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Sir Richard Branson: 'we need a low-carbon world capable of growth, otherwise society will fall apart'
Carbon is the enemy," says Sir Richard Branson. "Let's attack it in any possible way we can, or many people will die just like in any war."
With a certain sense of irony, the billionaire part-owner of five airlines has just jetted into Copenhagen, battleground of the international climate change talks, to warn fellow business leaders, politicians and campaigners about this apocalyptic scenario.
Sir Richard, who is due to give a speech at an event on saving the rainforests, has no sooner sat down than launched into a diatribe against carbon dioxide, of which his Virgin Atlantic airline emits 4.8m tonnes per year.
Every weapon in the arsenal must be deployed to reduce carbon dioxide, he argues, from biofuels to greener materials for aeroplane bodies, both through financial penalties for polluters and more funding for technology. Flying around the world for seven days and taking tourists into space have been among Sir Richard's well-documented – and carbon-intensive – thrill-seeking missions.
He claims that his current goal for the decade is not only to ensure that all his planes run on eco-friendly biofuel mixes by 2015, but to persuade others in the airline industry that they should do the same by 2020.
Relaxing in jeans and a shirt at a hotel conference centre in the greenest city in the world, Branson is showing no signs of nerves about being an airline owner about to share a stage with an array of environmentalists, from the governor of the Amazon to the president of the World Wildlife Fund.
But as the self-confessed owner of a "dirty business", doesn't he feel some responsibility for his key role in the transport industry that produces 20pc of the world's emissions each year?
A quick look at the website of Virgin Atlantic shows that this single airline emits more carbon dioxide than many entire countries – including Uganda, Paraguay and Albania.
Even within the industry it is not the greenest airline of them all. Per passenger-kilometre, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic emit substantially higher amounts of carbon dioxide than easyJet – and even Ryanair, the airline run by the famous environmental sceptic Michael O'Leary.
Budget airlines, with their newer fleets and passengers crammed into every seat, boast significantly lower emissions than the traditional flyers.
"We do owe it to the world to get our house in order, which is why I want airlines to get together and set an example on lowering emissions. Realising that flying was part of the problem is why we donate all the profits from Virgin Atlantic to environmental projects," Sir Richard says, ducking the low-flying question about whether consumers should simply be hopping on fewer planes.
Green activists have criticised this approach, which, like offsetting, assumes that business can simply pay to pollute – the corporate equivalent of trashing a hotel room and leaving a pile of cash at reception. Some also point out that these donations are only the dividends paid to Sir Richard's Virgin Group, with the bulk of profits injected back into the business. The sum total of his green philanthropy has so far failed to reach anywhere near the $3bn (£1.87bn) originally promised in 2006.
But as a businessman, it is hardly surprising that Sir Richard is desperate to find a means of spending his way out of the problem rather than stymie growth for the airline industry. His strong support for Heathrow's third runway makes it clear that he thinks that reducing consumption is not the answer.
"We have to make a low-carbon world capable of growth otherwise we won't have hospitals and schools, and society will start falling apart," Sir Richard claims, swinging from one Doomsday narrative to the next. "We're not going to get China and India to stop growing, so the challenge will be all about changing our ways."
Recognising that financial penalties on heavy carbon emissions could make huge dents in the future profits of the transport sector, he says, it also makes financial sense to pump some profits into researching new fuels.
Scientists regularly cast doubt on the idea that biofuels will be ready for air travel within the next decade, despite the ideal solution that one day petroleum will be replaced by algae or sugar. Virgin Atlantic pioneered the first biofuel flight last year, but the brief journey from London to Amsterdam had only 20pc coconut oil in one of four jet engines – and the technology is still a long way off being commercially viable.
With $75m spent on researching biochar, a charcoal that may be able to pump CO2 out of air, and more funding for geo-engineering to change the make-up of the earth's atmosphere, Sir Richard is at pains to show he is at least trying.
Top on his list of priorities is a global emissions trading system for aviation and shipping, which he would like to see go towards environmental causes.
"What we really want is a global agreement on aviation, where a percentage goes to the rainforests," he says, pointing out that under the European emissions trading scheme for airlines due to start in 2012, governments will be able to spend the proceeds on whatever they wish.
Another crusade is shipping and he has used his time in the Danish capital to meet the mayors and port authorities of Calgary and Los Angeles to try to show them how to "impose specific standards on ships coming into those ports".
"Business groups have done a good job in some areas like energy but some industries like shipping have done very little and that's where I can help," Sir Richard says. "I would love every industry in the world to be clear about what it has to do."
The plane manufacturers, such as Airbus and Boeing, are also crucial to cleaning up the industry's image, Sir Richard says, urging them to move from carbon-based plastics and titanium to new "composite" green materials.
However, at the mention of potential green taxes, rather than market-mechanisms, Sir Richard shifts from environmental fervour into a rage against the business-bashing policies of New Labour. "The airline industry has suffered a 100pc increase in taxes by this Labour Government, which are not going to environmental causes, and the danger is that this would tax the industry out of existence," he says. "But if they do end up taxing industry they need to make it absolutely clear that running planes on clean fuels would see taxes removed."
There is an argument that aviation's acceptance of emissions trading and offer to peak its emissions by 2020 is purely a move to pre-empt stricter potential curbs in the future. Sir Richard disagrees, but thinks the aviation industry could push itself harder by offering to cut emissions even further given the failure of the Copenhagen talks.
"If governments don't get their act together or make stupid, populistic decisions, businesses will have to take action on their own and we might as well do that now," he says.