Branson Wages War on CO2 Amid Government Sluggishness
Richard Branson has lent his name and directed his profits to the search for carbon-light business models. Virgin Airlines is developing biofuels. The Carbon War Room works with industry to identify market opportunities that can make money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the UN Rio+20 Sustainability Summit, he signed on his support to a Greenpeace call banning Arctic oil drilling. I caught up with him at the world green summit, one of dozens of side events that have sprouted up around the UN's Rio+20 Summit.
Q: No one seems happy with the negotiated document coming out of Rio. What's the role of companies going forward?A: The role of companies is all the more important for the world because so little has come out of governments. Governments could have made some big announcements this week that wouldn’t have cost their countries any money -- that could have made their companies money. They could have got rid of the subsidy on fossil fuels, which would have helped start a complete clean industry and given it the massive boost it needed and save their countries money. They chose not to do that. They could have agreed to protect the open seas and police the open seas instead of letting them carry on getting decimated by fishing and so on. So companies have really got to step in and do the best they can without the proper ground rules set by governments.
Q: Will any progress come out of the event overall?A: It was basically a tremendous disappointment, with lots of words like "We hope" and "We plan to," but no specific actions at all. Copenhagen was disappointing. Cancun was disappointing. And now, sadly, Rio is disappointing. Behind the scenes there are lots of fantastic initiatives, but [there's] one big thing that governments could do -- get rid of fossil fuel subsidies. It’s something I think every single government could do. The fossil fuel industry is making tons of money. It’s not going to harm them very much and it would be the one move which could get the whole world back on track.
Q: What's the single most sustainable thing you've ever done?A: We've got quite a lot of different things going on. First of all 100 percent of all the profit from our airlines our dirty businesses we put into developing clean fuels. We're close to having clean fuels that we can put in our planes. Algae-based fuels, isobutanol-based fuels and fuels that literally just come out of (steel plants)? And they can be turns into aviation fuels. We set up an organisation called the Carbon War Room that is working with al the industry sectors in trying to get 70 gigatons of carbon out of the industries.
Q: Former Costa Rican President Jose Maria Figueres recently became president of the Carbon War Room. What mandate have you given him?A: We're very lucky to have him running it. Today we announced a tie-up with islands in the Caribbean. Aruba we've said we'll make 100 percent carbon neutral by 2020.
Q: In 2007, you and Vice President Gore announced a $25 million Virgin Earth Prize for scientists who invent a way to reduce greenhouse gases. What happened to that initiative?A: We've had thousands of applicants. We've got ten that have come up with extremely good ideas, and which we're following. Whether any one of them could produce enough carbon reductions in themselves to be a winner, we'll have to wait and see.
Morales covers renewable energy and climate change for Bloomberg News.
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