“Religious concentration” on fossil fuels is pushing aside more complicated but necessary discussion on how to tackle climate change, a leading space industry expert has claimed.

Former Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn said “a lot of people” at the forthcoming COP26 gathering in Glasgow will be emotionally invested in non-technological approaches to solving these problems. Yet with the global population continuing to expand, going “backwards to the future” is “definitely not a solution”.

The global population is currently approaching eight billion people, with estimates that it could eventually top out at 11 billion.

“We don’t want to face the fact that you couldn’t possibly reduce the use of fossil fuels if that population growth is happening at that rate because we can’t introduce new technologies quickly enough to produce the food we need to feed that many people,” Mr Whitehorn said, adding that it is a “zero-sum game”.

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“We use natural gas from the North Sea in this country to make fertiliser. We use oil in the United States, China, Vietnam, and Africa to make fertiliser. But we couldn’t possibly produce enough fertiliser to fertilise the land if we went organic…because there wouldn’t be enough of it.

“All of the seaweed we would have to dredge up would destroy the environment of the sea. We would probably end up having to have more cattle, not less, in order to have enough organic fertiliser to have chance of even making a stab at it.”

Another “elephant in the room” is the expansion of energy-hungry data centres to process and store proliferating amounts of digital information ranging from Netflix downloads to cryptocurrencies. The production of Bitcoin alone now generates more carbon per annum than the entire country of Denmark, Mr Whitehorn said.

The solution to this, he claims, is to move data centres into space where they can be run on solar power.


“I constantly hear people saying, ‘What are we doing in space when we have got all of these problems on planet Earth?’ But I can confidently tell you now that we could not feed the current population of the world without space already, because it is only through the GPS systems and similar space tracking that we have managed to avoid the spoilage of another 12 per cent of the food that we produce every year,” he said.

Mr Whitehorn was speaking ahead of this week’s Beyond COP26 conference organised by Edinburgh Napier University, where he recently took over as Chancellor.

The former Virgin executive, who played a key role in the group’s commercial space travel operations, is currently president of UKspace which represents 170 companies across the industry. He is also chairman of Seraphim Space, which earlier this year became the UK’s first listed space technology fund.

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Mr Whitehorn said the role of space in combatting climate change will likely be “subsumed” at COP26 by the “almost religious concentration” on fossil fuels. Though he agrees that cutting the use of fossil fuels is critical, this should not be to the exclusion of developing other technological solutions “just because they are more complex to talk about”.

“The problem is, what is definitely not a solution is that we can go backwards to the future, because of the elephant in the room – because of population growth,” he added. “It simply doesn’t allow us to do that, and that’s why my clarity of thought is space.”