As if offering flights to space and recently hosting his own reality show were not enough to get British billionaire Sir Richard Branson the publicity he so richly affords, this week he has gone over the heads of environmental leaders everywhere to offer a US$ 25 million prize for the first scientist who can invent an economically viable way to clean carbon from Earth's atmosphere.
In order to claim the hansom reward, the skilled inventor must "demonstrate a commercially viable design, which will result in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least 10 years without countervailing harmful effects". The mystery device must be able to eliminate at least a billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Branson, founder and CEO of the Virgin group, put together a panel of six experts to judge the competition and chose global warming poster boy and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore to chair the team. While technologies exist that allow for the capturing and containment of carbon emissions before they are released into the atmosphere, Gore points out that this prize is aimed at finding a device that can achieve what has previously been theoretically possible, but financially unfeasible. "Up until now, what has not been asked seriously on a systematic basis is, is there some way that some of that extra carbon dioxide may be scavenged effectively out of the atmosphere? And no one knows the answer to that," Gore said. A technology exists that releases certain chemicals into the atmosphere that "scrub out" the carbon, but it has proven much too expensive for practical use. While Gore usually prides himself on being in the same camp as the scientists when it comes to the global warming debate, the Branson prize may challenge those friendly relationships. Representatives from Greenpeace and UK-based organization Friends of the Earth have pointed out the misguided aspirations of the project. Sir Richard's critics say that the funds are misdirected and should focus more on implementing the renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency technologies that already exist. Greenpeace director John Sauven told the Financial Times, "The solutions to climate change are not waiting to be invented. They already exist." Branson maintains that his intention is to stimulate innovation among scientists who may be able to invent new technologies that can clean up the damage to the atmosphere that has already been done. At least according to Gore's 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth", the carbon emissions in the atmosphere needed to cause a temperature increase of the few degrees necessary to drastically change the global climate are already there. The prize money is only a fraction of the US$ 3 billion Branson pledged last year to invest in saving the planet from global warming. He says the idea behind this portion of his investment came from famous science contests in history that have yielded such notable technological contributions as a device that accurately measures longitude and the first private manned space flight in 2004. Despite his good intentions, there is a certain irony in a "save the world from global warming" prize sponsored by a man who has made his fortune pushing rides on fossil fuel powered mega-jets and, now, luxury spacecrafts. "He appears deeply confused about climate change. The harsh reality is that companies like his can't continue to pollute at the level they are doing," commented Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper. This is not the first, and is probably not the last, time Branson has put his money to work to make change. When condoms were virtually inaccessible in Ireland due to the heavy influence of the Catholic church, Branson, the then-owner of a small chain of Virgin Records stores, allowed family planning activists to clandestinely sell condoms in his retail locations. The Santiago Times