For a man who has spent his whole career dividing opinions it is little surprise that Sir Richard Branson's recent foray into the green business movement has failed to win universal approval. Like one of his action-packed round-the-world balloon rides the question remains as to whether Branson's green pronouncements are the brave work of a natural pioneer or the ultimately futile PR-stunt of a craven self-publicist. At times it is hard to tell.
His latest wheeze is to offer $25m to the first scientist to develop a workable means of removing at least one billion tonnes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.
Sharing a stage with former US vice president Al Gore and former British ambassador to the United Nations Sir Crispin Tickell, Branson said the Earth Challenge Prize was the largest of its kind and would stimulate a scientific race akin to the 17th Century competition to find a way to accurately measure longitude.
"The Earth cannot wait 60 years," he said. "I want a future for my children and my children's children. The clock is ticking."
The move comes hot-on-the-heels Branson's commitment last year that he would reinvest the £3bn of profit raised over the next five years from his airline and rail firms into a new venture called Virgin Fuels which will research renewable fuels.
So what's not to like?
Well not much if you believe Gore, Tickell, inventor of the Gaia theory James Lovelock, climate scientist and head of the Nasa Institute for Space Studies James Hansen, and Australian mammalogist and palaeontologist Tim Flannery, all of whom have agreed to sit on the judging panel for the new prize. Branson could not have assembled a more respected group of environmentalists if he'd recruited Mother Nature herself.
He even had a pretty compelling defence ready for those who would argue that owning an airline and leading the fight on climate change should be two mutually exclusive activities. He argued that were Virgin to disappear tomorrow people would simply fly with other airlines, and that every penny of profit from the airline was being invested into Virgin Fuels and its mission to find a way to make the fuel used in planes and other forms of transport cleaner.
And yet there is something that doesn’t feel quite right about Branson's new prize.
There is no doubt that it is welcome and it may well encourage innovation, but many environmentalists would argue that awarding a prize for developing a way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere only fuels the "science will save us" mentality that convinces many people and organisations that they do not need to modify their current behaviour.
A cynic would argue that this is a mentality that Branson, as the owner of an airline, would dearly love to encourage as it allows everyone to continue to fly guilt-free.
It is a point that has not been missed by Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, who said in a statement that carbon capture remained a high risk strategy for tackling climate change and a focus on renewable energy would be more welcome.
"Technology has an important role to play in tackling climate change and Sir Richard's initiative may encourage innovators to develop a wonder technology which takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere," he said. "But many of the ways of tackling climate change, such as energy efficiency and renewables, already exist, and it is essential that these are implemented as soon as possible. We cannot afford to wait for futuristic solutions which may never materialise."
It may sound pessimistic to claim carbon capture technologies may never appear, but it is a not unreasonable fear given the ongoing concerns over the amount of energy required to capture carbon from the air and the stability of storing carbon underground, both of which continue to hamper the development of large-scale sequestration projects.
Meanwhile, if Branson's defence of his airline is difficult to argue with, it is less easy for him to explain how his Virgin Galactic space tourism project - which promises to emit countless tonnes of greenhouse gasses for the sole benefit of giving a handful of bored millionaires a few minutes of weightlessness – fits into his new green image.
Personally, I think that much of this criticism is off beam and that on balance Branson is to be applauded. Not only is he demonstrating how businesses can take a positive role in tackling climate change while maintaining growth and profitability, he has also appreciated that clean technology is a valuable investment opportunity, he is putting his money where his mouth is, and he is exploiting his considerable PR skills to highlight the seriousness of the climate change threat.
However, his recent moves do highlight for all firms how quickly a green business strategy can be undermined if you do not take a truly holisitic approach.
Branson could counter much of the criticism of Virgin's climate change strategy and destroy the allegations of hypocrisy by simply cancelling the space tourism programme. It would cost him millions and represent a major climbdown, but is it really too much to ask of a man who accepts that the future of humanity is at risk from the very greenhouse gases his giant space folly will emit?
He could argue that others would just fill the gap he leaves, which may well be true, but if the main purpose of Virgin Galactic appears to be symbolic then think of the even more powerful symbolism for the environmental movement of Branson accepting the whole thing is dangerously misguided.
Furthermore, it is hard for Branson to argue with the accusation that awarding a prize solely for developing a means of removing CO2 from the atmosphere creates the impression that we should focus on capturing greenhouse gases rather than transforming our economies to ensure we don't put them into the atmosphere in the first place. Personally, I hope Branson has to award the prize, and award it soon when a feasible way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. But as one of the world's most successful businessman Branson must be fully aware of the concept of risk and the foolishness of putting all your eggs in one basket.
He could counter this criticism overnight and create a far more valuable scientific race if he offered to give similar prizes to the first scientists to deliver cheap and effective tidal and solar power, a feasible replacement for the internal combustion engine, and a means of turning waste energy into usable electricity.
If his green intentions are as heartfelt as they sound he should delight in paying out for any of these inventions, while from a financial perspective ownership of just one of these inventions would surely deliver the Virgin empire the on-going commercial success it craves.
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