Richard Branson: Algae is Tomorrow's Jet Fuel

Richard Branson: Algae is Tomorrow's Jet Fuel

Can the travel and tourism industry help solve the world's problems? Or is it, itself, a big problem?

Yes and yes.

Obviously, tourism when done right can be a force for economic growth and global understanding. But hotels can be blights on the landscape (ever been to Cancun?) and air travel is a significant contributor to global warming, with no short-term clean fuels in sight.

Monday, the Conde Nast Traveler magazine brought together executives in the hotel, airline and travel industries to explore those questions, at an event known, immodestly, as the World Savers Congress. (I half expected to see people in Superman and Batman costumes appear at the august Council on Foreign Relations in New York.) The half-day of conversation revolved around issues big (tourism as a force for peace in the Middle East!) and small (why do hotels put shampoo in millions of little plastic bottles?).

Conde Nast showcased some big names. Richard Branson -- surely the leading environmentalist in the travel industry, as the founder of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America -- talked about his efforts to "green" jet fuel and took a few shots at the U.S. airline industry, while Tony Blair made a pitch for the travel industry to invest more in Israel and Palestine, to help provide an economic platform upon which peace can be built.

Richard BransonBranson, whose demeanor is more low-key than his appearance might suggest, said that 85,000 commercial aircraft take off and land every day, contributing 3 to 4 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; the airline industry, while not profitable, is nevertheless growing at a robust rate, and will continue to do so. "People have got to travel," he said.

The only solution, he said, is greener jet fuels. Back in 2006, Branson promised to invest all of the profits from his airline and train businesses, up to $3 billion, into a new company called Virgin Fuels, which is developing biofuels. He probably won't get to $3 billion, he conceded, but after mis-spending some money on corn ethanol (his words, not mine), Branson is now focusing on research into isobutanol and algae. (See Gee Whiz, Algae! about Solazyme, a company in which Branson has invested.)

"Algae could be a very good aviation fuel," Branson said. "Producing algae, en masse, with $100 a barrel oil, should be very competitive."

All airline and hotel companies should pledge a portion of their profits to developing clean energy, Branson said. This shouldn't be viewed as charity, but as an investment in the future. "If governments aren't doing anything, it's up to us entrepreneurs and business people to invest," he said. This is a theme we'll be hearing a lot more in the months.

Branson also voiced support for more research into geoengineering. (See Is Geoengineering Inevitable?) "If we are spiraling out of control, we should be thinking about geoengineering," he said. "Are there ways we can create more rainfall that could cool the world down, for instance?"

Branson also couldn't resist taking a shot or two at his U.S.-based competitors. Virgin America is doing well, he said, because it is service-oriented, as are many European and Asian airlines. "In the airline industry in the states, that hasn't been the case for some reason," he said. "It's bizarre…May it continue forever, please."

Blair, for his part, made a heartfelt pitch for travel companies to invest in the Holy Land. He's been working on the issue in his role as a leader of the Quartet, so called because its sponsors are the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, and he's making progress. (Here's a good story from Travel Weekly about his work.)









With support for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Blair has already brought together business people from Israel and the West Bank to talk about improving the visitor experience for tourists, and about jointly promoting tourism. He's recruiting investors, and already seeing results. New hotels are going up in the West Bank, and some of the checkpoints that made travel challenging are coming down.









"Even amidst all the difficulties," Blair said, "tourists visit the West Bank with no problems at all..Gaza is a different story."

"The potential is absolutely extraordinary," he added.

As for those tiny plastic bottles of shampoo, Paul Brown, president of global brands and commercial services at Hilton Worldwide, was asked why hotels give them out, as opposed to say, installing shampoo dispensers like those found at a gym. He said, in essence, that people prefer the little bottles, and so Hilton was trying to make them compostable or recyclable. Of course, the idea that anyone would carry a tiny bottle of shampoo home, use it and then put the bottle in a compost pile is laughable.

On the other hand, Hilton has a program called LightStay which, according to, individual hotels are using to measure their energy use, water use, waste output and carbon output through 200 factors like transportation, food waste, housekeeping and paper product use. By 2012, Brown said, all of the more than 3600 Hilton-brand hotels around the world will be required to measure their environmental impact.

That's probably a bigger deal than those little shampoo bottles and, in any event, we'll take progress wherever we can find it these days.





 Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

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