Branson defends space trips at eco-prize launch

Sir Richard Branson yesterday defended his plans to offer £100,000 trips into space while at the same time setting up a £12.8m prize for scientists to devise a way of absorbing carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere.

He was speaking at the launch of the Virgin Earth Challenge, which offers a $25m reward for the invention that most successfully removes significant quantities of carbon dioxide over a period of 10 years without harming the environment.

Sir Richard was asked how he could justify such a prize when he owns an airlineand has set up a separate space tourism company. "Let's confront the airline question," he said. "I have an airline. I can afford to ground that airline today. My family have got businesses in mobile phones and other businesses, but if we do ground that airline today, British Airways will just take up the space. So what we are doing is making sure we acquire the most carbon dioxide-friendly planes. We're making sure that 100 per cent of profits we make from our transportation businesses are put back into things like the prize."

Virgin Galactic, his space-tourism company, will use hybrid rocket motors and turbo-fan engines that will be "almost" environmentally benign, he said, and the cost of a space ride could come down to the price of an economy-class ticket.

Flanked by Al Gore, the former American vice president, he said he was offering the biggest scientific prize in history to stimulate interest in the technology of capturing and storing millions of tonnes of man-made carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas.

The five-man judging panel will also include Jim Lovelock, the inventor of the Gaia theory, Jim Hansen, a leading American climatologist, Tim Flannery, an Australian zoologist, and Sir Crispin Tickell, the former British ambassador to the UN.

If the judges believe a project should win, Sir Richard will pay $5m at the time of their decision and $20m at the end of 10 years - if the goals are achieved. He said he had no idea whether the prize would ever be won but that unless we could devise a way of curbing carbon dioxide levels we faced a major extinction of life.

"We will lose half of all species on Earth, including the polar bear and the walrus, we will lose the coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, 100 million people will be displaced due to rising sea levels, farmlands will become deserts, rainforests wastelands," Sir Richard said.

Mr Gore said the prize should not deflect from other attempts at curbing emissions. "It should not be seen as a substitute for, or distraction from, the main aim, which is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide ," Mr Gore said. "We are now facing a planetary emergency and things that would not have been considered in the past ought now to be considered."

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, welcomed the initiative but warned that more should be done to encourage more environmentally friendly forms of travel. "Many of the ways of tackling climate change, such as energy efficiency and renewables, already exist, and it is essential that these are implemented as soon as possible. We cannot afford to wait for futuristic solutions which may never materialise," Mr Juniper said.

"Sir Richard must also look at his business activities and the contribution they make to climate change. The world will find it very difficult to tackle climate change if air travel continues to expand and space tourism is developed," he added.

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