The United Nations climate change conference in Cancun in early December was met with negativity and apathy. As I took part in the meetings, it was clear that after the failure of the Copenhagen talks late last year, there would be no agreement on reducing emissions and tackling climate change. But there is too much at stake for us to give up and go home. It is now up to the business community to take the lead—and with a little help from government, we can succeed.

I believe in this cause very strongly, and I also think that unless we start to conserve energy and develop alternative fuels, we will face a worldwide crisis caused by the problems of climate change.

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It will impact the supply of food and water, and could prompt an economic slump that has the potential to be much more painful than the current recession.

So last year, I helped to launch the Carbon War Room, a business-focused, global NGO (non-governmental organization). Our goal is to encourage entrepreneurs and businesses to enter the battle against climate change: We aim to achieve it by unlocking capital to deliver scalable solutions that will make commercial sense.

One sector that desperately needs disruption and change is the shipping industry, which is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases. If the global shipping fleet were a country, it would be the sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after Germany.

The Carbon War Room has classified the efficiencies of every type of ocean vessel and initiated a system of eco-labelling clean and dirty ships that we hope will transform the industry—the first step in making gigaton-scale reductions in emissions. A universal index sticker for every ship will offer a simple A to G rating, similar to the energy ratings commonly seen on refrigerators, washer and dryers, and televisions.

This will allow customers to pick the best ships in each fleet, and help the most progressive owners to display how efficient and cost-effective their ships are in comparison to the competition. As the companies that depend on shipping firms begin to rely on these labels, we can expect that they will make better decisions for their businesses and the environment.

This should remove the barriers that prevent capital from flowing to cleaner shipping technologies. The eco-labelling, we hope, will act as a catalyst for the shipping industry to become not only sustainable, but also more profitable over time, as efficiencies come into play.

It would be helpful if governments avoided taxing new forms of sustainable energy and technology, encouraged investment, and, as people switch away from non-renewable sources of energy, slowly started raising taxes on the old energy grid and industries that rely on it.

That’s all we truly need governments to do, then individual companies can do the rest, because the business community has always pushed progress forward more quickly and efficiently than governments can.

But entrepreneurs can’t rely on governments everywhere to adopt such policies, and many are forging ahead alone. Consider the airline industry, which currently represents 2% of global CO2 emissions—a number that is projected to grow quickly. Companies in this field are developing and trialling everything from sustainable biofuels for aviation to more efficient air-traffic control systems.

At Cancun, the Carbon War Room also celebrated the first annual Gigaton Awards, recognizing companies showing leadership in emissions reduction and sustainable practices.

The six winners of the prize had strong sustainability initiatives that included comprehensive accounting of emissions.

We celebrated Nike for its energy savings programme, which includes its Environmental Apparel Design Tool that designers use to make real-time choices that decrease the environmental impact of their work.

In the energy category, we recognized Suzlon for its achievement in managing its emissions and reaching sustainability milestones. Other winners included Reckitt Benckiser Group, 3M, Vodafone Group and GDF SUEZ. It is our hope that by singling out the pioneers who have changed the way they do business, we will encourage other companies to act.

Experts predict that the world will have to invest more than $550 billion annually to make the next generation of industry a low-carbon reality—clearly, a shift that must be led by businesses and the investment community.

This is not a choice between sacrifice and prosperity, or containment and development. Business is a force for change, and these are changes where we can show the world the way.



Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter at