Monday, February 12, 2007

Virgin's Branson offers $25 million global warming prize

By Jeremy Lovell

LONDON (Reuters) - Airline tycoon Richard Branson announced on Friday a $25 million prize for the first person to come up with a way of scrubbing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere in the battle to beat global warming.

Flanked by climate campaigners former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and British ex-diplomat Crispin Tickell, Branson said he hoped the prize would spur innovative and creative thought to save mankind from self-destruction.

"Man created the problem and therefore man should solve the problem," he told a news conference to reveal the Virgin Earth Challenge.

"Unless we can devise a way of removing CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the earth's atmosphere we will lose half of all species on earth, all the coral reefs, 100 million people will be displaced, farmlands will become deserts and rain forests wastelands."

Branson rejected suggestions that he, as an airline owner, was being hypocritical in announcing the prize.

"I could ground my airline today, but British Airways would simply take its place," he said, noting that he was investing heavily in cleaner engines and fuels.

Top scientists predict that global average temperatures will rise by between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Celsius this century due to human activities like burning fossil fuels, putting millions at risk from rising sea levels, floods, famines and storms.

Gore, whose campaign film "An Inconvenient Truth" has helped spread the message, said all science showed something was drastically wrong but that Armageddon was not inevitable.

"We are now facing a planetary emergency. The planet has a fever," he said. "This is an initiative to stimulate someone to do something that no one knows how to do. This is right at the cutting edge."

The prize will initially only be open for five years, with ideas assessed by a panel of judges including Branson, Gore and Tickell as well as U.S. climate scientist James Hansen, Briton James Lovelock and Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery.

The winner will have to come up with a way of removing one billion metric tons of carbon gases a year from the atmosphere for 10 years -- with $5 million of the prize being paid at the start and the remaining $20 million at the end.

If no winner is identified after five years the judges can decide to extend the period.

"This is the world's first deliberate attempt at planetary engineering," Flannery said via videolink from Sydney. "We are at the last moment. Once we reach the tipping point it will have been taken out of our hands.

He said 200 metric gigatons of carbon had accumulated in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, raising concentrations by 100 parts per million. The challenge was to find ways of bringing that back down again.

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