Richard Branson has a plan to fight climate change

Richard Branson and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness shake hands as Jamaican Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, center, looks on. (Photo: Adrian Creary)

One year after enduring the wrath of Hurricane Irma on his private island in the Caribbean only to watch Hurricane Maria lay waste to neighboring islands, Richard Branson has unveiled an initiative to try to slow the pace of climate change threatening the region.

In August, he launched Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator, a partnership backed by the Inter-American Development Bank with 26 countries and 40 private businesses that, among other things, seeks to lower carbon emissions, build sustainable, energy-efficient architecture, and install new water-filtration systems that can withstand future storms.

With a population of nearly 40 million, the islands of the Caribbean are precariously located in the paths of many Atlantic hurricanes, which climate scientists say are made stronger by the effects of global warming. Yahoo News contacted Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group of companies, for an interview about his new project as well as his thoughts on the prospects for human beings to slow climate change. He responded by email and his answers (lightly edited) follow:

David Knowles: Given that the islands of the Caribbean account for a small fraction of human carbon emissions, what does the Climate-Smart Zone hope to achieve?

Richard Branson: Reduced carbon emissions is just one part of what it means to be a Climate-Smart Zone. Despite accounting for such a small fraction of emissions, the Caribbean is particularly vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change. Which is why the Accelerator isn’t only about addressing the causes of climate change, it’s about making the region more resilient in the face of disaster, it’s job creation and it’s a new economy in climate-smart infrastructure. The vision includes all parts of the economy. Encouraging use of low carbon energy sources and removing reliance on fossil fuels, especially in the aftermath of a major disaster. The Caribbean can become a beacon for other nations around the world and set the new standard for climate initiatives, showing climate action, economic growth and sustainable development can go hand in hand.

DK: How did your experience riding out Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Necker Island motivate you to launch this project?

RB: The hurricanes were certainly a catalyst for action in the Caribbean; the winds unleashed by these storms were more ferocious than anything most of us had ever witnessed. We were very lucky, but not everyone was. People across the Caribbean lost their lives, loved ones, homes and livelihoods. None of us were prepared. I certainly wasn’t. But I’ve lived in these parts long enough to know that very few would lose their spirit. I never had any doubt that people from all across the Caribbean would bounce back, not by simply replacing what’s been lost and returning to business as usual, but by embracing this opportunity to change things for good.

DK: Global temperatures are expected to rise another 2 to 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with sea levels expected to rise 1 to 2 meters, a scenario that most researchers say will be devastating for the planet. Can you speak about the mood in the Caribbean in terms of threat that lies ahead for the region?

RB: It has never been more pressing to catalyze climate action and find climate-compatible innovations that can change the world. The level of urgency may vary, but the Caribbean is certainly not alone in the challenges it’s facing. Low-lying coastal regions across the world are currently working to deal with the impacts of sea-level rise and increased flooding. I think for the Caribbean, last year’s hurricanes only reinforced this point. The impacts of climate change are already at our doorstep. It accelerated the desire to create a more climate-resilient region. There is a real desire to reduce climate vulnerability and build economic opportunities for citizens across the Caribbean. The mood, though, remains optimistic; the resilience of the Caribbean people will never cease to amaze me — to think we’re not even a year on from last year’s hurricanes but already we have this wonderful accelerator in place.

DK: Most climate scientists believe that the only way to avert disaster for the planet is to enforce strict emissions controls. Even then, they aren’t optimistic about the future given the amount of warming that is ongoing. Can you talk about your sense of where things stand and the likelihood that humans will address this problem in a meaningful way?

 RB: I always say I’m a natural optimist. New solutions are emerging on a daily basis and governments and businesses are increasingly engaged in these issues. But it’s also important to prepare for the downside and the undesired outcomes. I also think it’s easy to be optimistic when you have resources and options available. Unfortunately, climate change impacts the most vulnerable communities the hardest. I increasingly think about people (both in the Caribbean and all around the world) who don’t have that privilege. Rather than focusing on potential future impacts, we can think about the people, families and children currently being directly affected by our collective action (or inaction). Irrespective of our level of optimism, we can all bear this in mind and we can and must act accordingly. I believe that it is still possible to create a climate-smart global economy, but it will require a collective and sustained effort from all of us.

DK: You’ve owned an airline, and flying represents a big portion of greenhouse gas emissions. The number of commercial planes in use is expected to more than double by 2040, significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions. What can be done to balance travel and a shrinking world with the need to cut emissions?

RB: Flying is a part of everyday life and delivers crucial economic and social benefits, but I recognize it is a large emitter of carbon. Currently, aviation represents 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (albeit growing), and we must focus on flying in the most sustainable way possible. Virgin Atlantic has been focused on reducing their emissions for many years, and have reduced total aircraft emissions by 24 percent since 2007. This is due to a multibillion-dollar fleet renewal program, switching from four-engine aircraft to more fuel-efficient two-engine aircraft and also small operational changes which can make a big difference — like single-engine taxiing, real-time weather technology to help pilots make smarter route choices, and rigorous weight management of all products on the aircraft. Virgin Atlantic has also been doing some fantastic work with LanzaTech, which is developing a low-carbon jet fuel from industrial waste gases. The fuel recently achieved qualification for use on commercial flights and the team has been awarded a U.K. government grant to examine the feasibility of a commercial production plant in the U.K. The industry has agreed to carbon neutral growth starting in 2020, which will be tackled through CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) — a historic international carbon deal which will see billions spent on robust carbon-reduction projects around the world. The aviation sector also has a long-term target to reduce aviation emissions by 50 percent by 2050, and I’m excited by the emerging innovations in clean fuels and other technologies that will propel long-haul flight into the 21st century.

DK: What do you say to people who don’t believe that human activity is responsible for climate change? Can they be swayed with facts and figures?

RB: I think for most rational people the conversation has moved way beyond whether climate change is caused by human actions — this is now widely accepted as fact, and I’m afraid you can’t have opinions on fact. I think it is clear that humans do not have a healthy or sustainable relationship with the planet or its resources. Look at the [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Climate action is only directly linked to one of them. However, there is an element of almost all the SDGs that addresses climate indirectly. Sustainable cities and communities, good health and well-being, affordable clean energy. The primary drivers for all these SDGs isn’t to address human causes of climate change. But pursuing and achieving them will have a positive impact on global emissions. We should focus on what people actually care about: a healthy and safe future for their loved ones and future generations. And let’s be solutions-focused.

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