Friday, February 16, 2007

The Billion Tonne Challenge

Move over Rick Mercer. Forget about The One Tonne Challenge. British billionaire and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has a better idea. Last week, Sir Richard announced the Virgin Earth Challenge. With Al Gore at his side, the flamboyant Sir Richard declared that he would award US $ 25 million to the first scientist who could devise an environmentally-friendly, cost-effective way to remove the equivalent of a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually from the atmosphere.

Before critics could jump on the fact that Sir Richard owns, among other things, the hugely successful (and greenhouse gas belching) Virgin Airlines, and Virgin Galactic, the world's first privately owned spaceline, the media savvy Branson said, "I could ground my airline today, but British Airways would simply take its place."

Point taken. But what Sir Richard failed to address was the inconvenient truth that Al Gore, a member of the panel judges making the award, could actually be in a position to claim the prize himself. I'm not referring to the dramatic impact that Gore's movie has had on the public awareness of the problem of global warming.

If Al Gore wanted to "walk the talk", give up his family's business and successfully manage to convince others to do the same, he could beat Sir Richard's challenge two dozen times over.

The business is beef and the by-product is methane, better known as cow farts. Scientists estimate that the planet's current stock of 1.3 billion cattle produce a whopping 100 million tonnes of methane annually. Given that methane is calculated to be 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, eliminating cattle would take the equivalent of 31 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That's a lot of gas.

I understand that eliminating the cattle industry isn't about to happen, so the next best thing would be to ensure that cattle are fed better. According to an article in The New Scientist, simply improving bovine nutrition has the potential to reduce methane production by 25 to 75 percent.

An interesting suggestion, but solving the problem of climate change by eliminating cattle farts is about as unrealistic a solution as waving $ 25 million in front of the scientific community and saying, "Go for it." First of all, any idea that sucks a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere will be worth a heck of a lot more than $ 25 million. Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, there is no single solution, no magic bullet to get us out of the mess that we are in.

However, Sir Richard does have one thing right. We need to look for innovative solutions. Here are a few creative (and maybe not so obvious) ideas to consider:

* Cut your hair short and eliminate the need for electricity sucking blow dryers, flat irons, heat smoothers and curling irons.
* Shower in the dark (a true sensory delight). Showering with a friend, even better.
* Keep a spot-cleaning device (like Tide-to-Go) with you. Our son at university figures he saves several loads of laundry a week by using this simple to solution that allows him to wear clothes more than once.
* Wash in cold water. The makers of Coldwater Tide maintain that if we all washed in cold water, we could save enough energy to light up to 2.5 million households for a year.
* Phone before you drive. If you're looking for a specific item, call ahead to see if it's in stock.
* Cancel the dishwasher before it gets to the dry cycle. Open the dishwasher door and let the heat escape into your kitchen.
* Conduct a home energy audit. Sit down with family members and really look at how you use energy.
* And yes, cut down on your beef consumption, buy organically grown beef, or cut red meat out of your diet altogether.


Looking for alternatives to beef? Canada's new Food Guide, released last week, has incorporated organic, vegetarian and ethnic choices in its updated version. For more information, visit Health Canada at .

Got a better idea? Sir Richard wants to hear from you. Visit

Check out the rest of Branson's empire (and book your space flight) at

New Scientist is a great web-based source for science and technology information. Articles are available on a subscription basis.


Post a Comment

<< Home