Branson, Gore, and the $25 Million Virgin Earth Prize
In a headline-grabbing, well-intentioned, but possibly self-defeating move, Richard Branson announced a $25 million dollar prize to whomever could build the technology to remove billions of tons from the atmosphere over 10 years. The contest is open for five years, after which a panel will judge the entrants. The winner will be awarded $5 million, with the remaining $20 million, distributed after the ten year period demonstrates proof of concept. Inspired by the 17th - 18th century Longitude Prize which awarded 20,000 pounds to whomever solved the longitudinal clock problem, and the more-recent Ansari X-Prize ($10 million awarded to the first commercial space vehicle), the concept seems rational. Greenhouse gases are causing earth temperatures to rise; therefore, remove the carbon and everything is hunky dory.
I see this stunt (and I do mean stunt) as useful for starting the dialogue and getting dreamers to dream, but let's look at what this means. Over 150 years, human activities have caused dangerous concentrations of greenhouse gases. Earth scientists are up in arms because, in geological terms, 150 years is a relatively short time... shorter than our Earth can digest the unexpected change in atmospheric composition. Is the solution to this problem ANOTHER HUMAN ATMOSPHERIC ENGINEERING PROJECT? The possible consequences of this action needs to be debated among the same climate scientists that recently declared that we need to accept global warming as inevitable.
I am not a climate scientist. But, here are a few bad things that I envision happening:
- Thousands of amateur scientists start undertaking garage experiments which unleash chemicals intended to mitigate carbon.
- In order to test innovations, the contest participants have to release carbon into the atmosphere to see how well it works.
- The simplistic sounding solution makes people forget that the best way to decrease greenhouse gas concentrations is to prevent them from getting released in the first place. Carbon sequestration technologies are being developed all the time, but their implementation is slow, because there really is no punishment for continued emissions.
Let me suggest some prize sweepstakes that might make more sense:
- Manufacturing plans for an ultra-affordable, yet stylish and flashy, electric car
- A solution to the hydrogen storage problem that vexes the promise of a hydrogen future
- A solar panel that is efficient enough, yet cheap enough, to generate electricity at half the price of coal... without government incentives.
- A biomass conversion kit that turns human and animal waste into oil. A technology called thermal depolymerization already exists here, but its practical uses are limited.
- A revolutionary new accounting system that accurately takes into account the value of shared natural resources.
- A smokestack scrubber that is cheap enough for even the most austere Chinese manufacturers.