Virgin's biofuel flight is all spin and greenwash

Posted by jamie — 25 February 2008 at 2:28pm - Comments

With all the excitement happening today at Terminal One, it's worth remembering that yesterday was another eventful one in Heathrow's calendar as a Virgin Atlantic plane steered away from its usual transatlantic route to fly between Heathrow and Amsterdam. No, the guidance systems weren't malfunctioning: it was a test flight to demonstrate that biofuels can be used in aircraft. But what's that dripping from the undercarriage? Could it be a tonne of greenwash?

Virgin announced its plans to test biofuels some time ago but has been reluctant to say exactly what kind of biofuel they would be using. To quell concerns about the impact on the cost of food, a press release assured us that it wouldn't "compete with food and fresh water resources". The rumour was that it would be made from algae, but in the end it turned out to be a mixture of coconut and babassu oil. These aren't food crops as such, but if the aviation industry leaps on them as an apparently easy way to reduce emissions, that's going to have a huge environmental impact.

Ramping up production of either of these oils so that aircraft can gobble them up will still displace food crops into other, previously uncultivated areas including rainforests. Virgin's boast that the babassu nuts and coconuts were taken from "mature plantations" is fine and dandy, but are there really enough of these to feed every plane flying today, never mind the predicted growth in air traffic? Of course not, and babassu nuts grow in the Amazon rainforest - who knows what will happen if they start being produced in huge quantities? Don't forget that this biofuel mix only made up 20 per cent of the fuel being used in just one of the jet's four engines.

Ah, says Virgin, but this was just to check that biofuels don't freeze at high altitudes; we're going to do more tests with algae which can be grown in vats. But why run this test with oils the company isn't even planning to use? Why not wait until the actual stuff is available from the prototype production facilities? It leads me to suspect this whole stunt has something to do with that third runway consultation wrapping up later this week.

In fact, Virgin have all but admitted this. Just a few short minutes after they sent out the press release about the test flight, they sent out another one insisting that Heathrow expansion should go ahead. Sir Richard Branson also made a dig at the London mayoral candidates, all of whom oppose a third runway, saying "they should be protecting jobs and promoting growth".

All of this adds up to one massive piece of spin and greenwash. The airfixed Heathrow consultation closes on Wednesday, but tonight there's a mass rally in London organised by a coalition of organisations who think it isn't a good idea. Everyone's welcome so if you're London-centric, get along and get stuck in.

About Jamie

I'm a forests campaigner working mainly on Indonesia. My personal mumblings can be found @shrinkydinky.

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