Virgin has come a long way since 2006. Nine years ago, Sir Richard Branson pledged 100 percent of Virgin's transportation profits towards carbon reduction. The company believes in the power of business to affect change, and this pledge was an effort to focus business towards energy solutions and draw attention to a serious crisis, that entrepreneurs see as opportunity.
The global financial crisis made a dent in profits, but that has not stopped Virgin's work. The company invests in new energy solutions, creates industry focused initiatives like the Carbon War Room, and builds businesses that integrate sustainability and profits into their business models. Nine years later, citizens and leaders from around the world are speaking up in support of a low carbon future.
Virgin has made progress in a number of areas:
CARBON WAR ROOM AND ROCKY MOUNTAIN INSTITUTE:
In 2014 the Carbon War Room (CWR) merged with Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). RMI's decades of energy-systems expertise combined with CWR's bold entrepreneurial approach aims to bring these low-carbon technologies to the attention of industries and carry the technologies to a tipping point where choosing anything but the clean option will not make good business sense.
The new alliance has continued to develop its work on renewable jet fuels, alongside Virgin Airlines and Delta to address the commercial and supply barriers to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Since 2009, Virgin Unite has helped catalyze a total of $30 million in fundraising for the organization.
Tactics have shifted as the industry landscape has changed and oil prices have fallen, but CWR/RMI remain focused on accelerating the use of biofuels in the aviation sector as they seek to develop a regional airport centered model to increase demand of SAF through blended fuels. CWR and its partners are in discussions with a number of airports in the U.S., Europe and Australia.
Virgin Unite has invested over $2 million of founding capital to create and grow the Carbon War Room, an organization that aims to address the market failures currently preventing profitable, gigatonne-scale carbon-reduction opportunities from being realized in many of the world's highly emitting sectors (e.g. shipping, aviation, buildings).
VIRGIN ATLANTIC AIRWAYS (VAA):
In 2014 VAA and its partner Lanzatech secured financial support from HSBC for ethanol-to-jet fuel small demo production and testing. Production of jet fuel is happening now with testing, ASTM certification and proving flight are planned for 2016.
VAA has also been working towards its own target of a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide per revenue tonne kilometre (RTK) from 2007 to 2020 and is making strong progress towards this goal. 2014 was the first year that VAA successfully decoupled business growth from carbon growth, with an overall 12 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from aircraft operations between 2007 and 2014.
In the last few years Virgin Atlantic has purchased Airbus 330-300 and Boeing 787-9 fleets and this is already demonstrating progress. The new planes have proved to be roughly 30 percent more efficient than the aircrafts they have replaced. This multi-billion dollar investment enabled the airline to retire old planes, not add to capacity, and reduce emissions, with an average fuel savings of 21 percent compared to the legacy fleet. So far the company has purchased 11 Boeing 787-9's at $230 million each and ten Airbus 330-300's at $220 million each.
Virgin Australia continues to partner on a Brisbane Bioport project in conjunction with SkyNRG. The bioport work is a longer term project, funded largely by the Australian Government to develop fuel from local grasses and vegetation. The project estimates the first renewable fuel blends will be used in aircraft tanks in three years.
Virgin America's fleet is already around 15 percent more efficient than the average for US domestic carriers and performance will continue to improve with the delivery of new Airbus NEO planes in 2020.
VIRGIN GROUP INVESTMENTS:
The Virgin Group initially invested $130 million in first generation biofuel ventures. Since that time, the renewable fuels landscape has evolved to take into account new complexities around land uses, biodiversity and carbon emissions. Notable industry organizations such as the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (of which all three Virgin airlines are a member), and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels were set up in response to those challenges.
In 2008, Virgin decided to broaden its focus, and invested a further $100 million in the Virgin Green Fund, targeting a range of growth investments in renewable energy and resource efficiency companies. The Fund made ten investments in solar and technology companies such as Green Road and Gevo, a next generation biofuel developer. Following up on Virgin's investment, the Green Fund raised an additional $120 million.
In 2015 the Virgin Group also made direct investments in the renewables landscape. Virgin invested $1 million in M-Kopa towards a project focused on solar power in East Africa and primarily Kenya, helping impoverished families gain access to energy using solar technology at affordable prices. Virgin has also committed $5 million to Generate Capital towards giving a voice to independent developers, manufacturers and installers through promoting infrastructure as a service. This is essential to enable the market to grow sustainably and leverage different parties, increasing adoption rates. This commitment will enable new financing solutions, rather than the traditional model of channelling funds to independent single technologies on a standalone basis, which might not be successful or might fail to gain adoption.
VIRGIN EARTH CHALLENGE:
In 2007 the Virgin Earth Challenge (VEC) was launched, offering a $25 million innovation prize for scalable, sustainable ways of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and so far running costs for the venture have exceeded $2 million. As well as reducing carbon emissions, creating or enhancing carbon sinks is another measure required to avoid greater than 2 degrees Celsius, and greater than 1.5 degress Celsius warming in future climate scenarios. This is a critical component of achieving net-zero emissions at any scale. A shortlist of finalists was announced in 2011, who showed the strongest potential to meet the VEC's tough criteria as they moved forward. In addition to managing the prize, the VEC team is active on a number of other fronts. These include researching the science, economics, policy and communications needs of carbon removal, speaking at and sponsoring events, encouraging new research initiatives, and facilitating dialogues amongst stakeholders.