Branson offers prize to suck carbon out of the sky

Posted: 9 February 2007

Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire and head of the Virgin business brand, is offering a $25 million (£12.8m) prize to the scientist or team of scientists who can find a way to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as a means of combatting the threat from global warming.

Richard Branson (left) and former US Vice President Al Gore (right) launch the Virgin Earth Challange. A 25 million dollar prize will be awarded to a scientist or a group of scientists who can design technology to extract carbon dioxide from the earth's atmosphere
In a breakfast press conference in London with former US presidential candidate Al Gore, he said the winner would have the satisfaction of 'saving thousands of species and possibly mankind itself' through this initiative.

The idea was welcomed by environmental campaigners, but with a good deal of scepticism and warnings that it should not divert attention from the effort to reduce man-made greenhouse gases.

Sir Richard and ex-vice president Al Gore are hoping to attract research scientists who will find ways of drawing 100 billion tonnes of CO2 a year from the earth's atmosphere - a technique that has been mooted by scientists in the past, but never been proved possible. It would be a huge leap forward from present research into ways of capturing carbon emissions from from power stations, and sequestering the gases in an inert form underground or under the sea.

The five judges for the Virgin Earth Challenge prize will be Al Gore, Sir Crispin Tickell, the former UN ambassador, and James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia theory, along with Dr James Hansen, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers. They will be assisted in by The Climate Group and Special Advisor to The Virgin Earth Prize Judges, Steve Howard.

Collision course

"Unless we can devise a way of actually removing the CO2 from the earth's atmosphere, we will lose half of all species on earth" Sir Richard said.

"We all now know that something radical has got to be done to turn back the tide of global warming. By launching the $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge, the largest ever science and technology prize to be offered in history, we want to encourage scientists and individuals from around the world to come up with a way of removing lethal carbon dioxide from the earth's atmosphere.

"By competing for this prize they will follow in the footsteps of many of history's greatest inventors and innovators. But in this case potentially save the planet. It is our hope and belief that the winner of The Virgin Earth Challenge will help to reverse the collision course our beautiful world is currently on. They will not only make history but preserve history for many, many generations to come.

"However, it is important to remember that there is a real possibility that no one will win this prize. Governments, and their people, must continue to use every effort to radically reduce CO2 emissions. "

Asked about his own contribution to carbon emissions through his Virgin airline fleet, he said that if his airline was grounded today "British Airways will just take up the space. So what we are doing is making sure we acquire the most carbon dioxide-friendly planes."

Welcoming the search for "a miraculous invention that would let us make a sustainable retreat to that lush and comfortable world we once knew" James Lovelock said "We have all spent far too long sleepwalking towards extinction."

Decades away Friends of the Earth welcomed Sir Richard Branson's announcement but cautioned that a viable technology to capture sufficient carbon dioxide from the air could be decades away and may not even be possible.

The initiative must not distract from the need to urgently reduce carbon dioxide emissions now - including reducing the growth in unsustainable air travel, the campaign group said.

"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," FOE director, Tony Juniper, 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.

"Sir Richard must also look at his business activities and the contribution they make to climate change. The world will find it very difficult to tackle climate change if air travel continues to expand and space tourism is developed.

"The UK Government must do much more to ensure that climate solutions are implemented. It should do this by putting climate change at the heart of all its policies, and requiring its new climate change law to cuts UK emissions by at least three per cent every year."

Source: The Telegraph online, FOE and staff. February 9,2007