A Virgin Zeppelin business, a Universal Carbon Tax, robots, and a solar revolution. What will Virgin and our world be like in 2050?



In 2050, with luck, I’ll be celebrating my 100th birthday, and I’ll hopefully have a few more books under my belt. But what stories will I be telling about Virgin and our planet from the next few decades?

I’ve been provoked into thinking this far ahead because Jonathon Porritt – one of the pioneers of the sustainability movement – has just published his latest book. He and I are the same age, and I hope he too will be knocking around in 2050, still challenging Virgin to do more and faster!

The World We Made tells the story of Alex, a teacher, who just before moving on to a new post has been asked by his students to tell the story of how their world came to be as it is in 2050. That world is a fair, high-tech and sustainable one – with advances that mean food for all, a reformed capitalism, and a circular economy. But the road getting there hasn’t been easy, and the book reports on that fictional journey.  

This is not purely an exercise of the imagination – Porritt has pulled together projections from a whole host of reliable organisations to put together a picture of what a better 2050 could look like and how we got there. In the process he’s delved into the innovation pipelines of key technology sectors. So whilst this book isn’t a prediction of the future, it is a pretty thorough exploration of a possible one. It’s a thought-provoking, enjoyable read, and there are a few areas that I took a particular interest in.

Virgin Zeppelin by the early 2020s?

Driven by trends like carbon rationing and innovations in renewable fuels, we are travelling differently in 2050. According to the book, by the 2030s, Virgin Atlantic will be flying you out on highly efficient hybrid electric planes powered by biofuel/kerosene blends.

‘Slow’ travel will be commonplace. The image above is an imagined Virgin Zeppelin floating over Hong Kong. Such a service would have extremely low CO2 emissions, though it’d likely take you a couple of days to make the trip.

It’s fascinating to think how the Virgin experience would play out in scenarios like these – ‘slow’ travel means the onboard experience would be even more crucial, and a real business opportunity.

I can imagine a gym, spa, cultural activities and soundproof ‘peace pods’, making this a ‘de-stressing’ experience before your holiday begins. 

virgin zeppelin

-Still Flying High / Virgin Zeppelin, 2026 

How was it that so many very clever people screwed up so spectacularly in the first decade of this century – and very nearly sank capitalism in the process? - Alex McKay

An energy revolution

By 2050, 90% of our energy comes from renewable sources, biofuels have 85% of the market share of liquid fuels, and electric vehicles are booming. Solar power dominates and has transformed the lives of people in Africa. Renewable fuels feature heavily in the book, which was fascinating to read as it’s an area we’re exploring and investing in – through Virgin Atlantic, the Carbon War Room and Virgin Galactic.

In our increasingly global world with families and businesses spread thousands of miles apart, people will always want and need to travel, so how we do this whilst reducing the impact on the environment is a challenge we’re glad to be taking on. 

Climate change

330,000 deaths, $410 billion worth of damage, 1.2 million people displaced, and the Caribbean devastated by the worst hurricanes in recorded history. In the book, 2045 is the year the climate hit back. A ‘Universal Carbon Tax’ put into action in the 2020s was too recent by 2050 to turn the tide on the impact of historic emissions. The book’s exploration of geo-engineering – approaches to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere – is really interesting. It traces the political journey of geo-engineering from a “gold rush” capitalised on by “cowboys” through to global agreements to use such practices wisely. Effective, smart approaches are exactly what we’re working on with our ‘Earth Challenge’. 

As I recently said on this blog, we all have a responsibility to tackle climate change, and I hope we can get our act together more quickly than the book suggests we might. 

flying image
Still Flying High! / BoeingAir’s C2050 (Concept 2050), launched in 2028 picture credit MIT/Aurora Flight Sciences

Nature’s balance sheet

As the book so neatly puts it, it’s our “dumb economics” that are behind our continuing ability to trash the earth in pursuit of short-term gain. If we don’t account for and value all the services nature provides, we can only expect one thing: we’ll start losing vital services like water, clean air, and pollination, never mind the cultural and spiritual importance of our natural world.

When Jochen Zeitz, now part of our B Team, was CEO of Puma, he drove the company to be the first to create an environmental profit and loss account alongside the pure financial one.  We need more innovative approaches like these, and we’ll be experimenting with them through the B Team.  

There’s loads more fascinating stuff in the book, from robots to urban farming to the rise of co-operatives and B Corps, and I’ll be leafing through it over the next few weeks in my travels hoping to spot some new business ideas!

But one thing I was struck by was the fact that the word ‘entrepreneur’ isn’t referenced much. We face some enormous challenges in the next few decades – challenges that will test the best and the brightest of us, and importantly, our ability to work together. 

On the final page of the main narrative there’s a quote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’

The quote is from the playwright, Samuel Beckett, but it could just as easily come from the mouth of yours truly. An entrepreneurial mindset has been at the heart of Virgin for 40 years. For me it’s a vital force in how we screw business as usual and should be right at the heart of our education system. Have you got it, and will you join us in shaping this brave new world? 

boat-Shipping Cleans Up / conventional bulk carrier, with sky sail, solar panels and Air Cavity System.picture credit: SolarSailor, Australia (solar sails)

book cover

-Redesigning the Building Blocks of Life / The Circular Economy in Practice

Want to take a glimpse into the future? Check out the work of:

Virgin Unite
The Carbon War Room
Galactic Unite
The Earth Challenge

What do you think Virgin will look like in 2050? Share your thoughts below. 

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