Spaceman in Tesla, laucned by Falcon Heavy A dummy astronaut in a Tesla electric car, with a note for aliens – “Made on Earth by humans” – imprinted on the circuit board. Photo: Falcon Heavy Demo Mission, Public Domain by SpaceX on Flicker.

Business Plan: Saving Earth

The dream of a new technology that changes the world skyrocketed on 6 February, 2018. But would it help resolve global environmental problems or simply reproduce Earth’s unsustainable business-as-usual model on an interplanetary scale? While many celebrated the newest and most powerful rocket as a game-changer for Space flights and the dawn of commercial colonisation of the universe, others were more excited about its cargo: a cherry red Tesla electric car – a green and successful business product on the world’s market.

Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla, aims to spell “game over” for his commercial space flight rivals. The launch of the Falcon Heavy, Musk said, costs about $90m compared with $435m for the launch of a Delta IV Heavy operated by the United Launch Alliance. The Falcon, Musk added, also possessed almost twice the payload capacity of the Delta.

Sceptics have criticised Musk’s 2018 Space Odyssey as a useless billionaire’s whim or an opportunistic promotional stunt. Indeed, Musk and other global entrepreneurs appear driven to expand businesses and maximise profits beyond planetary borders. But making money could be part of the solution for the world’s problems, some of them argue.

falcon heavy spacex launch

Falcon Heavy’s successful landing during the demonstration mission in Florida in front of thousands of spectators. Photo: Falcon Heavy Demo Mission, Public Domain by SpaceX on Flicker.

Naveen Jain is a former Microsoft executive and co-founder of Moon Express, the first company to receive U.S. government approval to send a robotic spacecraft beyond traditional Earth orbit and to the Moon. Jain often shares his inspiration about entrepreneurship and space travel at conferences around the world. Jain wrote in his Moonshots ebook: “Doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they go together, hand in hand.”

In his opinion, the next set of superpowers are the entrepreneurs. “The problems that used to be the domain of the country, the nation or states are now being solved by entrepreneurs”, Jain said at a talk in Sofia, organised by the Bulgarian Center of Women in Technology on June 12, 2017.

His Moon Express has an audacious vision: “The Moon is Earth’s 8th continent, a new frontier for humanity with precious resources that can bring enormous benefits to life on Earth and our future in space”.

Mining in space could damage the environment and lead to conflict over resources
But plans for commercial mining in space go against the established laws pertaining to the right of states to scientific exploration of outer space and its celestial bodies as well as the prevention of unilateral and unbridled commercial exploitation of outer-space resources. These are two principles of space law settled in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979, wrote Gbenga Oduntan, a Senior Lecturer in International Law at the University of Kent, UK, in an article published by The Conversation.. Oduntan, who is the author of Sovereignty and Jurisdiction in Airspace and Outer Space: Legal Criteria for Spatial Delimitation, points out that mining minerals in space could contaminate celestial bodies with microbes from the Earth, damage the environment around the Earth and eventually lead to conflict over resources.

Richard Branson in the Carbon War Room founded in 2009 to accelerate the adoption of business solutions that reduce carbon emissions at gigaton scale and advance the low-carbon economy. Photo: Presidency Maldives via Flicker. CC BY-NC 2.0

While the prospect of exporting unsustainable resource exploitation models to space and replicating there the problems they’ve already caused on Earth raises legitimate concerns, certain entrepreneurs try to make money out of solving them. Richard Branson, the English business magnate and philanthropist who founded the Virgin Group and controls over 400 companies, has invested hundreds of millions in clean technology projects, particularly in developing low-carbon fuel. In his words, climate change is a great opportunity for this world and pushing to be carbon neutral makes good business sense.

“In the past, we always thought of governments and the social sector sorting out these kinds of problems. Now I think business has got to step forward, and business is stepping forward to fill certain gaps that some governments are leaving”, Branson said at a panel discussion in New York in July 2017.  His charitable organisation, Virgin Unite, was founded based on the core belief that business can be a driving force for social, environmental, and economic benefit.

Solutions make money

Celebrity entrepreneurs and billionaires Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Aliko Dangote, and Jack Ma stand behind a venture fund committed to investing in experimental technologies for a carbonless future. “The new model will be a partnership between governments, research institutions, and investors. Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs can invent and scale the innovative technologies that will limit the impact of climate change while providing affordable and reliable energy to everyone”, read the principles of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which will invest $1bn in such experimental technologies.

The venture fund is focused on making investments in energy innovation profitable, viewing it as a tremendous market opportunity. “The global energy market is currently sized at six trillion dollars, and energy demand is expected to grow by one-third by 2040. In addition, the urgency of climate change and the commitment of countries around the world to limit emissions requires an aggressive global push for zero-emission energy innovation.”

But environmentally minded entrepreneurs still need to go a long way to prove that they genuinely care about the planet and offer actual solutions rather than sheer greenwashing. The term was coined  back in 1986 when oil companies started paying extraordinary amounts for media advertising in order to appear concerned with the state of the environment while ruthlessly polluting it.

Naomi Klein, Canadian activist, filmmaker and author of political analyses and criticism of corporate global capitalism, is one of Richard Branson’s biggest critics. In her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Klein argues that humankind cannot leave the transition from fossil fuels into clean energy to the free market. It is unrealistic to rely on billionaires, technology or the market to find solutions to climate change, Klein claims. “Forget everything you think you know about global warming. The really inconvenient truth is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism”, reads the description of This Changes Everything.

planet before profit climate change

Profit should not damage the planet, a Greenpeace poster indicates. Photo: Courtesy of Greenpeace

Big entrepreneurs who intend to do good when they are doing well shall have to deal with a centuries-old belief that greed – and money – is the root of all evil.  Even Pope Francis, the current pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the most influential world leaders has criticised “capitalism without conscience”.  At the Fortune conference in Rome in December 2016, the Pope called upon business leaders to do more to reach the billions of people who are excluded from the global economy. “Wealth is good when it is placed at the service of one’s neighbour; otherwise, it is wicked… Money must serve, not rule. Money does not have a neutral value but acquires value according to the aims and the circumstances in which it is used”,  Pope Francis said.

Entrepreneurs and governments need to work hand in hand


Convinced that the fossil fuel era should and will end, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, has also been pushing for sustainable energy and a carbon tax for years. Back in 2015 in a speech in Paris at COP21, he stated that the reason for the transition to sustainable energy to be delayed is a hidden subsidy for carbon industry. “We need to go from having untaxed negative externality which is effectively a hidden carbon subsidy of enormous size, $5.3T a year according to the IMF. We need to move away from this and have a carbon tax.”, said Musk. His proposed solution is a five-year plan during which the carbon tax increases, giving the industry time to react and adjust. “There needs to be a clear message from governments in this regard. The fundamental problem is that the rules today incentivise people to create carbon, and this is madness.”

The billionaire has a business motive to campaign for sustainable energy as Tesla is one of the top producers of electric cars and solar roofs. But he is also an engineer, inventor and a visionary entrepreneur who is revolutionising industries and whose net worth is more than $20bn. He aims to build vehicles that run on sustainable energy and high-speed tunnels connecting the world, ending the dependence on fossil fuel.

Profits for good causes

The X PRIZE Foundation is another example of how entrepreneurship and technology can solve some of the world’s biggest issues. The foundation has a $20m prize for turning CO₂ emissions from power plants and industrial facilities into building materials, alternative fuels or valuable everyday products. Other prizes include solutions to accelerate the decomposition of landfill waste by 50 percent in a safe way, developing an environmentally benign fertiliser that will tackle hunger in developing countries, improving the efficiency of oil spill cleanups and creating fuel-efficient vehicles. X PRIZE’s sponsors and partners are big corporations and entrepreneurs such as Naveen and Anu Jain, Elon Musk and Tony Robbins and his foundation.

Currently, there is almost $100 million in total to be given as prizes to teams that can solve complex problems on a large scale. It proves that a small group of people is capable of solving problems that are perceived as the responsibility of countries and governments. But resolving environmental and climate change, resource scarcity, wars and poverty that affect billions of people on Earth will take much more money, vision and goodwill. Entrepreneurs and governments need to work hand in hand to accomplish them.

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