Richard Branson's Climate-Change Agenda

Richard Branson at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in Texas. Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum for Newsweek

You have said that on global climate change, governments cannot lead by themselves. What role do you believe governments should play?

I don’t think governments can lead alone on anything, really. I think the world is moving much more to a world where the business community has to work closely with governments in helping them get a lot of problems resolved. And I’m a strong believer that business should be a force for good, not just a money-making machine for its shareholders. When it comes to climate change, business has to play its part, because governments have largely forsaken the world and not grasped the nettle. I think if governments were to set the rules by which we all played, to incentivize industry to move in a particular direction, that would really help us get on top of the problem.

Are you surprised by the intensity of climate denialism in America, including among candidates just elected to Congress?

The scientific community is not skeptical, you know. But let’s assume the odds [of climate disaster] were only 50/50. If you have a 50 percent chance of getting knocked over by a car crossing the road, you’re going to take out insurance, or you’re not going to cross the road. And it just seems to me that at the very least we should be taking out insurance. But more than that, in America I don’t even talk about global warming anymore. I just talk about the fact that the resources are being depleted fast. Even the skeptics must realize that we are fast running out of oil, that we’re only a few years away from demand for oil exceeding supply, which could create the mother of all recessions if fuel goes up to $150, $200 a barrel, and that the West should not be reliant on foreign oil from a stability point of view. So I think whichever way you look at it, we must try to find clean fuels. It’s up to business to innovate, to come up with fuels that can power our planes that don’t emit carbon, with ways of utilizing the sun and the wind at a fraction of what it currently costs. And it’s up to governments to set ground rules that encourage clean energy, home-produced energy, by not taxing it at all whilst the industries are in their infancy and replacing the taxes they’ve lost with slightly higher taxes on the dirty energy.

Why did you set up a Carbon War Room?

We decided that carbon being the enemy—some people argue that carbon is as big an enemy as World War I and World War II put together, and you could throw in a possible third world war as well—then where is the war room? There wasn’t one. So we used our entrepreneurial skills to set up the Carbon War Room. The idea is to use the carrot much more than the stick to work with industries into trying to get gigatons [billions of tons] of carbon out of industries. One of our approaches is to say if you can save a gigaton of carbon, you’ll save a gigaton of money; it’s hopefully going to make your industry more profitable. We’re tackling the airline industry, the IT industry, a whole series of different industries. Take the shipping industry [which emits almost one gigaton of carbon dioxide each year, more than the total emissions of Germany]. We’ve started with 60,000 ships, we’ve worked out their fuel efficiency per tonnage, etc. We’ve categorized them between A and G, A being the most efficient and G being the least. And we put that up on the Web, to coincide with [the] Cancún climate meeting, so shippers and charterers can pick a vessel that reduces their product’s carbon footprint. Now we’re talking to ports up and down America, up and down Africa, throughout the Far East, and suggesting that if a ship A wants to come into the port, it maybe should have priority over a ship G. If there’s only one refueling truck, maybe the A ship should be given priority. We’ve also talked to airports about dirty planes, and some airports have actually started stopping dirty planes that use a lot of fuel coming into their airports. Heathrow’s done that, Gatwick’s done that. And we also set up annual Gigaton Awards, which we’re handing out in Cancún, to companies that reduce the most amount of carbon in a year. [Winners of the 2010 Gigaton Awards included Nike, 3M, Vodafone Group, and the European utility GDF Suez.]

In 2007 you announced the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25 million prize to anyone who develops technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. How’s it going?

We’ve had a lot of entries, and that prize is continuing until somebody wins it. The incentive has got about 3,000 to 5,000 people working on the idea. It’s exciting to have people coming up with lots and lots of mad ideas. I think it’s quite possible that somebody might make the breakthrough, but I think we have to assume they won’t, and we have to get on with leading the world to a place where dirty fuels are a thing of the past.

Sharon Begley is NEWSWEEK’s science editor and author of  Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.

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