Virgin Earth Challenge

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by Virgin

Removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere

Launched in 2007 by Richard and his fellow judges, a challenge was laid down to come up with ways of demonstrating carbon removal - the name given to activities that extract greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air and which safely store them.

Carbon removal is also known as ‘air mining’, ‘carbon drawdown’, ‘greenhouse gas removal’, ‘negative emissions’ (which means ‘negative’ in science jargon, like a negatively charged electron), and ‘sequestration’. To show how seriously this area was being considered more than twelve years ago, the $25 million Virgin Earth Prize was offered as a reward. Today, it’s accepted that levels of GHGs are already too high, and need to be decreased to safer levels for a more stable climate and healthy oceans. To achieve this, both deep reductions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and removing the excess carbon is necessary.

Over the past twelve years, no entries satisfied all the necessary prize criteria (you can find a link to the rules of the Earth Challenge here).

The good news is it’s becoming increasingly obvious that many carbon removal solutions have real potential; and are starting to prove themselves in the real world.

But as with many other climate solutions, a better enabling environment is desperately needed. This includes stronger climate policies (in line with the climate science) and higher prices on carbon.

Though the Earth Challenge is no longer active, Virgin remains committed to carbon removal as part of our wider efforts to address the climate emergency.

Climate initiatives

All paths to a stable climate start with cuts in emissions today. At Virgin, we are invested in a portfolio of ventures working on a diverse range of climate solutions. These include:

  • BMR Energy develop clean energy infrastructure in the Caribbean and Latin America. With the backing of the Virgin Group and over 70 years of investment and project development experience, BMR Energy’s services transform clean energy visions into realities - at any project stage.

  • The Breakthrough Energy Coalition created Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investor-led fund, to build the new, cutting-edge companies that will make sure everyone on the planet can enjoy a good standard of living, including access to electricity, healthy food, comfortable buildings, and convenient transportation, without contributing to climate change. Their strategy links cutting-edge, government-funded research to patient, risk-tolerant capital so that more clean energy innovations get to market faster.

  • Generate CapitalAfter decades of collective experience financing billions of dollars of sustainable infrastructure, Generate Capital has created the Infrastructure-as-a-Service™ mode. Unlike traditional capital sources, Generate Capital has the people, systems and flexibility that make them the leading capital partner for technology manufacturers, project developers, and system integrators driving the resource revolution. 

  • Agilyx are committed to addressing the worldwide plastic waste problem. They have developed the systems, technology and know-how to transform non-recyclable plastics into a range of valuable products with a premium refinery grade circular ‘crude oil’ feedstock.

  • Memphis Meats are making meat by harvesting it from cells instead of animals. This is better for animals and, at scale, uses significantly less land, water, energy and food inputs than extractive industrial farming. Their process will produce less waste and dramatically fewer greenhouse gas emissions. 

  • Virgin Unite: In 2004, Richard and colleagues set up Virgin Unite, a non-profit foundation to unite people and entrepreneurial ideas to create opportunities for a better world. Since then, together with some great partners, Virgin Unite have inspired and incubated a number of wonderful leadership initiatives – like The EldersThe B TeamOcean Unite, Carbon War Room – now as part of the Rocky Mountain institute, and The Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship – all of which, along with others have spurred much needed change in the world.

Carbon removal links

Below, we’ve provided links to other initiatives and reports on carbon removal. Please note that our linking to these initiatives, organisations and publications does not imply any formal association between us, nor that they supported the Earth Challenge. We nonetheless wanted to highlight and link to their efforts.

  • Air Miners is the index of companies and projects mining carbon from the air. They recently did an early run of planters made with CO2 extracted from the atmosphere: making some small, early, concrete steps towards climate-positive materials.

  • Carbon180 is a new breed of climate-focused NGO on a mission to fundamentally rethink carbon. They partner with policymakers, scientists and businesses around the globe to develop policy, promote research, and advance solutions that transform carbon from a liability to an asset (such as from a pollutant to a resource) and work to foster a prosperous, carbon-conscious economy that removes more from the atmosphere than is released into it.

  • Carbon Removal Newsroom is a short form podcast by Nori, the carbon removal marketplace, discussing current events in carbon removal with guest from around the globe.

  • International Monetary Fund (IMF)'s strategy to protect whales can limit greenhouse gases and global warming. A 2019 study by the IMF estimated that, if great whales were able to return to their pre-whaling numbers, they would draw down 1.7 billion tons of CO2 every year… and have a whale of a time doing it.

  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and their mission to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. It was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments concerning climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation strategies. The IPCC has 195 member states. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society, the IPCC said in their assessment. With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society. We highly recommend making time to engage with the IPCC’s publications and outreach.

  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Back in 2015, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences published Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration. This mapped and assessed a range of carbon removal approaches. That report acknowledged the relative paucity (yes, we had to look up ‘paucity’ as well…) of research in this field. The report also recommended development of a research agenda that covers all aspects of carbon removal: from fundamental science to full-scale deployment. To address this need, in 2018 a new report: Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda assessed the benefits, risks, and “sustainable scale potential” for a range of different carbon removal techniques. The report also defines the essential components of a research and development program, including estimated costs, and potential impact. The chair of the report, Stephen Pacala, did a great interview with Elizabeth Kolbert in Yale Environment 360 too.

  • The Nature Conservancy: Climate change is a global problem, and it requires solutions on a global scale. According to The Nature Conservancy, one of those is hiding in plain sight: the world’s lands provide an untapped opportunity – proven ways of both storing carbon and reducing carbon emissions in the world’s forests, grasslands and wetlands: ‘natural’ climate solutions. 

  • Project DRAWDOWN is a non-profit organisation. Made up of a coalition of scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs, and advocates from across the globe, Drawdown has produced the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.