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Come Mr Branson Mon, Tally me Biofuel

A Virgin Atlantic flight between Heathrow airport London and Schiphol airport in the Netherlands made history yesterday, becoming the first commercial flight to be partly powered by biofuel. While three of the 747s tanks contained conventional fuel the fourth contained 20% biofuel. The biofuel was a mix of babassu oil and coconut oil. The Guardian reports that the mixture contained oil from 150,000 coconuts. Sir Richard Branson, head of Virgin Atlantic, described the flight as a ‘historic occasion’ and ‘… a biofuel breakthrough for the whole airline industry’. However environmentalists do not seem to share Branson’s enthusiasm for coconut and babassu oil based flight. According to the BBC News the flight has been branded a publicity stunt, a gimmick, and ‘high-altitude greenwash’. Critics include Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the World Development Movement.

      Branson’s critics have a variety of concerns. One is about the general utility of biofuels, which are fuels made from living or recently living things such as wood, straw, plant material and animal waste. The biofuels that have attracted the most interest, because of their potential to reduce carbon emissions, are biofuels made from plants, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they are being produced. However, biofuels also release carbon as they are being used and carbon is also emitted when energy is used to farm and then to harvest the plants used in biofuel production.

      A further problem with biofuels is that they may threaten biodiversity. If we are to cultivate significant quantities of crops to produce biofuels, then we require extra land to produce these. As we will continue to require land for farming to produce food, it seems that we would have to turn unfarmed lands into farmland to produce significant quantities of biofuels, thereby reducing the amount of land available to support wild plants and animals, many of which are already in danger of extinction. If we do not use unfarmed lands to produce biofuels then the biofuels that are produced will be produced on land that has hitherto been used for food production. This may result in increased costs for foodstuffs. In the case of staple foods even a small rise in price may have devastating consequences for the poor in third world counties. This problem may be felt directly in the case of corn and soya, staple food crops that can also be used as biofuels.

      Branson’s critics are right to be concerned about the downsides of biofuels and are also right to describe the partially coconut-fuelled flight yesterday as a stunt. For all that, it seems to me that these are not reasons to dismiss his initiative. Stunts are valuable sources of publicity and stimulators of debate. Indeed, the number of responses by environmental activists and the amount of media attention that Branson has obtained is an indicator of the success of this stunt. Some environmentalists dismiss the prospects for biofuels contributing significantly to the reduction in carbon emissions out of hand, but this is a hasty response. ‘Second generation’ biofuels may well be developed that prove very effective in reducing carbon emissions without causing significant side effects. We should not rush to judge this line of research before it has been conducted.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. My immediate questions: How environmentally friendly
    will be to encourage huge coconut plantations?
    Would this coconut oil be fair trade? Would it require genetic
    modifications to increase yields? How many hectares of coconut do we
    need to produce fuel for one airline on a regular basis?Is
    environmental friendliness a double edged sword?

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