Business Times

Mother of all recessions:Branson

Sustainable tourism summit in the Maldives draws some innovative ideas and thoughts to save the planet

A galaxy of superstars and celebrities made up of actors, entrepreneurs, peace-makers, environmentalists and a president dubbed as the rock-star of climate change, converged at a exotic resort in the Maldives at the weekend in the hope of charting a new course for sustainable tourism across the world.

President Mohamed Nasheed (left) Richard Branson (third from left) and Sonu Shivdasani(right) at the sessions

In an initiative driven by Sonu Shivdasani, the Chief Executive and Founder of Six Senses, which hosted the event at the group’s Soneva Fushi resort on October 7-9, the third annual Six Senses SLOW LIFE Symposium drew personalities like Britain’s Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and actor/environmentalists - Daryl Hannah and Edward Norton.

Others included Eric Scotto, Chairman and Co-Founder, Akuo Energy Group - developer, investor and operator of renewable energy plants across the world; Fabien Cousteau, an ocean explorer and documentary film-maker; Hiu Ng - a social entrepreneur; Jakob von Uexkull - Founder, World Future Council Foundation and a writer, lecturer, philanthropist and activist; Jean Ballandras, Secretary General, Reunion Island; Jeremy Leggett - Founder and Chairman of Solarcentury, one of the UK's fastest growing private energy company; Jon Bowermaster - writer, filmmaker and adventurer; Jonathon Porritt -Founder Director, Forum for the Future; Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales - Founder and CEO, zero2infinity, the company developing bloon, the first zero emissions near-space vehicle; Mark Lynas - Author and Climate Change Advisor to the President of the Maldives; and Tim Smit - Chief Executive and Co-Founder, The Eden Project Tim Smit, one of the UK’s most successful tourist attractions in which a disused clay mine was transfored into a rich, global garden where people can learn about nature and be inspired about the world around them.

A group who were invited. Pictures courtesy Six Senses

Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed who has played a vital role in driving the climate change debate across the world using his country’s example of a nation that would sink if no swift action is taken for all low-lying island states, also spoke and was an active participant.

Biggest entreprenurial opportunity
Perhaps the biggest warning against environmental degradation, climate change, reducing carbon in the atmosphere and tackling sea level rise, came from Sir Richard Branson, founder and Chairman of the Virgin Group, who told a distinguished but relaxed audience – listening to words of wisdom amidst the soothing sounds of the waves – that the world was facing “the mother of all recessions” unless much more is done to encourage the development of renewable energy.

Daryl Hannah

In an inspirational speech, Sir Richard urged governments to provide additional incentives to support the adoption of alternative fuel sources. “If we don’t have alternative fuels we are going to have the mother of all recessions. The way to kick-start the revolution is to have no tax on all clean energy while slowly increasing tax on dirty energy. We have been diverting our (Virgin) profit from airlines into developing fuel for aircraft that won’t damage the environment.”

He called on European aviation authorities and airports to do more to reduce the aviation industry’s energy emissions and said that the climate change battle is the biggest entrepreneurial opportunity of ‘our lifetime’.

Referring to the investments his group has made, Sir Richard said, they have invested in scientists who have been developing fuels for planes that do not freeze-fuels from algae, fuels from Isobutanol, and even fuel in Australia from Mallee Eucalyptus Trees.

Virgin Australia is working with a company which will use pysolysis to turn the woody biomas from the mallee tree into a biocrude oil and biochar. The oil is then refined into aviation fuel and farmers can plough the biochar back into the farmland to improve soil quality and carbon sequestration.

Edward Norton

He said next week in the UK, the group’s airline Virgin Atlantic will be unveiling an even more exciting breakthrough. However he pointed out that with China and India growing at over 10% a year and Brazil and even Africa rapidly catching up, every major industrial sector needs to get out at least a giga-ton of carbon out of its industry.

He said their foundation Virgin Unite set up the Carbon War Room to create a new global approach in building a market based solution for carbon reduction. “We’ve brought together a like-minded group of international entrepreneurs to blend the power of business with capital and technology to help break-down market barriers and attract funds into successful solutions,” he said.

He said the Carbon War Room is set to develop a scheme for cities that would be a massive win/win for everyone and in particular the environment. They have looked at creating an innovative financing system that provides lenders almost watertight security by having the loans for double glazing, solar panels, etc. repaid out of slightly increased property taxes. “They tested this idea in Miami and Sacramento and quickly had 650 million dollars committed from private enterprise to retrofit buildings there which will slash energy consumption and create literally thousands of jobs. As a result, local governments who follow this lead worldwide can now tap private capital to finance renewable energy and efficiency improvements for residential and commercial properties. The owners of these buildings will dramatically reduce their energy bills.”

‘Find one clever person on earth’
He said he was pleased to find that the Maldives is the first nation in this region to ban shark finning. “It was a brave decision –as many fisherman in the Maldives –can ill afford to lose income. However, President Nasheed’s Government made the right decision and a great statement by saying ‘sharks are more valuable alive than dead’. The ban announced in March last year has helped preserve the diversity of this beautiful area and has shown the world that the benefits, derived from keeping them safe far outweigh those of a short term, unsustainable gain made by a few from fishing,” he added.

Sir Richard also recalled how four years ago his wife Joan, over dinner, was chatting about his obsession about reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Joan simply said “There are so many clever people out there. There must be one person out there who can figure out how you can remove carbon from the earth’s atmosphere.” The next morning, they came up with the idea of the Earth Challenge, a 25 million dollar prize to encourage inventors, scientists, or entrepreneurs to come up with ideas for removing carbon.

To date the competition has drawn more than 2,500 entries but “we have not yet found the Silver Bullet – or one grand prize winner that has a proven and commercial viable technology”, he said. “Instead, we have managed to whittle down the entries to a select handful that we are going to support with events, grants to help them develop their technologies.”

He said there is a lot of work to do on many fronts and not much time to change the course ‘we’ are on. “We must look at the issues around protecting our natural resources as one of the biggest entrepreneurial opportunities of our lifetimes. We have the technology to realise this opportunity – we now need the right government policies to put the capital in place to build a new economy, that puts people and the planet ahead of just business as usual and creates a more equitable way of life in harmony with the planet.”

Meanwhile the Maldives, which is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2020, could benefit from a new branch of environmental science, according to one of the conference speakers. The Integrated Resource Model, which has been developed by Peter Head, of the Ecological Sequestration Trust, uses cloud computing to develop ecological models that boost economic growth and reduce carbon emissions. Mr Head told delegates that global computing power could be used to create a new development model for the Maldives.

“Integrated resourcing covers energy, food, water and waste management. It is the concept that no single environmental problem can be solved in isolation,” he added, warning that unless the pace of change towards a sustainable economy is accelerated, there would be a 50% chance of runaway climate change by 2070 that would lead to ‘total human catastrophe’.

Maldivian resort leads the way in sustainable tourism practices

Leading the way in sustainable tourism practices, Soneva Fushi will be decarbonising by 2013, with the remaining Six Senses resorts following by 2020.

Sonu Shivdasani, its charismatic founder himself passionate about the environment and its long-term protection, told the Business Times by telephone from the Maldives at the end of the 3-day meeting that it was a great discussion with Sir Richard promising to put together a parallel event in the British Virgin Islands for the benefit of other low lying Indian Ocean islands at the same time next year’s SLOW symposium is held in the Maldives. “We would link up the two meetings and discuss issues, ie if that meeting takes place,” he said.

He said there were many off-conference discussions amongst the delegates which included a large Maldivian government team. “We are now looking at seeing how to take this meeting to the next (high) level,” he said.

A scheduled, exclusive interview with Sir Richard didn’t materialise as the former had to attend to some urgent calls on Friday night. “I’m sorry there’s an urgent overseas call,” Sir Richard told the Business Times when he was reached at the Soneva Fushi resort. “Sorry about it. Let’s see whether we could talk tomorrow,” he said before ending the call. His office later promised to respond to written questions as he was travelling during the week.

The Six Senses SLOW LIFE Symposium convenes the world's leading thinkers, policy makers and business leaders to accelerate progress towards sustainable business practices in the tourism industry. It seeks to support all small island and progressive states in their shared endeavours to create a sustainable, low-carbon future, the resort company said.

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