The palm trees and billiard table have been shipped in, work on the infinity pool overlooking the coral reef is progressing and the tennis courts are celebrity-ready. But few of the super-luxury buildings rising on Moskito island’s beaches are finished yet.
Moskito is Sir Richard Branson’s number two Caribbean island, but it will soon be his new family complex. It is just over a mile from Necker island, which he bought in his 20s for £250,000 and now rents for £40,000 a night.
Both islands are eco-trophies for Britain’s best-known entrepreneur, but his plans to ditch the use of diesel power and to generate electricity from wind and solar are expected to have a profound impact on dozens of far poorer nearby islands facing crippling debt, hurricanes and climate change.
Last week Branson hosted a summit of financiers, politicians, energy companies, lawyers and others on Moskito and Necker to work up a plan to “green” the Caribbean, island by island. Five prime ministers and 12 governments, as well as international bankers and investors, heard renewable energy experts explain how the region’s islands, which currently generate nearly all their electricity from diesel, could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year and reduce emissions by 50% or more.
Necker and Moskito will be 75-80% converted to use renewable energy and become working models for how other islands could cut expensive diesel imports, while all Caribbean governments will be offered a technical and financial blueprint on how to switch, by US energy thinktank the Rocky Mountain Institute and Branson’s green business group, Carbon War Room.
So far the governments of Aruba, St Lucia, the British Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, the Turks and Caicos, Dominica and the Colombian islands of Providencia and San Andrés have said that they will aim to increase their use of renewable energy and cut diesel imports. Last week the US government’s private-sector lending arm said it would support the efforts by the islands to go green by offering loans of up to 0m for renewable energy and energy-saving projects.
“This is personal and global. Moskito is now our family home. We know that islands will suffer the most from climate change and sea-level rise. Reefs will be devastated, and wildlife decimated,” Branson told the Observer in an interview. “It’s realistic to think that whole islands could be 75-80% clean energy in four to five years. It might not make sense to do the last 25%, but they all ought to be able to go 75-80% using wind and solar energy.
“Governments [here] need help. I think a lot of ministers may be new to the job; they can’t be experts at climate or energy. Some need a helping hand to make the transition to renewables. We can really save families 40% of what they have to pay for electricity,” he said.
The irony of a man whose rail and airline companies are significant climate polluters trying to “green” small island states is not lost on Caribbean governments. Branson said it has led him to invest heavily in green fuels, solar panels and other “clean-tech” developments. “There is no question that Virgin is involved in a number of businesses that emit a lot of carbon, and that is one of the reasons why I have to work particularly hard … but, more importantly, to try to help other people balance their books as well,” he said.
However, he said he has lost many millions of pounds in failed green investments. “We have invested hundreds of millions in clean technology projects. We haven’t made hundreds of millions profit.
“We had to write off a m investment in [US solar panel manufacturer] Solyndra in 2011. We went in with the best of intentions. The thing was that the price of solar had collapsed in China. So from a global perspective it could be said to be positive. We got in quite early. Pioneers can always come a cropper, like Freddie Laker. They often pave the way for others. But we are still standing, and investing.”
Branson’s investments in cleaner aviation fuel continue, but are nowhere near ready to scale up for commercial use. Peak oil – the expected point of maximum global oil production before it starts to decline – and a widely predicted hike in fuel prices have not happened and, if anything, he said, the world should expect the oil price to fall rather than rise in the next few years because of fracking. Branson said he has high hopes for LanzaTech, a company that has pioneered a way to turn carbon-rich waste gases from aluminium producers and other industrial plants into biofuels. According to Virgin Atlantic, the fuel has the potential to cut aviation emissions by 60% compared with conventional fuels and could produce enough biofuel to meet 19% of global demand for aviation fuel. “We still need a clean aviation fuel, though. It will take a while longer. But we know it works,” he said.
British author Tom Bower calculated in his new book, Branson, Behind the Mask, that the entrepreneur had lost 0m in failed green investments and used the British Virgin Islands to hide his accounts in a succession of 11 companies. “He, most unusually, invested his own money and has lost most of it; and all his claims have proved to be wrong – namely: peak oil, oil prices, Virgin’s use of alternative fuels and the potential profits,” Bower said. The author accused Branson of not understanding the science or human costs of biofuels, and latching on to green businesses for political motives and profit, rather than for environmental reasons. “He embraced environmentalism and aligned himself with Clinton and Gore, to get on the top table of US and British politics,” said Bower.
Branson shrugs off the criticisms, saying he has been an active environmentalist since his student hippy days and that, rather than him using the environment to get to politicians, it is more a case of politicians using him.
Tony Blair, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and other politicians have visited Necker, but not David Cameron, whom Branson strongly supports for his commitment to nuclear power. “I would say he is doing his best. I think they are trying to meet [emission] targets. Cameron has been brave with nuclear, from a global point of view. Germany backtracking on nuclear is worrying. Nuclear has got safer and safer; we can now use waste products of nuclear,” he said. “If you accept that the globe has a major problem [with emissions], then you can’t leave nuclear out of the equation. I have studied how many people have been killed in nuclear accidents – it’s less than 1,000.
“One Chinese coalmine disaster can kill more than that. If you have a global catastrophe, you have to take extreme measures. Nuclear seems to be an important weapon that the world has.”
More controversially, along with billionaires such as Bill Gates, Branson supports the idea of high-risk, quick technological fixes to “geo-engineer” the global climate if emissions were to get out of control. This could involve sucking carbon out of the air or spraying millions of tonnes of reflective particles of sulphur dioxide 30 miles above the Earth to cool it. “I call it re-engineering,” he said. “There’s a subtle difference, trying to re-engineer the world back to roughly where it is today. It’s controversial, but we would be mad not to look at the technologies. If there are any risks attached, it would need the UN to decide whether the risk is worth taking … hopefully it won’t be necessary. Hopefully we can come up with something more mundane than the radical answer.”
Branson said the environment is now his overriding preoccupation. He is seeking to set up a Caribbean-wide marine zone where no sharks are killed, and has lobbied heavily for a marine park around Australia. He is also involved in protecting wildlife in Africa. “I find it interests me a lot more than making a few more bucks; it’s much more satisfactory. I enjoyed building companies, but I find this more rewarding.”
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