Richard Branson’s “CO2 X-Prize”, the Prius Principle and the Theory of Anyway

February 14th, 2007

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report at the beginning of February concluding that increasing average global temperatures are at least 90% likely to be the result of human activity. The group’s last report was released in 2001 and found human causation between 66-90% likely, so the finding is significant.

Major changes are in store (whether the threat is addressed or avoided) in energy production, renewable and non-renewable resource use, agriculture and water consumption, among other areas. Such changes entail great risk, and also great opportunity for business- those that can figure out how to work under and profit from the new rules are likely to do very well.

The “venture ecosystem” consisting of startup companies and the venture capitalists and others who help build them is well suited to address this growing area. In addition to capital and a strong pool of management talent, the ecosystem allows individuals and companies to fail and try again. A thousand flowers may sprout, and a few will bloom.

In this vein, Richard Branson’s announcement of a $25M prize for the first person to develop technology to remove 1 billion pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere is a wonderful carrot to hold out for innovators everywhere. Just as Elon Musk’s X Prize (now expanded well beyond his original offer) spurred competition to develop a launch-and-return space vehicle, we can hope that Branson’s prize will bring attention and resources to the problem of increasing CO2 accumulation.

At the same time, it is important keep an eye on the whole picture- technology can’t and won’t solve all problems.  Technology-based solutions are immensely attractive because they promise to increase efficiency and reduce waste without really changing our behavior. I call this the “Prius Principle”- we don’t drive less, we just do it in a less-polluting vehicle.

I don’t mean to disparage this approach. Every bit certainly helps. I like the phrase, though, because it makes it easy to see the drawbacks. Imagine if all 6 billion people on the planet- or even half of them- all drove Priuses 14,000 miles per year like the average American. The net impact of so many people doing such activities would not be positive.

I strongly believe that innovation in energy production and storage, water management and food production will ease the burden of transitioning away from CO2 dependence. At the same time, as Jared Diamond observes in his great book Collapse, new technologies solve many problems, but almost always cause new ones in the process (he cites CFCs and automobiles as examples; I would add the printing press, which expanded literacy and knowledge in previously unthinkable way, but has also caused the demise of countless forests for paper).

This post is already far too long, so I will conclude with two points:

*Hooray for Branson. It is incredibly important for people with his stature to take such a proactive stance. I hope the competition is unbearably intense and picking a winner near-impossible (in a good way). At the same time,

*Technology is only part of the answer; conservation is also hugely important. Let’s not let our Priuses and solar panels distract us from that. This essay on the Theory of [what I would be doing] Anyway makes that point better than I, so I will sign off with that.

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