NEW YORK — British business mogul Richard Branson on Thursday pledged to commit all profits from his transportation businesses over 10 years to combat global warming — profits that he estimated would reach $3 billion.
Branson, the billionaire behind Virgin Atlantic Airways and the multi-platform Virgin brand, announced the pledge at the Clinton Global Initiative, a conference being hosted by former President Clinton.
“We are very pleased today to be making a commitment to invest 100 percent of all future proceeds to the Virgin Group from our transportation interest, both our trains and airline businesses, into tackling global warming,” Branson told a news conference.
Branson said the profits will be invested in efforts to find renewable, sustainable energy sources in an effort to wean the world off of oil and coal, fossil fuels that many scientists tie to global warming because of their carbon dioxide emissions.
“Our generation has inherited an incredibly beautiful world from our parents and they from their parents,” Branson said with Clinton at his side. “We must not be the generation responsible for irreversibly damaging the environment.”
Left unsaid was the possibility that some renewable energy investments could pay off handsomely for Branson and his company should they become accepted by industry and consumers.
Branson said he'd be announcing more specifics at a press conference next Wednesday, but the plan goes beyond his statements last month that his companies over the next four years would spend $1 billion on alternative energy like ethanol as well as solar and wind power.
The commitment made Thursday would in one stroke ensure that the Clinton conference, which brings people together to brainstorm tangible solutions to global issues, would more than meet its goal of matching last year's efforts, which led to pledges of $2 billion in investments.
Interest in cellulosic ethanol
Last year, Branson said he planned to turn his back on fossil fuels and use farm and logging waste to power his four airlines, which operate almost 100 aircraft.
“We are going to start building cellulosic ethanol plants (to make) fuel that is derived from the waste product” on farms and logging sites, he said at the time. “It is 100 percent environmentally friendly and I believe it’s the future of fuel, and over the next 20 or 30 years I think it actually will replace the conventional fuel that you get out of the ground.”
Using organic waste, or biomass, could be substantially cheaper than corn or sugar cane, the traditional sources for ethanol, since that waste is not a primary product but simply residue from other agriculture or logging. But the technology to efficiently use biomass is still several years away, experts estimate.
Branson did not say where Virgin would build his factories or how economically viable cellulosic ethanol would prove. “We are in the early days,” he admitted.
“We use around 700 million gallons of fuel a year between the four airlines,” Branson said. “I hope that over the next five to six years we can replace some or all of that” with plant-based ethanol.
Clean water project
The Clinton conference began Wednesday with a slew of world figures, among them first lady Laura Bush, who announced a partnership aimed at bringing clean drinking water to communities in sub-Saharan Africa.
The program, called Play Pumps, will install specially designed playground equipment that will use the force generated by children using the equipment to pump clean water from beneath the ground.
"Play pumps are fueled by an endless energy source: children at play," Bush said.
The program will be financed by $16 million from U.S. government agencies and the Case Foundation and the MCJ Foundation.
There are already about 700 play pumps in use in the countries of southern Africa, said Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation. The money announced Wednesday will pay for about 1,000 more, and the goal is to have 4,000 in use by 2010, reaching about 10 million people.
The list of invited guests for the conference includes such diverse voices as Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, cyclist Lance Armstrong, CBS News anchor Katie Couric, actor Don Cheadle and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.