Richard Branson believes the Caribbean can show the rest of the world how to minimise the damage being done to the climate and the world’s oceans.
The billionaire businessman, who founded the Virgin Group, spoke to attendees of the inaugural Ocean Risk Summit in Bermuda. He was not at the event, but addressed the audience at last night’s closing dinner via an internet connection.
He expressed optimism that changes are under way, but he also feels that action needs to happen quicker.
The role the insurance sector and wider business community can play has been the focus of the summit, which has XL Catlin as its presenting sponsor.
Sir Richard, who lives in the British Virgin Islands, spoke of the devastation caused by Irma, the Category 5 hurricane that smashed through the BVI and other islands in the region last year. He also gave an update on recovery efforts.
José María Figueres, founder of Ocean Unite and former president of Costa Rica, asked Sir Richard what role he saw for the private sector in creating “climate smart zones”.
Sir Richard said: “The Caribbean is one area that is going to be most affected by climate change. We have to set an example. We have to become one of cleanest parts of the world, because then we can start lecturing other bigger countries in the same way the Maldives did very smartly some years ago.
“Business can play a big role. People like Bill Gates and others have said they will help fund the Caribbean and get it back on its feet. Funds have been set up to help with the riskier aspects of moving to cleaner energy.”
He said there was plenty of solar and wind energy in the Caribbean that can be harnessed, resulting in saving money.
“On Necker Island a three-year payback is all it has taken to move from dirty energy to clean energy,” he said. He added: “Energy is very expensive and it takes a lot to get energy to these islands. The quicker we can move the Caribbean and power it with green energy, the better.”
Sir Richard said businesses like his own, people like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and a number of other funds and organisation can help stand behind governments in moving the Caribbean towards such wholesale use of alternative, sustainable energy.
In 2004, Sir Richard established the Virgin Group’s non-profit foundation Virgin Unite, which has incubated a number of organisations, including Ocean Unite. He also supports ocean conservation with the Ocean Elders.
Speaking to summit attendees about the global picture and addressing ocean risk, he said a lot can be achieved by lobbying governments and educating leaders about the legacies they can leave behind by, for example, creating marine reserves to protect ocean species. He said if 30 per cent of the world’s oceans were protected — a goal speakers at the Ocean Risk Summit have said could be achieved by 2030 — it would lead to “sustainable fishing for centuries to come for twice the population there is today”.
Mr Figueres asked if corporations are moving fast enough to help address ocean issues. Sir Richard said there was more work to be done and businesses would need to spend money. He mentioned a move by California to make it law for all new homes to have solar panels, and the banning of many plastic items, such as single-use bags.
Sir Richard said it appeared many governments are moving to help protect the oceans. When asked what individuals and companies can do to help, he said it required lobbying and pushing, He said that while it may fail with one government, the next one might succeed, adding: “It is fascinating what a difference a few key organisations with the right lobbying at the right time can make.”
Earlier in the day, Prince Albert II of Monaco spoke at the summit, which was held at the Fairmont Southampton. He has helped to increase awareness of climate change issues. Yesterday, he called for a rethinking of choices and a changing to business and lifestyle models that do not imperil the environment.
“It is possible and desirable. We must lay the foundations for responsible growth,” he said, explaining that climate change can be combated by a series of measures that act as incentives, while also limiting greenhouse gas emissions that cause ocean acidification and rising sea levels.
He said the response to the perils faced by the world’s oceans cannot be limited to regulations. Urging businesses to launch themselves to the challenge of new growth, he said: “Invent an economic model capable of reconciling long-term needs of the seas, with the short-term goals of men and women who live here now.
“To stimulate this new growth we should draw upon renewable energies with their unlimited potential. In this way we would be responding to the main damager confronting the oceans — the threat of hydrocarbons.”
A recent estimate of the size of the world’s blue economy was put at $440 billion. Prince Albert said there is a need for a more balanced exploitation of marine resources through sustainable fishing and aquaculture.
He added: “It gives me pleasure that the insurance industry has decided to concern itself closely with the oceans and working to raise awareness.”
Another speaker was Ambassador Marlene Moses, permanent representative of Nauru to the UN. Addressing the conference delegates involved in the insurance sector and other businesses, she said: “You are the de facto regulators. In the absence of policy, finance will determine what gets built and what does not; gas-fired power plants or wind turbines, rails or roads. It is an awesome responsibility.”
Meanwhile, at the conclusion of the event, Mr Figueres said there was a lot of hope among the attendees at the summit. He asked Sir Richard what gave him hope.
Sir Richard replied: “Ninety-nine per cent of countries are committed to doing something about it and hopefully we can get the US back on board.”
He noted that a lot of individual states of the US are doing well introducing measures to lessen their impact on the environment. He added: “A lot of marine zones are being created by countries. I have a lot of optimism that we can keep this going and protect the high seas so the oceans can have a future.”