12/07/2010 11:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Branson Ignites the Gigaton Throwdown in Cancun

While the expectations for the United Nations COP16 climate negotiations now underway here in Cancun may be low, they are high elsewhere along the shimmering azure coastline here where leaders from companies such as Siemens, Coca Cola, BMW, Dow and Phillips -- as well as smaller, entrepreneurial startups -- are gathering to take up the urgent cause of climate mitigation that seems to be losing ground to political stalemate. Business has small representation at the COP meetings yet, it is the way we do business that is largely responsible for excessive emissions. And the burden will be on business to shift to clean technologies -- or, if you look at it the way I prefer to look at it -- the opportunity will be seized by business leaders to lead us out of this mess.

"It's up to the business community to just get on and do the job," Richard Branson told the assembled attendees of the World Climate Summit, a business conference held not far from the COP16 UNFCC negotiations. In stark contrast to the mood at the diplomatic gathering down the street, Branson spoke to a room charged with high spirits and a sense of shared mission.

It's also time to get the word out about the magnitude of opportunity this crisis presents, Branson said: "It's massive."

Just how massive?

Ask Sunil Paul, founder of a global competition called The Gigaton Throwdown. Paul, a prominent Internet entrepreneur and clean tech investor, hosted the first-annual Gigaton awards Saturday night in partnership with Branson's Carbon War Room.

"We need to spend $1 trillion a year on renewable energy and infrastructure investments," Paul said. "We are already spending $3 trillion a year on all energy expenditures. We must redirect a third of that."

Put another way, to stabilize the environment, we need to reduce global anthropogenic (manmade) CO2 emissions by 17 gigatons. (A gigaton is a billion tons.)

That's only going to happen if companies can find and scale solutions rapidly. To that end, the Gigaton Throwdown presented awards to seven companies with verified and substantial carbon reductions. The global products company 3M, winner of the "best in class" award, has reduced its worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases by 77% from its 1990 levels.

The six other award winners include Reckitt Benckiser, Nike, Vodafone Group, GDF Suez and Suzlon.

The fact that all the award winners were large companies surprised many in the audience. Paul explained that "The biggest impact will come from large, established companies -- at least for now."

In the not-so-distant future Paul said he expects to see new entrepreneurs claiming the Gigaton Prize.

One of them could be Graham Andrews, of Andrews Power, who was also an award presenter. Andrews has his sites set on two statistics: the fact that air conditioners consume 40 percent of the world's electricity and water heating systems another 40 percent. The Hong Kong-based Aussie invented a new combination air conditioning and water heating technologies that is orders of magnitude more efficient than the best systems on the market today. Noiseless and equivalent in price to today's system, it uses no Freon.

Although Andrews has yet to roll any units off his production lines -- which are still under construction - he's already received more than 200 million orders, mainly from governments around the world from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to China.

Paul thinks Andrews could help the world achieve its need for gigaton-scale reductions once his systems are broadly installed and sees many more innovations like this permeating the marketplace in the coming decade.

Paul told the audience that he came up with the idea for the Gigaton Throwdown one day after a friend said to him, offhandedly, "You clean tech guys could make a lot of money and not make a bit of difference." As he spoke those words with poise and purpose- the meaning of that sentence weighed heavy in the room reminding us that this is not just a competition and an evening among like minded clean green business folk. The task at hand is a challenge of epic proportions. It is going to take courage, and skill and a collaboration of massive scale to kick this whole game to another level.

Paul has found a like-minded partner in Branson's Carbon War Room team who are seeking to systematically unlock the barriers in the highest polluting sectors to unleash opportunities for entrepreneurial solutions.

In addition to convening the war room, Branson has committed billions in profits from his carbon emitting companies to solve environmental problems. He also started a $400 million clean tech fund and has vowed to have all of his Virgin airplanes running on renewable low carbon fuels in five year's time.

Paul told the crowd that the world could no longer afford the luxury of low expectations. "We have to shoot high or lose our bid to save the planet."

Ted Turner got the biggest laugh of the night when, in accepting his award in philanthropy, he said, "We're right and they're wrong. You've got more motivation than someone who's wrong and knows they're wrong. We're gonna win and we're gonna win big."