. The private sector can provide many of the technological solutions cheaply. The COP President in 2014 needs to find new ways to engage the private sector beyond the current trade fair formula.

Pristine beaches and sparkling blue water - the Caribbean island “Necker” that you own sounds like a dream come true. You are planning to turn it into a tourist destination powered entirely by green energy. Why? How exactly do you plan to do that?

The world is filled with island economies - areas that operate on their own grid, be they Caribbean islands or isolated communities on land. These "islands" offer an excellent opportunity to show that it is possible to transform a fossil-fuel-driven economy into a smarter, more sustainable economy. Through its Smart Island Economies Operation, the Carbon War Room is working to do that; I offered Necker Island as the pilot island for this project-to offer a case study for other islands. We worked with partners to issue an RFP (request for proposal) and will soon be installing the first solar power system on the island.

What about transportation? Surely, getting to the island by plane or by ship involves emitting plenty of carbon emissions. How do you plan to address that?

I like to think big, so instead of working on the scale of just the one or two planes and ships that are transporting our guests, I am looking at entire industries, through the work of the Carbon War Room. The War Room is working in both the aviation and shipping sectors to substantially reduce carbon emissions around the world. In the shipping sector, we are driving the adoption of more fuel-efficient vessels by providing a 3rd party efficiency rating system, called the EVDI. We are also working to provide the industry with financing mechanisms for retrofitting vessels with efficiency technologies. In aviation, we are working to encourage the adoption and usage of biofuels, and create financing streams to support adoption.

What was your motivation in setting up the "Carbon War Room?

The mission of the Carbon War Room is to accelerate the adoption of business solutions that reduce carbon emissions at gigaton scale and advance the low-carbon economy. Four years ago, I sat with a group of Virgin and industry leaders discussing climate change. This group recognized that climate change is the greatest wealth-generating opportunity of our lifetimes. And we recognized that the world could achieve substantial carbon emission reductions with technologies that already exist, and without changes in government policy. So, I founded the Carbon War Room to identify and try to address the market barriers that are preventing the adoption of these solutions.

Despite your green activities, your own for-profit companies of the Virgin group operate in extremely carbon-intensive industries such as aviation, racing and commercial space travel. One might be forgiven for concluding that you are the businessman with the single largest carbon footprint in the world. How do you reconcile that with your green initiatives?

Aside from putting all the profits from our transport businesses into renewable energy research, I set up the Virgin Earth Challenge to offer a prize money of $25 million for proposals concerning CO2 emission reductions. The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize for sustainable, scalable ways of taking carbon back out of the air, often known today as ‘carbon removal’ or ‘negative-emissions’ concepts. Emissions reductions are extremely important in the first place, but, we asked, what about the legacy carbon in the atmosphere? Of course, many earth processes take carbon out of the air and keep it out already, but are there other sustainable carbon-removal activities that could become additional climate mitigation tools and work alongside renewables, efficiency measures and so on?
We currently have a shortlist of 11 companies that showed the best potential, out of over 2,600 formal entries and over 10,000 applications, to meet the prize’s tough criteria as they move forward. They cover the areas of Biochar; Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture; Direct Air Capture of Carbon dioxide; ways of sustainably managing land and soils, especially grasslands; and enhancing the weathering of certain rocks and minerals with carbon dioxide in the air.