IMAGE: BRANSON PLAYS WITH GLOBE NEXT TO AL GORE
Kirsty Wigglesworth  /  AP
Tossing a globe while photographers take pictures, Richard Branson stands with former Vice President Al Gore at a London presentation Friday to announce the Virgin Earth Challenge.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/9/2007 12:12:54 PM ET 2007-02-09T17:12:54

British tycoon Sir Richard Branson on Friday announced a $25 million prize for a way to extract a billion tons or more of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

The Virgin Group chairman was joined by former Vice President Al Gore and other leading environmentalists as he announced the Virgin Earth Challenge prize.

Branson compared it to the competition launched in 1675 to devise a method of estimating longitude accurately. It was 60 years before English clock maker John Harrison discovered an accurate method and received his prize from King George III.

"The Earth cannot wait 60 years. We need everybody capable of discovering an answer to put their minds to it today," Branson said.

Gore said the planet had a "fever" that had to be taken seriously.

"Up until now, what has not been asked seriously on a systematic basis is, is there some way that some of that extra carbon dioxide may be scavenged effectively out of the atmosphere? And no one knows the answer to that," Gore said.

A landmark report last week by the world’s leading climate scientists and government officials warned that global warming will continue for centuries, creating a far different planet in 100 years, and that it is "very likely" that manmade emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse cases are the reason.

How the contest works
Entries will be evaluated by Branson and Gore, as well as NASA climate scientist James Hansen; James Lovelock, who devised the Gaia theory of Earth's ecosystems; British environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell; and Australian paleontologist Tim Flannery.

The winner will have to come up with a way of removing one billion tons of carbon gases a year from the atmosphere for 10 years — with $5 million of the prize being paid at the start and the remaining $20 million at the end.

If no winner is identified after five years the judges can decide to extend the contest.

"This is the world’s first deliberate attempt at planetary engineering," Flannery said via videolink from Sydney. "We are at the last moment. Once we reach the tipping point it will have been taken out of our hands."

He said 200 gigatons of carbon had accumulated in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, raising concentrations by 100 parts per million. The challenge was to find ways of bringing that back down again.

Experts agreed the challenge is difficult, noting that while scientists have started to safely bury CO2 emissions before they reach the atmosphere, no one has captured them after they are released.

"I see no evidence that a quantifiably acceptable solution or pathway has been identified," said Jerry Mahlman, the former head of climate modeling at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. "It’s not what you say, it’s what you can do and at the moment you can’t do a lot."

Hypocrisy from airline owner?
Branson rejected suggestions that he, as an airline owner, was being hypocritical in announcing the prize. "I could ground my airline today, but British Airways would simply take its place," he said, noting that he was investing heavily in cleaner engines and fuels.

In September, Branson pledged to invest $3 billion to fight global warming, saying he would commit all profits from his travel firms — including Virgin Atlantic airline and Virgin Trains — over the next 10 years.

As part of that pledge, he launched a new Virgin Fuels business, which is to invest up to $400 million in green energy projects in the next three years.

Contest details are online at www.virginearth.com.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Earth Challenge

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