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'There's no question that air travel has to exist': Richard Branson discusses 'flight guilt' in the face of climate change

  • Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson was in Brisbane on Thursday to celebrate Virgin Australia's first flights from Brisbane to Tokyo.

  • During the event he highlighted the importance of sustainability and addressed whether people should feel guilty for flying on planes.

  • Branson also hinted at competing with Qantas' ultra-long haul flights from Sydney to New York and London.

In the face of climate change, have you ever felt guilty for taking a flight?

On Thursday, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson was in Brisbane Airport to usher in Virgin Australia's new service from Brisbane to Haneda, Tokyo.

During the related media event, Branson was asked whether people should feel guilty for flying on airplanes – an apt question, as he has been advocating for companies to reduce their carbon footprint. Earlier this week, Branson also told the Sydney Morning Herald, "Australia must stop selling coal overseas to China and it must stop using coal in Australia."

In answer to the question, Branson acknowledged that most environmentalists have to fly in planes to get to conferences to discuss the issues.

"They have to," he said. "I mean, there's no question that air travel has to exist or we go back to the Dark Ages."

However, while Branson said "it's important that we all have an element of guilt", he added that the onus was on companies to reduce their carbon footprints.

"It's up to us companies to get our footprint down and down and down so people don't feel guilty," he said.

Virgin Australia Group Managing Director and CEO Paul Scurrah added that the airline industry as a whole has to get better at balancing the argument.

"The economic contribution of airlines is something that actually helps economic growth in most countries," he said. "And for me, it's really about making sure that every decision that's made at the very top of the airline has, as a huge focus and a major priority, 'What are we doing to reduce our carbon emissions to be a responsible citizen?'"

During the event, Branson also highlighted that the number one priority not just for airlines but for any company is to "get your sustainability right".

He mentioned several efforts Virgin Atlantic is doing in terms of sustainability such as partnering with New Zealand based biotech company, LanzaTech to develop aviation fuel from carbon waste and the company working to get younger planes into its fleet that are largely built from carbon fibre.

Branson said the carbon fibre planes will mean a roughly 30% reduction in Virgin Atlantic's carbon output within three or four years.

But ultimately, Branson is championing his idea of a clean energy dividend – in lieu of a carbon tax – to be put on companies for their carbon emissions. It's something he first suggested back in March.

"Personally what I'd love to see is every company in the world, working out what their carbon footprint is... having the government force them to take a percentage of that – of their profits say in a year – and invest that in clean energy," Branson said at the event. "I think unlike a carbon tax that would create a revolution in clean energy, we'll get literally trillions going into clean energy."

Branson suggested companies wouldn't suffer under this kind of regime because the dividend would be an investment where they could get their money back.

Taking on Qantas

While Virgin Australia is excited about its new flight from Brisbane to Tokyo, we may see it take on Qantas's ultra-long haul flights from Sydney to New York and London.

Dubbed 'Project Sunrise', the nearly 20 hour-long research flights are being used by Qantas to see how they impact pilots and cabin crew.

When asked about Qantas’ project Sunrise flights, Branson said, “I take my hat off to them."

He also hinted at possibly introducing similar flights.

"They need competition," he said. "Maybe Virgin Atlantic might compete with them, maybe Virgin Australia, maybe together we'll give them a run for their money."

So who knows what we'll see in the future.

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