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Branson's Carbon War Room takes aim at profits

Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson says businesses need to take the lead on global warming and replacing fossil fuels to avoid to "the mother of all recessions."

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.--The key to avoiding the worst effects of global warming is to make money while doing so, says iconic entrepreneur Richard Branson.

The chairman of the Virgin Group, which oversees 350 businesses, is involved in dozens of efforts to reduce carbon emissions linked to global warming, both in Virgin's business operations and through spin-off efforts.

Martin LaMonica/CNET

Branson was interviewed at the Fortune Brainstorm Green business conference here yesterday, where he argued that entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations need to take the lead on addressing global warming. Government policies should set ground rules, such as taxing dirty fuels, but political stalemate in the U.S., he said, made it difficult to advance alternatives to fossil fuels.

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"The only way we are going to get on top of the problem of global warming is to build profitable businesses that replace those [fossil fuel] businesses," Branson said.

In 2007, Branson launched a $25 million prize to come up with the best idea to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere, a competition that has yielded about 20 finalists now being evaluated. He cited historic precedents for his effort, noting that Charles Lindbergh's plane trip across the Atlantic and the Spitfire fighter aircraft both came about through quests to win prizes. There is also a Virgin Green Fund that has invested in green-tech start-up companies such as Gevo, which makes isobutanol from plants, a fuel that could be used in aviation.

Branson said he and colleagues had created the Carbon War Room to bring some urgency to global warming. The goal of the not-for-profit venture is to remove gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere by implementing existing efficiency technologies in polluting industries, such as aviation, shipping, building, and IT.

"We want to see if we can get a gigaton out of each industry, not principally to attack those industries but to work with them in as positive way as possible so it actually went to the bottom line as much as possible," he said.

Later this year, the Carbon War Room plans to introduce a financing mechanism that a company executive said will make it far easier for businesses to invest in building efficiency projects.

The effort is referred to as a Carbon War Room because the problem of global warming could be as bad as two world wars, so it required a war room to deal with the problem, Branson said. But businesses and countries need to invest in energy-saving technologies and alternatives to fossil fuels simply because there's a limited supply of liquid fuels, Branson said.

"We did a lot of research on when the demand for fuel exceeds supply...and it's frighteningly soon I think. And when that happens we're going to see fuel easily at $200 or $300 a barrel," he said. "We've got to come up with ways of saving energy or alternative sources of energy. Otherwise, we'll have the mother of all recessions."