We’ve just attended a TED event where Richard Branson was in conversation with TED’s curator Chris Anderson. TED is a platform for sharing ‘ideas worth spreading’ – we’ve been following it for years, regularly browsing through their video database for inspiration.

Of course, for us as entrepreneurs, Richard is right up there on the list of  inspiring people, not just because of his business savvy, but also, more importantly, because of his visionary views on the environment and the future of our planet.

Global cooling and space travel
Global cooling and space travel

After Chris wraps up the 40-minute conversation we head over to Richard’s press rep who promised us a five-minute meeting with him. She takes us to a private meeting room backstage, where we find Richard relaxing on a sofa.

“Sit down,” he says as he takes a swig from a small bottle of Evian.

“Richard, earlier on stage you said that you don’t want us to be the generation that irreversibly damages the environment – are things really that bad?” I ask.

Nine billion and counting

“The population of our planet is going to hit the nine billion mark by the middle of this century.” He leans forward as though to underline the gravity of his words: “Think about it: that’s three times more than when I was born. On top of this, climate change is happening faster than most models predicted.”

“Ok,” says Anouk. “But earlier you talked about space travel. How can space travel help fight global warming?”

Richard raises two fingers: “One of the solutions is that we start taking some of the most energy-intensive processes out of our fragile atmosphere. Put them in space and power them through solar energy. Think for example of server parks for our constantly growing IT infrastructure.” He sits back and takes another swig of water.

“Aviation is often named as a key cause of climate change, but IT has overtaken aviation in terms of its CO2 output.”

“And secondly?” I ask. “You raised two fingers – what is the second way that space travel can save the planet?”

“Utilisation of space is essential, not only for communications and GPS, but also for agricultural monitoring and climate science. Researchers should be able to ‘fly’ experiments more often to help us understand key questions about the earth’s climate.”

“But how?” I ask. “NASA has discontinued its manned space programme. The era of the political ‘space race’ is over.”

The dawn of a new era Richard sits up straight again. “This is where Virgin Galactic comes in,” he says. “Virgin Galactic heralds the dawn of a new era: the possibility for ordinary people to travel into space, to carry people around the planet outside the atmosphere with minimal harm to the environment. London to Sydney in just two hours instead of 23.”

“This sounds spectacular, but where does global cooling come in?” I ask.

“First we have to make Virgin Galactic a commercial success, then we can use space travel to fight global warming. Our aim was to find new technologies that can drastically cut the cost of taking people into space in order to make it commercially viable. To achieve this we teamed up with Burt Rutan’s SpaceShip One.

“We asked people who said they wanted to be the first passengers what their key motivation was. They said they wanted to experience weightlessness and the classic view of the earthrise through the windows. If we can provide those experiences, people will happily pay $200,000 for a seat on that flight. That’s how we finance the project.”

“Isn’t launching a shuttle into space very polluting though?” Anouk asks.

“Bad for the footprint?”

Richard smiles. “A NASA shuttle launch had the same environmental output as the whole population of New York over a long weekend holiday. A Virgin Galactic flight has a lower environmental footprint per passenger than a one-way business class ticket from London to New York on an Airbus A340. A different technique with a different footprint.”

The big picture“Let me be clear, Virgin Galactic is about making money, but the exciting thing about this project is that it is not about space tourism in the end. It allows us to put things we don’t want in our delicate atmosphere in space – things like server farms. Remember, CO2 emissions from IT are twice as high as the emissions from aviation.”

“So you see space as the solution to global warming?” I ask.

“Part of the solution,” Richard corrects, “as I said to Chris earlier during the talk, all the profits from our transportation business, around $3 billion, will be dedicated to the development of renewable alternatives to carbon fuels.”

“And then there’s the Virgin Earth Challenge,” I add.

“Exactly,” Richard says. “We offer a $25 million prize to the first person to come up with an economically viable solution to the greenhouse gas problem. This is a huge challenge and I want all the best brains in the world thinking about it.”

“Wow, Richard,” I say. “It seems that you have found the next big thing again. This really is an idea worth spreading!”

© 2012 CoolBrands – Around the World in 80 Brands



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