The Carbon War Room has a simple mission – reduce carbon emissions – but a grand vision – doing it on a “gigaton scale.”

It sounds like a daunting task for most mere mortals. But then consider that one of the organisation’s co-founders is Richard Branson, who’s quoted on his own website as saying, “Don’t think ‘What’s the cheapest way to do it?’ or ‘What the fastest way to do it?’ Think, ‘what’s the most amazing way to do it?’ ”

The Carbon War Room is a non-profit organisation that works to bring together the best business minds to come up with solutions to some seemingly intractable challenges.

At a Creating Climate Wealth (CCW) summit in Singapore, jointly supported by NUS Business School, the challenge was to come up with profitable ways to battle climate change. The key word here being “profitable.”

Richard Branson speaks to NUS Business School’s Professor Ken Richards“I’m a businessman. I have airlines, space ship companies, train companies, I put out tons and tons of carbon,” Branson, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group said at the start of the summit.

“It is in our interests as business people to come up with fun, imaginative ways to reduce carbon output without damaging our companies. And that effectively is what CWR was set up to do,” he told NUS Business School professor Ken Richards.

CCW summits have been held in places as diverse as Washington, DC, London, Sydney, and Berlin. But for the first summit in Asia, the organisers chose Singapore.

Carbon War Room President Jose Maria Figueres, the former President of Costa Rica, said it was a logical choice because the traits often attributed to the city-state align perfectly with the goals of the organisation.

“This is a unique place. A small country, agile, adaptive, quick moving that is a tremendous transformational story for the good and for the positive. In the Carbon War Room we would like to be like Singapore. We are small, agile, would like to be transformative and would like to be force for good in the world.”

Working tracks

At the start of the two-day summit, participants broke into four separate working tracks and had to get down to business quickly on a carbon reducing strategy, which, of course, would be profitable. They would be challenged in their final presentation by a team of experts on whether the project was scalable, marketable, and attractive to investors.

First up – Team Yoda. (Team Motto: “Save energy or save not. There is no try.”) Their idea involved using technology to optimise data analysis to save energy, and sell the data to companies interested in consumer behavior.

The questions were quick and pointed:

Carbon War Room president Jose Maria Figueres speaks to NUS Business School’s Darren HansonHow do you achieve the savings?

Who would be interested in this?

Put it in an Asian context: what is the percentage of greenhouse gases coming from the home in Singapore?

The next group Waste-to-Energy, faced a similar grilling. They proposed   increasing recycling by enlisting Singapore’s most abundant resource – its people – to collect and sort material “at the first mile.” In other words, in the Housing Development Board (HDB) communities where a majority of Singaporeans live.

Participants in the scheme would be paid in a new currency – Earth Coins – which would be supported by the government.

Energy Efficiency looked at efficiency in the built environment, and they didn’t look much further than the end of their noses. They chose the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre, which conveniently was the site of the summit, as their model.

A pilot program of energy saving ideas implemented there, they said, could be scaled up across all Sands properties and expanded further to other hotel groups.

One of the challenges the organisers put to the groups was also to figure out: What’s next?

‘Money to be made’

panel280The team that had the best handle on this was the one tasked with facilitating wider adoption of fuel efficient technologies in the shipping industry.

The idea of using third party financing to pay for the technology has already been discussed at previous CCW summits. The team in Singapore looked at what modifications might be necessary to fit an Asian culture.

“It’s not just a philanthropic approach; there’s actually money to be made from this,” said NUS Associate Professor Darren Hanson, who was on the shipping team.

His colleague Ken Richards said the CCW summits help identify the barriers that are keeping profit-oriented businesses from jumping on the carbon-reduction bandwagon.

“Once we’ve come up with solutions to address those barriers, then business will be able to step in, motivated by profit they can make and in the process provide a public service,” he said.

Branson said it was inspiring to see such a broad range of individuals and organizations at the summit committed to tackling climate change in disruptive, profitable ways.

In a blog entry posted after the summit he described the participants as “people who are committed to screwing business-as-usual in their sectors, unlocking new opportunities for growth, and benefitting the planet at the same time.”