Interviews

‘Our greatest responsibility’

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The adventurous Virgin Group chairman says mindful travelling, shared responsibility and continued research into renewable fuels and energy are key to combat climate change.  

Sir Richard Branson is not quite like other multi-billionaire entrepreneurs. Far from living in an economic hub such as London or New York, the self-described ‘tie-loathing adventurer and thrill seeker’ resides on the secluded Necker Island, of the British Virgin Islands; that is, whenever he’s not jetting around the globe attending environmental forums and climate change initiatives. Indeed, for the man who founded Virgin as a record shop in Oxford Street, London, in the early 1970s, only to expand it into a group of 200 companies across areas such as media, travel and finance, conventional wisdom is not always worth listening too.

“If someone says that something is impossible I will try my best to prove them wrong,” says, Branson, whose fortune is estimated at £2.6billion. “I think this is partly down to my taste for adventure but also because I am extremely motivated by the idea of building business and creating things. This has resulted in me doing things that have sometimes been unconventional and sometimes appear unachievable such as launching Virgin Atlantic [the airline company] in 1984. Virgin would not be the company it is today if we hadn’t.”

His audacity extends not only to business. He attempted to become the fastest at crossing the Atlantic by boat in 1985, yet instead capsized and had to be rescued by a RAF helicopter. Far from being put off, Branson went on to break the record in 1986, and crossed the same ocean in a hot air balloon the year after. He returned to the balloon in 1991, braving the Pacific, and later tried to circumnavigate the globe in the same manner, but with little luck. Still now he remains a frequent traveller who is motivated not by what is necessary, but what is possible – his Virgin Galactic branch is targeting commercial flights into space.

“I like challenges in life and pushing myself out of my comfort zone,” he says. “Both starting up a business and attempting to fly round the world in a hot air balloon fulfil those desires. While I’ve had some harrowing experiences, I never look at any of them negatively. Memories are made more when you’re travelling and experiencing new places and cultures – rather than when you’re chained to your desk.”

Perhaps that larger-than-life mentality is what makes Branson such a fitting figure to lead the fight against climate change. A significant slice of his time is spent on environmental initiatives such as preserving endangered species, expanding natural protection areas and solving the global emission crisis. “We need to learn and always remember that our actions today will dictate the type of world our children and grandchildren grow old in,” he says. “It is our greatest responsibility. We all have a part to play and I believe we all have to embrace the challenge to change.”

His own contribution has involved setting up the Virgin Green Fund, an independent equity firm that invests in renewable energy and resource efficiency in North America and Europe. In 2007 he launched the Virgin Earth Challenge – a competition that offers a $25million prize to whichever company invents a commercially viable technology that ensures a net removal of greenhouse gases, thus providing a long-term positive effect on the ecosystem. So far 11 companies have been shortlisted from 2,600 entries.

“I am very aware of the damage that oil and its greenhouse gas emissions is doing to the environment and the climate system in particular,” he says. “I am also very concerned about the rate at which species are becoming extinct around the world. You might say that the biggest threat to our ecology is the loss of biodiversity itself. Whether one is talking about overfishing, the bleaching of coral reefs, the felling of priceless and irreplaceable rainforests in Madagascar or the loss of species due to changes in climate alone, biodiversity loss is a great tragedy.”

What can be done to tackle these problems? Branson says Virgin are among those investing in developing sustainable fuels and renewable energy resources, and that they are trying to involve other airlines, aircraft manufacturers, engine makers and fuel companies. To make sustainable fuel viable, that is needed – “it will take a concerted effort by all to make this happen,” he says. What so for the ecology? “It’s extremely important that we increase the amount of protected areas both on land and at sea, and that we continue to incentivise cleaner ways of using energy or producing food and fibres that don’t have the same impact on our natural resources.”

Yet environmental responsibility lies not only with the big companies. Travellers must also make the right decisions and, as Branson says, that involves choosing emission-conscious airlines, eco-friendly products and for businesses to consider video-conferencing over costly long-distance flights to meetings.

“See if you can turn your adventure into a bit of a social enterprise in itself also,” he advises. “If you are determined to trek through a remote area, do some research before you go to see if there are any university research projects that could use somebody to collect some more data for them in that area.

“If you’re going to somewhere more populous, see if there are any community or conservation projects you could volunteer on for a day or two of your trip. Not only will you feel great about tangibly giving something back to the community you are visiting but, who knows, you might make some great friends and have a more authentic travel experience. Be smart though; use reputable tour operators and thoroughly plan any adventures before undertaking them – otherwise they might not sustain you for very long!”

Photo: Virgin.

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