Sir Richard Branson at the SLOW LIFE Symposium

Richard Branson at Soneva Fushi International Airport

Richard Branson at Soneva Fushi International Airport

In a wide-ranging and thought provoking speech, Sir Richard Branson addressed the SLOW LIFE Symposium today, highlighting the defining challenges for our age and our industries.  Below is a transcript of that speech.

What a chilled beautiful place. Arrived rundown with a cold and after 48 hours 100% re-energized ready to go.

Thank you Sonu and Eva and all the delightful people who help here.

Most of you have spent decades of your lives working towards a more balanced and sustainable world. Therefore, you are a challenging audience for a challenging subject. As Jose Maria Figueres our esteemed Chairman of the Carbon War Room said “We must change now – There is no Planet B”. There’s work to do.

My journey started in earnest six years ago after Al Gore turned up at my house in London and effectively practiced his Inconvenient Truth presentation on me. I was an attentive guinea pig and it made me realize that we had to do something to change the way we did business or we would ruin our world for our grandchildren and their children.

On of the face of it, Al presented a very bleak choice.

Cut all Carbon emissions and keep the worlds’ temperature within a safe range and we had a chance of averting a Global Catastrophe. Or do nothing and watch as the world warms up, water levels rise, and the beautiful islands like this disappear

Being an entrepreneur my very first thought was to look for entrepreneurial ways to tackle the problem. Maybe I could make a grand gesture, that in itself could be helpful, but more importantly get others to follow. So I pledged that any dividends The Virgin Group took from our airlines or train businesses over the next ten years would be invested in renewable fuels and that in particular we’d try to find an alternative to jet-fuel.

Well, my first visit was to check out Ethanol but I soon learnt that it is not good idea to fly a plane powered by ethanol as it freezes at 15000 feet! So we’ve invested in scientists who have been developing fuels for planes that do not freeze-fuels from algae, fuels from Isobutanol. And even fuel in Australia from Mallee Eucalyptus Trees. Virgin Australia is working with a company who will use pysolysis to turn the woody biomas from the mallee tree into a biocrude oil and biochar. The oil is then refined into aviation fuel and farmers can plough the biochar back into the farmland to improve soil quality and carbon sequestration. And next week in the UK, our airline Virgin Atlantic will be unveiling an even more exciting breakthrough. These particular investments are all looking really positive and I’m confident that we will get the necessary breakthroughs here that we embarked on after Al Gores’ visit.

But with China and India growing at over 10% a year and Brazil and even Africa rapidly catching up. Every major industrial sector needs to get out at least a giga-ton of carbon out its industry. If the threat to our planet is indeed worse than World War 1 & 2 put together where was the Churchillan War Room to coordinate the attack against the enemy. Carbon.

So our foundation Virgin Unite set up the Carbon War Room to create a new global approach in building a market based solution for carbon reduction. We’ve brought together a like-minded grip of international entrepreneurs to blend the power of business with capital and technology to help breakdown market barriers and attract funds into successful solutions.

It’s set up as an independent non-profit.  We secured the brilliant Jose Maria Figueres as its Chairman and Jigar Shah, the equally brilliant solar entrepreneur as CEO.

To balance our Earth temperature we need to get 25 giga-tons of carbon out of the Earth’s atmosphere a year. The Carbon War Room has identified 25 sectors that it believes can do this and are setting about showing them how, with available technology. These include shipping, aviation, I.T, energy efficiency in buildings and so on.

I’ll give you a couple of examples of how the team are approaching it. Take Shipping for instance. Ships flew on flags of convenience and before the Carbon War Room got involved had little or no concern for Carbon output. There are around 100,000 ships emitting 1 billion tons of C.O.2. The Carbon Room estimates they are spending 70 billion dollars a year needlessly every year, year after year.

The Carbon War Room’s approach is to help create wealth, jobs, and prosperity across the board for shipping – for entrepreneurs, ship owners,  charterers and ports – prosperity BUT with much fewer emissions. We aren’t asking ship owners to put their livelihoods at risk – were we to do so they wouldn’t listen and the problem of global warning would only get worst.

So the first step the Carbon War Room did was to create a website, to list all 100,000 ships.

On it they’ve listed the A to G refrigerator index for every ship – allowing buyers to pick the best ships, ports to favour the cleanest vessels and ship owners to display their relative efficiency versus their competition. The market has needed that information to work better – increasing the demand for cleaner retro-fitted ships- and making it easier to finance the technology to improve their vessels.

Shippers and ports are beginning to take action on these indicators with large retail chains demanding “A” or “B” Grade ships to transport their products.

One other examples: Cities

During the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Carbon War convened a meeting of 30 mayors from some of the largest cities around the world (which I chaired with the Mayor of Vancouver) to find out what was stopping them from turning their cities green. Over 50% of all carbon worldwide comes from inefficient buildings.

The answer they gave us was simple: Lack of finance.

So our team at the Carbon War Room set-out  to develop a scheme for cities that would be a massive win/win for everyone and in particular the environment.

They looked at creating an innovative financing system that, simply put, gave lenders almost watertight security by having the loans for double glazing, solar panels, etc. repaid out of slightly increased property taxes. They tested this idea in Miami and Sacramento and quickly had 650 million dollars committed from private enterprise to retrofit buildings there which will slash energy consumption and create literally thousands of jobs.

As a result, local governments who follow this lead worldwide can now tap private capital to finance renewable energy and efficiency improvements for residential and commercial properties. The owners of these buildings will dramatically reduce their energy bills.

Now that this first scheme has been put to bed, there is no reason why every city in the world shouldn’t replicate it, creating literally millions of jobs and reducing as much as 5 giga-tons of carbon a year (just out of this one relatively simple idea). The Carbon War Room is ready to help roll it out. Creating jobs, reducing carbon and modernizing our cities – a win-win situation!

We do need to keep broadening the debate. As arguments continue to rage around the weather patterns and reality of climate change, we are missing the bigger picture that there is no scientific debate about that every single one of our natural eco-systems is in decline. Part of this shift must be a new perspective on how we value our natural assets and how we change our consumption patterns. If we don’t move on this, Mother Nature will force us to.

Finding the right balance between consumption and conversation is a delicate one for our connected and fast developing world. In addition to the preservation of the planet’s resources, the conservation and protection of endangered species are vital components in ensuring we leave the world fit for generations to come.

For much of my life I have been involved in conservation projects to protect animals such as Lions, Rhinos and Tigers and more recently and controversially the Lemurs.

This year through Virgin Unite, I have stepped up my activity in this area and joined the Ocean Elders – an independent group of global leaders including Jean Micheal Cousteau, Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, Ted Turner, James Cameron and Neil Young – we come together to promote ocean conservation, protect the ocean’s habitat and wildlife, and preserve its ecosystems and species biodiversity.

Last month I was in China with our partners at WildAid and former NBA star Yao Ming to launch a global campaign against the culling of sharks – “When the demands stops – the killing will too”.

Today, the sharks population is being decimated as they are hunted for their fins, with up to 200,000 a day used for shark fin soup alone. 73 millions sharks killed every year – what a disgusting waste for a  bowl of soup! At this rate, 400 million years of evolution could be wiped out in just one human generation! We “so called” intelligent human beings just cannot let that happen.

It is very worrying to see one of the World’s greatest species now endangered by our senseless killings. We have to realise that preserving the diversity of the planet and oceans is crucial to maintaining a healthy world and not upsetting Nature’s fine balance.

I am pleased to find out that the Maldives was the first nation in this region to ban shark finning. It was a brave decision –as many fisherman in the Maldives –can ill afford to lose income. However, President Nasheed’s Government made the right decision and a great statement by saying “sharks are more valuable alive than dead”.

The ban announced in March last year has helped preserve the diversity of this beautiful area and has shown the world that the benefits, derived from keeping them safe far outweigh those of a short term, unsustainable gain made by a few from finning.

Finally, at Virgin we have always backed the power of the entrepreneur and inventor to find solutions to tricky problems. With this in mind why should Climate Change and the battle against carbon be any different.

Four years ago, over dinner with my wife Joan, we were chatting about my obsession with reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Joan, with her Scottish pragmatism, simply said “There are so many clever people out there.  There must be one person out there who can figure out how you can remove carbon from the earth’s atmosphere.” The next morning, we came up with the idea of the Earth Challenge, a 25 million dollar prize to encourage inventors, scientists, or entrepreneurs to come up with ideas for removing carbon. I had read the book, Longitude, about the successful prize launched by the British government in 1714 to reward anyone who could come up with a way to measure a ship’s longitude and was inspired by this as we pulled together the prize and launched it with an esteemed group of Judges, including, James Lovelock, Tim Flannery, Al Gore, James Hansen and Sir Crispin Tickell.

To date we have had more than 2,500 entries but have not yet found the Silver Bullet – or one grand prize winner that has a proven and commercial viable technology. Instead, we have managed to whittle down the entries to a select handful that we are going to support with events, grants to help them develop their technologies.

So we have a lot of work to do on many fronts and not much time to change the course we are on.

We must look at the issues around protecting our natural resources as one of the biggest entrepreneurial opportunities of our lifetimes. We have the technology to realise this opportunity – we now need the right government policies to put the capital in place to build a new economy, that puts people and the planet ahead of just business as usual and creates a more equitable way of life in harmony with the planet.

It’s people like those of you in this room that have the power to help make this happen and make a lasting change!  And I do believe we can make it happen.

Myself and my team at Virgin still have a long way to go, but we are committed to this path and look forward to working with you to move towards this new world at speed.

Whilst we do so, it’s important for us to stay positive. As I’ve said before – Martin Luther King did not get his message across by saying “I have a nightmare”!

Thank you.



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