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To cool Earth, just scrub the carbon

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Most efforts to halt global warming involve cutting emissions of carbon dioxide – the most significant greenhouse gas produced by humans. But what if we could help stabilize the climate by somehow removing the CO2 that's already in the air?

That's exactly what Sir Richard Branson wants to do. On Friday, the British billionaire announced in London the Virgin Earth Challenge, a competition offering $25 million to whoever can come up with a way to scrub at least 1 billion tons of CO2 a year from Earth's atmosphere. Worldwide, the burning of fossil fuels releases about 25 billion tons of CO2 annually.

The project is backed by some of the top names in climate advocacy. Along with Mr. Branson, the panel of judges will include former Vice President Al Gore; NASA's chief climatologist Jim Hansen, one of the first scientists to predict global warming; and British scientist James Lovelock, who first proposed the Gaia Theory, which likens the Earth to a single living organism. Also on the panel are British environmentalist Crispin Tickell and Australian biologist Tim Flannery.

Branson said that he drew inspiration from an 18th-century British competition. In 1714, an act of Parliament offered 20,000 pounds – a huge sum at the time – to anyone who could accurately calculate longitude. In 1773, the prize went to John Harrison, a working-class clockmaker.

More recently, the Ansari X Prize offered $10 million for a manned spacecraft that could fly into space at least twice in two weeks. In 2004, it went to aerospace designer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen. That year, Branson signed a deal with the pair to license the technology for space tourism with Virgin Galactic, whose first flight is planned for 2009.

This venture – an attempt to create a space-tourism market where none yet exists – has prompted accusations of hypocrisy. In an Op-Ed in The Independent, a British daily, Steve Connor notes the huge amount of fuel needed to send a person into space, along with Branson's stated desire to make spaceflight less exclusive:

"The prize he is announcing today to capture and store man-made CO2 is a commendable gesture.... But how does he square that with his desire to turn us all into an army of carbon-crazed space cadets?"


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