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Virgin still looking for $25 million climate fix

Sensemaking / Virgin still looking for $25 million climate fix

11 Apr 2011

With 2,600 submissions, why is no one top dog?

Question: how can $25 million be too much money and also not enough at the same time?

Answer: when it is a prize for a way to remove greenhouse gases from the air.

This paradox has been instrumental in shaping the Virgin Earth Challenge, right from its conception, to our present interest in looking at how we can add value to the wider debate around carbon negative proposals.

The prize was launched on a cold February morning in 2007 by Sir Richard Branson, Al Gore, James Lovelock, Tim Flannery, Dr. James Hansen and Sir Crispin Tickell. Its official purpose was simple and clear:

"$25 million for whoever can demonstrate to the judges' satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases."

We know that $25 million would be a huge contribution to any group's work in this field. One scientist said to me that they suspected this sum exceeded the total spend on the relevant science to date.

The amount is also too small. It is a crude but not unreasonable assumption that the amount of resources (be it trees or machines) required to take carbon out of the air will roughly parallel the resources that – intentionally or not – put the excess carbon into the air in the first place. Therefore, if the world was to sequester greenhouse gases on a scale that makes a material contribution to hitting our emissions targets, overall investments of several billions would probably be required.

A key requirement for any prize-winner was a commercially viable way of taking carbon out of the air, and keeping it out. We asked: "Could you really build it, and could you make money, or at least break even, from building it?" But there are clearly other considerations too: the wider economic, environmental and social impacts must be clearly understood if a technology is to be properly governed.

As the Royal Society has shown, some carbon sequestration technologies appear to come out safer than others, and naturally we will be using that type of thinking to influence the ideas we support. We do, however, feel that all new technologies in this field, and most other fields for that matter, must address their wider impacts if they are to one day work effectively at scale. This cannot be achieved without sufficient collaboration, understanding and communication between people with different points of view and different stakes. And when it comes to carbon-negative technologies, we feel businesses have a valid point of view and so need to take part in that dialogue.

So how is the original prize doing? Well, it's time for an official announcement:


"…and the winner of the Virgin Earth Prize is, at the moment…


Disappointing yes, but honest. And honesty is one small contribution the Earth Challenge can make to this debate. There are a handful of top entries, but neither we, nor our team of external expert reviewers, had enough confidence that a clear one-off prize-winning package has emerged.

To have a chance at meeting our criteria, a proposal would need to be based on proven science and engineering, have real commercial and scale-up potential and be clear as to its environmental impacts. It would have to demonstrate that stakeholders had been engaged and their views taken into account. And it would need appropriate governance mechanisms to be in place to secure a full 'license to operate'. So what happens now?

When we consider the potential of any 'carbon-negative' proposals, it seems clear to us that scientists should concentrate on looking into the science, and governance experts on governance. In which case, engineers, investors and corporations could perhaps best focus on investigating the potential for such proposals to both achieve scale and be commercially viable.

This is where the Earth Challenge would like to further its efforts.

As a concept, it clearly has popular resonance. Over 10,000 people signed up and downloaded the application criteria. That turned into over 2,600 formal written submissions from over 50 different countries. The technical review team was both inspired and heartened that so many people from so many continents and cultures were all putting such large amounts of time and creativity into trying to help tackle this challenge.

At some point this year, we hope to announce the top negative emission technologies that we and our experts feel have a serious amount of commercial potential, and how we can shape the original offer of a $25 million prize to leverage some real added value to this debate.

We could simply have divided up the prize into smaller grants to move the best work forward. But the Earth Challenge was never intended to operate as a research funder: the focus has always been on rewarding commercial viability that results from good science. Above all, we want to collaborate with other organisations to see if carbon-negative proposals would really work; and explore whether they can be built, regulated and operated commercially. The Earth Challenge wants to consider the wider issues around these technologies when determining commercial potential, but we recognise that not everybody will do so. It will be up to legislators, policy makers and regulators to ensure that good governance stops bad ideas from being allowed to operate, and certainly from being able to make money. And when we say 'bad ideas', we mean those whose negative social, environmental or economic impacts outweigh the benefits.

A whole host of other issues, in addition to engineering and economics, needs consideration. They include: assessing the environmental impacts of an activity; ensuring stakeholders, including the wider public, are engaged; weighing up private ownership versus a public good; considering carbon balances and lifecycle boundaries; and tackling the need for clear verification mechanisms and regulatory system. These debates matter, but their weighting will vary between different carbon-negative technologies.

In this context, we support the conclusions of the 2010 report by the UK's House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which declared that different carbon-negative proposals should be governed differently. So, for example, a technology which allows carbon capture from biomass used to produce energy (such as biochar) should operate under a different set of governance systems to one that would use minerals to react with CO2 on land or in the sea.

We recognise that many people fear that pursuing the large-scale scrubbing of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere will inevitably dampen down the pressure for strong government and corporate commitments to cutting emissions at source. In response, we would argue that all of the ideas in the Earth Challenge will only ever work as an additional component, alongside the continued and unrelenting decarbonisation of our human activities.

Ultimately, though, we come back to the role of business. It is Richard Branson's firm belief that the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is a business worth looking into. He and the Earth Challenge team empathise with the concerns that will inevitably be raised about the intrusion of commercial interests into carbon-negative ideas. The Challenge was intended to help stimulate innovation in the carbon-negative arena, but we are not going to pretend to act disinterestedly. Virgin is, after all, a branded venture capital firm. We think there are some great people and ideas that could be invested in, and we want to look into this potential in more detail.

Maintaining an emphasis on commercial potential reflects the strengths of Branson and the Virgin Group, but also underlines the need for other organisations to be involved.

Nobody wants the next steps to be a bad attempt at an X-Factor-meets-Dragon's-Den in the world of carbon sequestration. This field is too serious and there are too many unknowns for us to turn this into theatre, but anything we do should clearly inform people and allow lots of other voices to be involved in a wider discourse.

As we keep emphasising, we are considering the wider issues that may determine whether or not a carbon negative technology can ultimately help to sustainably achieve future CO2 targets. The only way to deal with these wider issues, which will in our opinion also determine commercial viability, is to talk. For everything we do, from personal relationships to looking at innovative technologies, talking is important. We are one voice from the commercial sector, and there are many other voices out there, commercial and beyond, that are currently silent. These are complicated issues, and they need tackling through a continuous dialogue.

We hope that, as a potential stakeholder, you want to be part of that wider conversation.

As one reply to the NERC-funded public dialogue put it: we should not be rushed into premature commercialisation, but nor should we be rushed into premature abandonment.

Alan Knight is Director of the Earth Challenge and Independent Advisor to the Virgin Group.

Richard Branson

I believe that some carbon-negative activities could one day have a part to play in meeting emissions reduction targets for a more stable global climate system and healthier oceans.

In 2009, I said in an interview that: "If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen wouldn't be necessary. We could carry on driving our cars and flying our planes." However, I have come to realise that ways to cut carbon emissions in the first place are much more urgently needed.

That's why we are continuing to invest in renewable energy and resource efficiency through the Virgin Green Fund, and why we support the Carbon War Room in harnessing entrepreneurship to achieve market-driven solutions to climate change.

We also want to help the investigation into whether and how carbon sequestration proposals can become a useful and complementary tool in the battle against climate change. The Earth Challenge is looking at this from a commercial angle. But it's important to consider the wider social and environmental issues. So, we aren't going to be rushed into this – and we cannot do it alone.

As with any new technology or policy, positive developments can only happen with truthful and balanced debates to form collaboration and consensus. We very much hope that anyone with an interest in this issue will want to be part of that conversation.

Richard Branson is Founder of the Virgin Group.

This article is taken from the Green Futures Special Edition Under New Management.

Image credits: Paul Paladin / istock

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