Sir Richard Branson – billionaire businessman, philanthropist, adventurer and founder of the Virgin Group – has always had a healthy respect for nature and a steely determination to combat climate change. He was speaking up about the environment even before it became a “mainstream” issue. 

But last year, something happened that served to double his resolve. In September, Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean, causing catastrophic damage to a number of Caribbean islands and the U.S. state of Florida, followed shortly by Hurricane Maria, which wreaked havoc in Puerto Rico. Also lying directly in Irma’s path was Branson’s exclusive private island, Necker, in the British Virgin Islands, which is also his home. Branson had faced storms on Necker before – but this one was different. It was the strongest Category 5 hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, and its ferocity was so terrifying that he, his family and staff were forced to take shelter in a concrete wine cellar to escape danger. “Very, very fortunately,” Branson wrote on the Virgin website, “it held firm.”

When they emerged hours later, however, Branson and his team found an island in utter chaos: one that had been battered and buffeted by 185 mile-per-hour winds. Entire houses had been smashed to smithereens, walls reduced to rubble and trees ripped up and blown away. Debris was everywhere. “It was just like an atomic bomb had hit everything,” he said later. 

Branson knew exactly what was to blame for Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Which is why, last December, he launched the Race Against Climate Change initiative, a partnership between himself, nonprofit organization Rocky Mountain Institute, Formula E Team DS Virgin Racing and others. “As myself and countless others experienced earlier this year, man-made climate change is contributing to increasingly strong hurricanes causing unprecedented damage,” said Branson at the time. “The whole world should be scrambling to get on top of the climate change issue before it’s too late – for this generation and those to come.”

If anyone can hammer home that message, it’s Richard Branson. He may seem laid back but, underneath his placid exterior, he’s a driven man. He always has been. It’s that dog-with-a-bone tenacity – the ability to dream big, think up extraordinary ideas and see them through to fulfillment – that has underpinned his incredible success. He’s also willing to take risks and embrace failure (he told Delivered. in an earlier interview that his philosophy has always been: “Screw it, let’s do it”).

In business, his achievements have been well-documented. He founded Virgin Records in 1970 (which became a billion-dollar valuation in 1992), then the Virgin Atlantic airline, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Galactic, and other Virgin brands operating across various continents and sectors. 

Yet his bona fides when it comes to climate change are no less impressive. He established Virgin Unite, a nonprofit foundation fighting social and environmental problems and aiming to make business “a force for good,” in 2004. Since then the foundation has spawned a number of projects: Ocean Unite, which brings “conservationists, business leaders, philanthropies, and influential individuals” to “work toward achieving our vision of protecting 30 percent of the ocean by 2030”; The B Team, which campaigns for “better ways of doing business, for the wellbeing of people and our planet”; and The Carbon War Room, which Branson co-founded in 2009 to “speed up the adoption of market-based solutions to climate change.” He was also responsible for creating The Elders, a group of global statesmen working for peace and human rights and calling for “visionary leadership ... to set us on course for a carbon neutral future.”

Branson realizes that his own businesses have to lead by example, which is why Virgin Media has pledged to grow without increasing its carbon footprint, and why Virgin Atlantic is investigating sustainable fuels with cleantech company LanzaTech. And in October of last year, Virgin Group announced that it would be investing in Hyperloop One, the new lean, green, superfast, high-speed train concept devised by Elon Musk, which is now in the early stages of commercialization. Hyperloop projects are underway in the U.S., Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and India, while the UAE is planning to have the first system up and running by 2020, whizzing passengers between Dubai and Abu Dhabi – a distance of some 77 miles (124 kilometers) – in just 12 minutes. “Importantly,” Branson says, “Virgin Hyperloop One will be all-electric and the team is working on ensuring it’s a responsible and sustainable form of transport too.”

Naturally, Branson acknowledges that lone voices – even powerful ones like his – are not going to be loud enough to cut through the chatter. To save the planet, we all need to speak up, team up and do our bit. “Climate change is the greatest threat facing the world today,” he says. “I believe the answer to tackling climate change lies in collective action. We must all take it seriously if we want to make our planet a safe and habitable place for our children and grandchildren.”

Is the message about the impact of climate change finally getting through to people, businesses, organizations, industries and governments? If there is still work to do, why isn’t the message being heeded, in your view?

I am a born optimist. While it saddens me that some people, organizations and even governments are not prioritizing tackling climate change, it excites me that more people than ever are. Natural disasters like Hurricanes Irma and Maria are bringing home the truth about climate change even more. Awareness and action – such as with the Paris Agreement – are growing all the time. People can no longer pretend that incidents like the recent hurricanes are some kind of accident or coincidence. There is no doubt that climate change is real, but there is also no doubt that we can all work together to get on top of the problem. There’s still much more work to do – governments, businesses and individuals need to get out there and do it.

POWER PLAYERS: Richard Branson with Bill Gates at the One Planet Summit in Paris.

Does the world have enough robust leadership on the issue of climate change from international organizations and world leaders? If not, what can be ­done to make that leadership more effective?

We’re seeing more governments and business leaders committed to investing in a cleaner, safer and prosperous future. It’s now economically viable as well as morally right. We need to see climate change action as an opportunity, not a problem. I was recently honored to speak at the One Planet Summit hosted by President Macron in Paris. There, alongside many Caribbean leaders, we announced the Caribbean Climate Smart Accelerator. It’s a bold vision for a new Caribbean and we’ve been amazed by the deep level of commitment already shown by organizations to build a more climate-resilient Caribbean in the future.

When you founded the Carbon War Room in 2009, what was your aim?

The Carbon War Room brought together like-minded entrepreneurs who wanted to speed up the adoption of market-based solutions to help solve climate change. We saw barriers in different markets that were preventing great changes in the way industries did their business. There was a lack of good market information for sustainable aviation fuels; a demand for low-carbon solutions in shipping; and no access to capital for energy efficiency. Many markets needed help to see carbon reduction as a great strategic opportunity.

What was the reaction to the Carbon War Room on its launch? Were businesses and entrepreneurs quick to sign up to it? What would you highlight as the Carbon War Room’s greatest successes?

Between 2009 and 2014, the Carbon War Room made some remarkable progress: 20 percent of the world’s cargo now travels on more efficient vessels; Caribbean islands are integrating renewable energy into their grids; and the North American trucking fleets have adopted fuel efficiency technologies, saving CO2 emissions and dollars. In 2014 the Carbon War Room merged with the Rocky Mountain Institute, now operating as one business unit. The rationale was simple but effective: two nonprofit foundations tackling the same challenges became one, making better use of funds and bringing fantastic expertise together.

Part of the Carbon War Room’s aim has been to improve shipping efficiency. Why is this so important – and how are you doing this?

CWR has increased its ambition to accelerate the decarbonization of the global shipping fleet – the team is doing this through finance and transparency. For example, in partnership with University College London, CWR is developing transparency tools, such as BetterFleet, which enable owners, charterers and shippers to integrate carbon efficiency into all business decision-making.

Can you explain more about the Carbon War Room’s and Rocky Mountain Institute’s Trucking Efficiency program? What is its aim, what kinds of things is it doing, and what it has accomplished so far?

Trucking Efficiency, an initiative of CWR and the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), is working to double U.S. freight efficiency by increasing confidence in energy-efficient technologies and practices.

The team is helping the industry scale available technologies, including decision-making tools for fleets. And it’s making a difference; NACFE fleets have seen a decrease in their fuel consumption by about 30 percent. I was proud to help announce the results of the group’s Run on Less demonstration in September 2017, where a group of truckers proved they could deliver goods at over 10 miles per gallon. This is much better than the national average of around 6.4. Finally, NACFE is now turning its attention to helping Guide Revolutionary Change with efforts into electric and automated trucks.

VEHICLE FOR CHANGE: The Trucking Efficiency program helps the freight industry scale available energy-efficient technologies.

What needs to be done – and what help needs to  be in place – to protect countries from major hurricanes such as the ones we have just seen?

The people of many Caribbean islands are dealing with immense human suffering and economic damage after the recent unprecedented hurricanes. However, there is a resolve amongst the community. They want to be a part of the development and recovery through climate solutions. That is why Caribbean leaders – together with partners from many countries, as well as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank – want to establish the world’s first “Climate Smart Zone.” This means: affordable, clean energy; resilient households, coastal zones and infrastructure; secure communities with essential services; and global benefits of the blue and green economies, with island nations as testing grounds for a new global development paradigm. It’s so important that we use this challenging time to not only rebuild stronger and more resilient, but to turn the Caribbean into a beacon for the rest of the world on climate-smart development. — Tony Greenway

“No Planet B”

The Carbon War Room (CWR) was founded as a response to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, which was widely seen as a failure in terms of engaging governments in the climate change fight. Branson’s idea was to create a “war room” on climate with like-minded entrepreneurs. Apart from helping the trucking and shipping sectors reduce their carbon footprints, the Carbon War Room – a global nonprofit organization partnered, funded and supported by Virgin Unite and operating as part of Rocky Mountain Institute – works to make the aviation industry more carbon-friendly. Indeed, its stated aim is “to help 10 percent of the North American and European commercial aviation and jet fuel market switch to sustainable aviation fuel by 2025.” Its Sustainable Aviation initiative partners with airports to decarbonize the industry and promote sustainable fuels. 

In other areas, its Islands Energy Program is helping 13 Caribbean countries – including Aruba, San Andrés and Providencia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Saint Lucia – develop long-term clean energy roadmaps “to build low-carbon futures.” 

Why is all this necessary and so urgent? José María Figueres Olsen, former president of the Carbon War Room, summed it up best: “There is no Planet B,” he said.

www.rmi.org/carbon-war-room

Published: April 2018

Images: Richard Ulusaba; Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images; Chad Ehlers/Bildagentur online