Opinion: Why Vancouver should be a model for the world

Vancouver is on the cutting edge when it comes to working with corporate partners to secure its own greener, cleaner future.

The lack of a comprehensive agreement at the Copenhagen summit meeting in December on ways to reduce the impact of climate change was a disappointment. However, it reminded me of the need for businesses and industries to take on more responsibility and set their own targets to reduce carbon emissions and protect our natural assets. Too much has been left to governments, and I fear we could be waiting a long time for clear direction. Instead, we need better collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Governments have set out plans to tax carbon-intensive industries – now they must demonstrate that they are spending the new “green” taxes to mitigate climate change. Making government efforts transparent and maintaining clear targets for businesses will encourage businesses to be greener. Studies by organizations like McKinsey & Co. suggest that much of the emissions savings needed by 2020 can be achieved through cost-effective efficiency technologies.

To take advantage of the efficiency opportunities, many industries – like aviation, shipping, manufacturing and information technology – should lay out targets for themselves and a means of measuring progress. Efficiency drives profits, and it can lead to massive emissions reductions that will stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

As an entrepreneur, I look ahead at the world’s reliance on oil with concern. There is little doubt that the years of cheap oil are over. Competition for oil will only increase with the rapid development of Brazil, India and China. Without a reliable and viable alternative, oil will become more expensive to produce and very expensive to buy. The race is on to find alternative fuels to power our lives and reduce the carbon we emit.

Time is short, because the thirst for cars and other trappings of modern life is growing in the developing world. This demand strains the current infrastructure and resources. At Virgin, we have been investing in biofuels for the past few years, searching for fuels that will not harm the food supply chain, that do not require too much land, and that are flexible enough to be used in a wide variety of industries. The Virgin Green Fund – together with venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and Total – has invested in Colorado-based Gevo Inc. Gevo is developing an advanced fuel using isobutanol that will have the performance quality of gasoline without the environmental issues.

New fuels are just one tool in the battle against climate change. Last year, with our not-for-profit foundation, Virgin Unite, we established the Carbon War Room to help harness the power of entrepreneurs to find solutions to climate change. Tackling the problem industry by industry, the Carbon War Room has already started working with partners in shipping and building.

Each year, shipping produces over one billion tons of carbon dioxide and black soot. Just 15,000 of the world’s 100,000 ships are responsible for more than half of those emissions. The Carbon War Room is working with shipping companies, governments, shipping customers, ports and technology companies to help accelerate the use of existing technologies to reduce carbon output and save money. With a growing coalition of people passionate for change, we may be able to reduce shipping emissions by 35% in just five years – and aid the industry in its recovery from the recession.

Catalyzing new capital to support “greening” buildings is another of the Carbon War Room’s early battles against climate change – and one of the biggest opportunities. More than 70% of all carbon emissions come from buildings. That’s why, besides planning new buildings that make environmental sense, we must refurbish outdated structures. This requires accessible financing from national and local governments, possibly new legislation and a raft of new entrepreneurs to design and refit the buildings.

Many mayors are taking the lead in creating entrepreneurial opportunities to help their cities become greener. In February, for example, as Vancouver is host to the Winter Olympics, the city will also focus on meeting its carbon-reduction goals by kick-starting a process to encourage investment in building improvements. Vancouver, and other innovative cities, will work with the Carbon War Room and a group of partners to look at how to bring about the changes needed to create a city for the future.

The past 40 years have brought great progress in information technology, software and computing, and many fortunes have been made. I believe the next 40 years will see great progress in the clean, green sector, a host of new fortunes made and the creation of a more equitable, cleaner and safer world.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, entrepreneur, and founder of the Virgin Group.