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Sir Richard Branson takes carbon war to Singapore

Sir Richard tells Eco-Business why Carbon War Room is coming to Asia in this exclusive interview

Sir Richard Branson needs no introduction. The serial entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group has a finger in the world’s biggest industries from air and ground travel to telecommunications, health, space travel and renewable energy. He is also behind US-based non-profit Carbon War Room, which launched in 2010 to harness the power of entrepreneurs to implement market-driven solutions to climate change. Carbon War Room’s Creating Climate Wealth event arrives in Asia this year. Sir Richard will be opening the inaugural set of workshops to be held on May 13.

He speaks to Eco-Business in the first of a new Sustainability Leaders Series, which features leading personalities in the region who will share best practices and latest trends in sustainability.

EB: Carbon War Room is a few years old now - how would you describe the progress it has made? Has it been satisfactory in achieving the goals of accelerating investments to cut carbon?

Sir Richard: In 2009, when governments gathered to discuss the climate treaty in Copenhagen, I was frustrated that business wasn’t “at the table”. Of course, governments set targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions and can regulate business – but at the end of the day it is only business that can reduce carbon – as they are the ones that generate carbon. And for business to want to reduce carbon there must be an incentive, such as savings or profits. I wanted to find a voice for clean tech entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes with great entrepreneurial soltuions, to help them get more of their ideas implemented and scaled, quicker. Like many people, we couldn’t wait for all the governments of the world to agree a course of action.

So, I set up the Carbon War Room – as a clean tech initiative and non-profit - to play an “honest broker” role and see what we could do. I wanted them to look at industries, identify the current market barriers that were hindering the large scale deployment of solutions, work with the best minds to remove them,  and help create new market demand for proven clean technologies.  And they would to do all of this without having to wait for policy changes either nationally or internationally. I firmly belive that the technologies are already there to tackle climate. We now need to scale them and get them working for us – creating jobs, prosperity, wealth for our economies and improving our standards of living with cleaner air and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, the Carbon War Room is working globally across maritime shipping, aviation, building energy efficiency and, helping reduce islands nations dependency on imported fossil fuels. And I am pleased with the progress.  In shipping, we saw 8 per cent of the world’s transporters, including Cargill, decide to drop the least fuel efficient ships - based on the War Room’s rating system – which means that 350 million tonnes of commodities are now being moved by the more fuel efficient vessels. In energy efficiency, the War Room have been working in US to re-invigorate the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programme – and help accelerate private capital driven retrofiiting programs, starting in Sacramento, California and Miami-Dade County this year.

Finally, with the War Room’s latest operations – Smart Island Economies – the team has already been working with the first of its islands – Aruba (Caribbean)  to help them become 100 per cent sustainable.

Singapore is critical to the War Room not only because of its importance to global maritime shipping, but also as it is the gateway Asia

Sir Richard Branson

EB: Can you share some success stories - how was it measured, and what were the factors that enabled it to be a success?

In less than three years, the War Room’s first operation – Shipping Efficiency has created, alongside other progressive players, industry-wide momentum towards greater fuel efficiency that I believe is a win-win for everyone. By delivering on their promise to provide better market information on current fleet fuel efficiency levels and by doing what many people said they couldn’t do -creating a pilot self-financing mechanism for shipowners to retrofit their ships - the team is proving that we can use markets and search for profit to tackle climate without having to wait for policy of any kind.

EB: Carbon War Room has come to Asia this year with its Creating Climate Wealth events - why Asia, why Singapore and why now? 

Carbon War Room is very selective about the choice of location for Creating Climate Wealth events, hosting them only in places where there are like-minded entrepreneurs that can drive change in sector. For instance, I was happy to attend the War Room’s last Creating Climate Wealth Workshops in Berlin, Germany. Germany was chosen not because it has one of the most progressive national low carbon policies in the world with its target of 80 per cent renewables by 2050, but because it has also been developing these clean technologies for over three decades. It also has amazing advanced new technologies that the rest of the world still hasn’t seen yet.  The event was so successful – and the need to get these technologies out to world so important that the team decided to create a permanent representation on the ground in Berlin- CCW Central Europe.

Sir Richard Branson visiting a advanced renewable energy technology facility during CCW Germany last year.

Singapore is critical to the War Room not only because of its importance to global maritime shipping, but also as it is the gateway Asia. Despite the recession, Asia is powering forward as the production and industrial centre of the world. Talking to businesses every day, I hear about the daily pressures facing managers– like in the cement industry, where the number one challenge is how to expedite and deliver full order books on time. A healthy economy is always the best time to start planning for tomorrow’s markets. Just as the Germans did in the 1980’s with the first wave of eco-solutions, I believe that Asia can lead the second wave. This is why the Carbon War Room has come to Singapore: to bring like-minded entrepreneurs together to work out what those new markets can look like – and begin the transformation today. 

EB: Can Carbon War Room play a similar role in Asia, the way it does in the United States as a facilitator for energy efficient investments happen at a quicker pace? What do you think are the obstacles for businesses here in Asia in making these investments and are there solutions?

We saw in 2009, that a climate change approach based on sacrifices doesn’t resonate with either citizens or business anywhere in the world – neither US, Europe or Asia. We propose a new model where the pursuit of progress, prosperity, jobs and advancement can go hand in hand in solving this problem

Sir Richard Branson

I am an optimist. I believe human ingenuity can overcome all obstacles. But I also believe we need to do a better job of coordinating our efforts to tackle the challenge and that’s why I set up the Carbon War Room: to bring the best minds from business, finance, technology and academia together. The team has come to Asia to learn, to find out more about the type of obstacles that are currently hindering investments in low carbon opportunities, and work with the best minds to map out tomorrow’s markets and solutions in shipping, energy efficiency in buildings, waste management, and smart city systems.

EB: What does Carbon War Room hope to achieve with its CCW event here in Singapore? Can you explain the concept behind ‘creating climate wealth’ - given that climate change is causing poverty and environmental problems in many parts of the world, how does ‘creating wealth’ on the premise of climate change square with that? 

We saw in 2009, that a climate change approach based on sacrifices doesn’t resonate with either citizens or business anywhere in the world – neither US, Europe or Asia. We propose a new model where the pursuit of progress, prosperity, jobs and advancement can go hand in hand in solving this problem.

We set up ‘Creating Climate Wealth’ events to drive this entrepreneurial spirit, identify the barriers holding up great solutions – and get to work on removing them. Conference isn’t the right word for the event. Creating Climate Wealth is a series of workshops spanning different industries and continents. The team holds these workshops because they want everyone who attends to fully engage and contribute to finding new business solutions, and as we saw in Germany, these solutions live on after the events have finished through consortia, partnerships and Carbon War Room operations.

To hear more from Sir Richard Branson and register for the upcoming Creating Climate Wealth workshops, please click here.

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