For the first time ever, an international car race came to the streets of New York. The goal of bringing the event to Brooklyn was nothing short of showing what was possible for the future of transportation and sustainability. On the eve of the FIA Formula E Qualcomm NYC ePrix this past weekend, Sir Richard Branson was giddy at the idea that all-electric racing might be the future of Formula One.
When asked about the possibility of a human driver racing an autonomous car, he said it’d happen within five years. He also isn’t limiting his enthusiasm for electric power just to street racing and his DS Virgin Racing team.
“We may one day have battery planes flying across the Atlantic,” Virgin Group founder Branson said of his airplane fleet.
Of course, that day is not going to be tomorrow, or even within the next five years. In the short term, the mogul was bullish on the downward price trend of batteries to store wind and solar. “If we can store this energy,” Branson mused, “then to a large extent the problem can be solved.”
The problem he speaks of is the carbon emissions that are driving climate change. His fellow panelists and presenters, including executives from Dow, HP and AB InBev, were also bullish on their ability to reduce their corporate carbon emissions.
In the wake of President Trump pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, many U.S. companies and local governments have committed to the Paris Agreement through the “We Are Still In” campaign, which Virgin Group officially joined on Friday. HP is also part of the campaign. The question now is the extent to which corporations like Virgin will push the envelope of research, innovation and investment dollars into clean energy over the next decade.
Beyond electricity emissions
Many companies have goals around sourcing renewables for their electricity, often through power-purchase agreements, but carbon emissions from electricity generation are only part of the problem.
Meeting the Paris climate goals still won’t limit the world to a 2-degree Celsius temperature rise, according to many experts, as the Paris Agreement does not adequately tackle the issue of fossil fuels for transportation, including maritime and aviation.
Branson does not have a silver bullet, but said that his company is bullish on pushing for innovation that would bring efficiency, and eventually wholesale change, to the aviation fuel industry.
He noted that many new Virgin planes are 50 percent carbon fiber, which reduces fuel costs by about 25 percent. Eventually, he sees planes being built from not only carbon fiber but also graphene. Moving away from oil to something more sustainable is a goal that remains elusive at present, however, and a topic that Branson and his fellow panelists mostly sidestepped.
Virgin invited LanzaTech, a waste-gas-to-fuel startup that Virgin is working with, to join the panel. But even Branson was not sure that LanzaTech’s approach could revolutionize the aviation industry. “You would need a lot of investment to get there,” Branson said of the prospect of LanzaTech providing biofuels at scale. (Greentech Media has covered LanzaTech’s funding and technology here.)
Others were also optimistic about renewables, but notably mute about the move away from petroleum happening anytime soon. Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical, spoke forcefully about the need for the company to manage not just its own carbon footprint, but the "handprint" of its ubiquitous products from cradle to grave.
He noted that half of the company’s employees have only been at Dow for less than five years. “I’ve rewired the enterprise culturally,” Liveris said. “We want to be the solutions provider to the world’s intractable problems.”
It was unclear whether dependence on fossil energy sources, for petrochemicals and transportation fuels, actually constitutes an intractable problem in his eyes. “We are in the middle of optimizing our fossil fuel mix,” he said, suggesting a heavier reliance on natural gas but not a roadmap away from petrochemicals.
However, Liveris will likely be leaving the driver’s seat soon at Dow, as he is expected step down after the ongoing Dow-DuPont merger is complete. Even for companies the size of Dow and DuPont, he said that the move to biofuels or other alternative fuels would require substantial government investment and a transition driven by the imposition of a price on carbon. “We need government to set the rules,” added Branson. “They need to make it clear that clean energy should have a leg up over dirty energy.”
Signals from Wall Street also need to change, Liveris said. As activist investors are driving the future of Dow, Liveris decried the focus of short-term profits at the expense of longer-term solutions that could boost bottom lines and push the world toward low-carbon solutions. He suggested the key is public-private partnerships that incentivize companies to find solutions that benefit the long-term public good.
Branson also noted that the time is now for long-term investors to step up to the plate. “We need pensions to switch their billions [of dollars] into this area,” he said. As of 2015, less than 1 percent of institutional investor dollars were going to cleantech. There are organizations trying to change that, but the need for some of those trillions of dollars to be funneled into cleantech is acute.
Beyond breakthroughs needed in transportation fuels and investing structures, Branson mused about the need to move beyond beef. “Food is another area that doesn’t get talked about a lot for some strange reason,” he said, although plenty of organizations would say the argument against meat-heavy diets, and the damage due to clearing lands for cattle and producing feed for cattle, is already well understood.
Branson talked about serving hamburgers made from a meat alternative at Necker Island that guests claimed were just as good as any beef hamburger they had ever had. “Fifteen or 20 years from now, the only meat you’ll see is meat that’s just as tasty, [and] more healthy, than [meat attained by] having to kill animals,” he added. “Big breakthroughs are coming here as well.”