As the operator of three airlines that fly over every continent, the Virgin Group is a major consumer of fossil fuels. Recognizing that carbon emissions resulting from consumption of these fuels is driving catastrophic global climate change, my role as leader of the company is to ensure that Virgin provides financial support to nonprofit groups that are exploring renewable energy and seeking market-based solutions to climate change, like the Carbon War Room. We are also investing in this field ourselves: One of our airlines, Virgin Australia, is working in partnership with Dynamotive Energy Systems and Renewable Oil to develop an alternative jet fuel that will enable our global aircraft fleet to transition to clean energy. This innovation will be good for the planet and, in the long run, may boost Virgin airlines' profitability. Just listen to the urgent speeches from world leaders, and you might think that most governments agree that while we have no sustainable, clean alternative to fossil fuels that we can implement on a large scale today, we need to find one and put it in place quickly. This would help us to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, like dying oceans and widespread desertification, which will harm people around the world, especially the poor. Unfortunately, however, government resources are actually flowing the other way: according to a report from the National Resources Defense Council, since 2009, global subsidies for fossil fuels have almost tripled to an estimated $775 billion this year.
Meanwhile, official worldwide support for clean energy is a paltry $50 billion. This shameful investment ratio – 15 dirty dollars invested for every clean one – shows that the perverse relationship between big government and big oil has not changed, and is still shaping the future of our planet. This means that entrepreneurs' technological innovativeness and their hopes of building our clean energy future are being stifled. Fossil fuel subsidies drain government budgets, throwing up a fiscal wall that blocks state support for clean energy while protecting the interests of the oil industry. This situation is well known. The G-20 and dozens of other nations have all pledged to phase these subsidies out. But three types remain common: consumption subsidies in developing nations, consumption subsidies in rich developed countries and subsidies for fossil fuel producers. The latter two are inexcusable – rich nations have no business subsidizing rich oil, gas and coal companies or their own consumers. These companies use political contributions and armies of lobbyists to cajole governments to ignore the consequences: An economic crisis worse than the recent recession awaits if these nations fail to spark growth in areas that can stimulate growth and create jobs. Large oil companies like ExxonMobil, which in 2011 earned more than $40 billion, make no hiring or firing decisions based on government hand-outs, but startup green energy companies will hire more engineers and technicians, more marketing professionals and managers if governments invest in them.
Consumption subsidies are most common in developing countries that can least afford such inefficiency. For poor nations, providing fuel to their citizens at below-market prices has become a crippling trap – any attempt to change them can cost a politician an election or cause riots. Yet the International Energy Agency says that only about 8 percent of subsides actually benefit the poorest 20 percent of the population. Governments from India to Nigeria to Indonesia need to eliminate fuel subsidies and immediately provide at least half the savings directly to their poor constituents through development programs. Virgin will continue to develop alternative fuels, and eventually we and our competitors will find solutions that will scale up and become competitive.
But while many businesses are trying to turn the situation around, governments can make the difference. By taxing fossil fuels and subsidizing renewables, governments can tilt the playing field toward a brighter future. State investments in innovative solar, bio and wind energy providers today will give us breakthroughs in just a few years. The issue is urgent. Please urge your congressional or parliamentary representative today to press your government to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies by 2015.
(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He has recently published two books: "Screw Business as Usual" and "Like a Virgin." He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.)
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