A prize of $25 million for anyone who can come up with a system for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere was launched on Friday. It is the biggest prize in history, claims its sponsor, Richard Branson.
The head of Virgin Group said at the launch in London, UK, that the prize was not for removing emissions from power plants before they reach the atmosphere and storing them deep underground an existing technology known as carbon capture and sequestration.
Instead, the brief is to devise a system to remove a "significant amount" of greenhouse gases equivalent to 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide or more every year from the atmosphere for at least a decade. It was inspired by the £20,000 prize for developing a way of measuring longitude won by 18th century clockmaker John Harrison, and recounted in the book Longitude. The $10 million X-Prize for private human spaceflight, won in 2004, was also an inspiration.
The initial closing date for Branson's Earth Challenge is 8 February 2010. If the judges deem that no design submitted by that stage is worthy of the prize, it will re-open for two more year-long phases.
Branson has received impressive backing for his new environmental initiative. His five co-judges are former US vice president Al Gore, Jim Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute, James Lovelock, the father of the Gaia theory, Australian conservationist Tim Flannery, and Crispin Tickell, director of the Policy Foresight Programme at Oxford University, UK.
Steve Howard, chief executive of The Climate Group and an advisor to the judges, said: "For $25 million, people will do extraordinary things. It's to fire people up and say: 'let's do this.'"
Environmentalists have welcomed the initiative, but Friends of the Earth said it should not distract from the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at source, "including unsustainable air travel".
Celine Herweijer, climatologist at US-based Risk Management Solutions, says: "While we should welcome initiatives like this that aim to limit the amount of climate change in the future, we also need more creative solutions to the problems that climate change is already causing."
Conflict of interests?
Branson has been criticised for his conflicting activities: running a large airline company on the one hand, and engaging in a number of environmental initiatives, including pledging $3 billion of his companies' profits to research into biofuels.
There are also a few catches in the prize's fine print. The winner will initially only be give $5 million, with the remaining $20 million being paid "at the end of 10 years if the judges decide that the goals set out have been achieved". And the conditions include that the removal must have long term effects, "measured over, say, 1000 years", but gives no indication of how this will be assessed.
Furthermore, the researchers will have to find independent ways of financing the development of their design. When questioned about this by New Scientist, Branson said if an idea had promise but no funding, "we will help them find it".
But Stuart Haszeldine, a geologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, says: "Richard Branson is ahead of the pack in getting to grips with CO2 in the atmosphere. I hope all other businesses, large and small, follow his lead. Yes, its true Branson's company may benefit eventually, but we will all benefit, by a cleaner greener planet."
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