Sir Richard Branson: Making the Skies Green

At Virgin, we’re trying to develop a new business model that factors in the complete cycle of energy use and carbon output.

 

By Sir Richard Branson
Newsweek
Dec. 18, 2006 issue – In 1972, a young scientist named Lames Lovelock was developing a hypothesis of how the planet worked called Gaia theory. Lovelock’s theory, named for the Greek goddess of the earth, was that life has not only adapted to our planet’s conditions but shapes those conditions as well. It was scorned and ignored at first, but now Lovelock’s ideas are the basis of our current understanding of global warming and the need to cut carbon emissions. At Virgin, we have been engaged for some years in trying to create a business model for the 21st century that takes into account the whole cycle of energy consumption and carbon output, in order to change the balance. We call it Gaia Capitalism.

 

This project recently culminated in a $3 billion investment plan for the next 10 years in biofuel production, research and development, and other investments in renewable-energy production. The project will also include investment in new technology to dramatically shrink the carbon footprint of our existing transport operations. Since the transport sector is one of the largest consumers of oil, dramatically reducing the amount of oil used in ships, planes, trains and cars, or even replacing oil with non fossil fuels, is critical to our goals. We think it can happen in our lifetime.

The project began in 1997, when we had the opportunity to buy new trains for the long-distance rail network in the United Kingdom. At the time we pledged to pull out of domestic aviation in the U.K., where rail is capable of competing, and develop trains to be more efficient in terms of carbon input/output than any seen before. That project produced the Pendolino, built by Alstom, an all-aluminum electromagnetic tilt train with regenerative brakes, which use brake friction to create electricity. That allows the Pendolino to return 17 percent of the electricity it uses back to the National Grid. From London to Glasgow it uses nine times less CO2 per passenger than the equivalent 737 flight, making it the most efficient long-distance train in Europe.

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