Mark Brandon is the Managing Partner of First Sustainable (, a registered investment advisory catering to socially responsible investors. In addition to Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), he may opine on social venturing, microfinance, community investing, clean technology commercialization, sustainability public policy, green products, and, on occasion, University of Texas Longhorn sports.

Friday, February 09, 2007

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.
I am sure other real experts could REALLY scare the pants off you with other scenarios.

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.
Not nearly as sexy (or headline-grabbing), but ultimately more productive. Their hearts are in the right place, though.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forget flashy, electric cars. For get cars. There are so few people who would need them if there were well done transit. I live in a country area. However, about eighty years ago, I could have caught an interurban rail car -- a streetcar -- which would have taken me to town, and had a pleasant walk to the stop, giving me good exercise. Cars, however you power them are wasteful to build and require a really expensive infrastructure when you have a lot of them. After all, you have to have a highway system that is nearly perfect all the time, or roads are slow and unsafe. Power that rail car by any practical means, and you save energy, use less area for infrastructure, and you get to go places with people, instead of competing with other cars on the race from here to there. In town, build good buses or more tracks for the streetcars.

As for getting people out of their cars, well, make them pay full cost for running them, with unsubsidised roads, no huge parking lots (built at taxpayer expense or through tax holidays granted to big box stores) and bills for the pollution they cause.

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Banks are falling over themselves to lend money, at ultra-low interest rates and with no strings attached. And the private equity firms do not even need to have a good credit rating. They secure the debt they borrow on the assets of the companies they buy. With pre-determined debt interest costs, any increase in profits from reducing staff numbers, for example, goes straight to the Los Angeles business investors.

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Blogger adrian2514 said...

Hey thanks for the great blog, I love this stuff. I don’t usually do much for Earth Day but with everyone going green these days, I thought I’d try to do my part.

I am trying to find easy, simple things I can do to help stop global warming (I don’t plan on buying a hybrid). Has anyone seen that is promoting their Earth Day (month) challenge, with the goal to get 1 million people to take their carbon footprint test in April? I took the test, it was easy and only took me about 2 minutes and I am planning on lowering my score with some of their tips.

I am looking for more easy fun stuff to do. If you know of any other sites worth my time let me know.

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