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The Virgin Knight

Sir Richard Branson's new world order: save the planet, save its people and keep an eye on things from above. Way, way above.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

(continued from page 5)

Earlier this year, Branson shocked the world, including many of his business peers, with a public commitment to donate all the profits from his airline and rail interests for the next 10 years (an estimated $3 billion) toward finding alternative fuels and energy sources to curb global warming.

Much of the decision, Branson acknowledges, came about from an unexpected visit—an actual knocking at the door of his U.K. home—from Al Gore, who raised some uncomfortable questions. And, says Branson, some inconvenient truths.

"Al Gore came to England, he came to my house, said he wanted to see me and asked, Did I have a few hours for a long conversation? For the person that should have been president of America," Branson laughs, "I could find, you know, 10 hours.

"So he sits down, and this was before An Inconvenient Truth had come out, and he gives me a couple hours' lecture…told me about global warming. I knew, obviously, about global warming [in general terms], but he laid it out in a stark reality. At the end of the conversation he simply said that because I was well known, reportedly one of the best-known business leaders on a global basis, I could use myself to get out there, make a grand gesture and maybe get other people to follow."

Branson was sold, and the more he studied and the more he learned, he says, the more disappointed—and committed—he became to curbing global warming. Especially, he says, when it came to energizing the current White House administration to action.

"Europe is doing, I think, a lot better than America. I think the American people are getting it, but this administration has held things back for [seven] years. We desperately need leadership from America to tackle the problem and we need it quickly. Every year that goes by makes the problem worse. I think with good leadership, I think the business community is willing to participate."

Branson talked with other business leaders after his initial meeting with Gore and then he sat down to study. "When [Gore] left, I said I would think about what he'd had to say and see what I could do to help. And then the next three months I read a lot—a lot!—of books. I read Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers, I read all of James Lovelock's books: The Gaia Theory, and so on. And I got more and more worried about global warming."

Air travel, which contributes what experts estimate to be 2 to 3 percent of climate-changing carbon gases, is one of Branson's pet peeves…and pet projects. He's announced that, in a combined effort with Boeing and General Electric, Virgin Atlantic plans to fly at least one of its 747s using biofuel in 2008, a feat that most industry experts have said is at least 10 years off.

"I met with Ted Turner and he said he knew a group of fantastic people who are also concerned about global warming, and they gave me advice and information about alternative fuels and areas that we maybe should be looking at," explains Branson. "Then, about a week before the Clinton Initiative, I suddenly thought, 'Hang on a minute! I've got four airlines in different places in the world. I've got train companies. Why don't I make a really big gesture and just pledge 100 percent of the profits of these dirty industries over the next 10 years and invest, and try to come up with clean fuel?' You know, fuels that wouldn't damage the environment. Since then we've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in ethanol and butanol and isobutanol and solar and wind power and others [sources], trying to find the fuel of the future."

Together, Gore and Branson made yet another announcement regarding financial commitments to reduce global warming; this time it was in the form of the $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge, the largest science and technology prize ever offered. The contest, judged by some of the leading names in the science, space and environmental worlds, will be awarded to the individual or group that demonstrates a commercially viable design resulting in the net removal of atmospheric greenhouse gases, each year for 10 years, stabilizing the earth's climate.

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