Sir Richard Branson Says Climate Change Is a Great Opportunity: Here Are 5 Ways He May Be Right (Video)


"The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognize the opportunity.” —John F. Kennedy, 1959

JFK shared this quote at a time of great uncertainty in the world. The Cold War was being waged and many lived in constant fear of nuclear warfare. Although Kennedy was technically mistaken in his translation, he was right about the sentiment of those words, which remain truer today than ever.

Take one of our greatest global crises, climate change. We don’t need any more reminders about the dangers posed by this threat, but what about the opportunities? During a recent panel discussion in New York, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson addressed this very topic. (Operating an airline might not make Branson the best person positioned to discuss environmental matters, but if there’s one thing he knows well, it’s business.)

"The knock-on effect to the global economy is enormous," Branson exclaimed, citing, for example, the potential money saved on fuel by switching to alternative sources of energy. From reductions in medical expenses to increased income, Branson said, "pushing to be carbon neutral should not only be the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense."

Sounds great in theory, but how do we get there? For Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), it will require a serious shift in national policy. "We need a level of leadership similar to efforts of a previous generation that put a man on the moon," Levin told a packed University of Michigan auditorium. "We need our own moon shot—to develop alternatives to petroleum and to make more efficient use of all forms of energy."

Unfortunately, by that measure, America is losing the race to China. According to a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance study, China invested $287.5 billion in clean energy in 2016, compared to just $58.6 billion spent in the U.S. That's not to mention the $360 billion China's energy agency plans to spend on alternative energy in the next three years.

"In the past we thought government and social sector would sort out these problems," said Branson in reference to this problem. As a result, he continued, "business has to step forward to fill certain gaps that governments are leaving behind."

Branson's point was reflected by the increased presence of the private sector at COP21 conference in 2016. In fact, according to a report published by the World Bank, CEOs from a number of industries made pledges to “decrease their carbon footprint, buy more renewable energy and engage in sustainable resource management." Global financial institutions further “pledged to make hundreds of billions of new investment over the next 15 years in clean energy and energy efficiency."

Of course, making a pledge is not the same thing as actual implementation. And even then, there is still the matter of managing the existing natural resources that help to absorb carbon dioxide emissions. But let's just imagine "what if" for a moment. If such promises were implemented holistically, they could present a number of incredible opportunities. Here are five of them.

1. Cheaper renewable energy.

The principle of "economies of scale" dictates that a certain idea or technology requires a large enough level of adoption to become affordable. For this reason, it has taken society decades to stop using fossil fuels. But as more companies start to go green due to climate change and the introduction of carbon pricing—which charges companies tax for releasing greenhouse gases—renewable energy is getting more profitable by the day.

A recent study cited by Dimitris Tsitsiragos, vice president of New Business at the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, in an article republished by the World Bank, sampled 1,700 leading international firms that on average enjoyed an “an internal rate of return of 27 percent" thanks to their reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. As that trend continues, renewable energy is set to become increasingly ubiquitous in society.

2. Which means new opportunities for renewable energy industries.

It makes sense that growth in adoption of renewable energy will lead to a greater demand, and with it opportunities for new industry. In fact, writes Tsitsiragos, the process is already underway. Referencing a report compiled by his organization, he notes that “Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa could support up to $1 trillion in climate-related investments by 2020."

Take Panama, which is witnessing the construction of "Central America's biggest wind farm." Once built, this project will help offset “400,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year," which would be the equivalent of "taking 84,000 cars off the road." Tsitsiragos goes on to list similar projects, including one in Morocco that involves help from private funding to build a “510-megawatt solar plant" that "will provide power to 1.1 million people," as well as a hydropower plant in Nepal that will help to “address the debilitating power shortages and lack of industrial progress there."

"It is a win-win situation," said Levin, referring to a landfill in Michigan that helps generate electricity from natural gas to power Ford Motor’s assembly plant. According to the EPA, there are 700,000 additional landfills across the United States that could be used for similar purposes. Just imagine what could be possible with all that freely available natural gas?

3. That’s not to mention other areas for growth.

"Understanding that climate change is a challenge in managing risk opens a wide range of opportunities for integrating adaptation with economic and social development and with initiatives to limit future warming," said Chris Field, a co-chair of a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a 2014 report. What sorts of initiatives?

For one, there's eco-friendly construction, which is set to grow as more countries begin to confront the effects wrought by a changing climate. Since 2014, more than half of humanity now lives in cities. With the displacement caused by climate change, these numbers will increase. The need for new infrastructure will only grow with these developments, and with it the potential for the growth of environmentally conscious construction industries.

The World Bank also mentions the opportunities presented by “climate-smart financial solutions," which "run the gamut from green bonds issued by governments and international institutions to micro-loans for entrepreneurs." According to its estimates, this could translate to nearly $700 billion that will be invested annually until 2030 “in infrastructure, clean energy, resource efficiency, and green construction."

4. And also, more jobs.

According to statistics cited by the World Economic Forum, the “seven most highly polluting industries...employ just 10 percent of the labour force." Given this figure, it stands to reason that there is massive job growth potential in renewable energy.

WEF goes on to list a number of examples where this process is already taking place.

China has 1.7 million people working in the renewable-energy sector, with an additional seven million more potential jobs available in the future according to current government targets, predicts the Global Climate Network. Internationally, reports WEF, citing another report compiled by the International Renewable Energy Agency, “an estimated 5.7 million people were employed directly or indirectly in the global renewable-energy industry in 2012—a figure that could triple by 2030."

5. Sustainable agroecology: A healthier, non-GMO, climate-resistant agricultural industry.

David Suzuki, a Canadian scientist and environmental activist explains that agroecology is farming that works in partnership with nature rather than using industrial methods and GMOs.

Take the soil-building method called "dark earth" or "terra preta," which involves mixing organic materials with the earth to create more fertile soil rich in carbon. Among the many potential benefits, writes Suzuki, the enhanced soil can "produce higher yields, helps retain water and prevents erosion." In addition, said Dawit Solomon, the lead author of a Cornell University study that investigated this method, the creation of terra preta could "become an important component of the global climate-smart agricultural management strategy to achieve food security."

"If we make the choices that are staring us in the face, the fact is that a solution to climate change is already here. It's called sustainable energy policy," said Secretary John Kerry in a 2015 speech delivered in India. "By moving toward a clean energy base," Kerry continued, "we can create jobs, save lives, reduce damage caused by climate change, and make a profit at the same time."

While it might take some time for Kerry’s words to be transformed into action (at least as long as climate denier-in-chief Donald Trump is in charge), his solution is already in effect across the globe. The moon shot for a renewable energy future is upon us.

Watch Sir Richard Branson calling the threat of climate change "one of the great opportunities for this world":

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