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Virgin on disaster

Richard Branson believes biofuels are the answer to guilt-free flying. But there is growing evidence that they are a downward spiral to increasing carbon emissions. Jackie Jacobsen reports

April 2, 2008
4 min read

It’s not enough for Richard Branson to plaster his trademark V on every industry from music to health clubs to broadband – now he wants to be proclaimed the greenest tycoon around. With his highly publicised launch of the first-ever flight to run on (coconut-derived) biofuel in February, Branson declared, ‘This is the first stage on a journey towards renewable fuel.’

It’s actually more like a first step towards ramping up the devastation of the planet.

The Boeing 747 that flew from Heathrow to Amsterdam on 24 February was not even entirely run on biofuel. Only one engine of the four used fuel that was generated from coconuts – and even in that engine, only 20 per cent was actually coconut-based. The remainder of the fuel was the standard variety normally used in planes.

Branson’s initiative is no doubt a response to growing global concern over the state of the planet, and a new realisation of just how destructive airline travel is to the atmosphere. By pulling a stunt like this, and labelling it as a move forward for the industry, he is trying to brand his airline as the green alternative.

But even if all four engines on that plane had been completely reliant on 100 per cent biofuel generated from coconuts, the destruction to the environment would still have been ample. Biofuel is referred to by concerned groups as ‘agrofuel’ to highlight its destructiveness, because millions of acres would have to be cleared for coconut production to provide for the millions of coconut fruits necessary to create the fuel. This particular ‘green’ flight, which used biofuel for only 5 per cent of its total fuel count, needed 150,000 coconuts to meet its fuel target.

And remember, this flight only covered the distance between London and Amsterdam. That would imply that you need three million coconuts to transport 400 people about 220 miles – or about 6,000 coconuts per person per flight, which is a lot of coconuts. A trip to New York – at a distance 15 times longer than the Amsterdam flight – would eat up 45 million coconut fruits. This is clearly not sustainable.

‘The Earth will not give us the extra biomass needed to keep on existing as we do,’ says Professor Tad Patzek of the University of California at Berkeley. ‘We might continue to rob this biomass from the poor tropics, but the results are already disastrous.’

Branson dismisses the criticisms of environmental groups, telling them you have to start somewhere, and then places his faith – and £3 billion of his own funds – in the future of algae as a biofuel source. But algae’s convertibility to oil is years away, if not much longer; scientists have so far been unable to harvest algae-based fuel on a commercial scale, and cultivating the plants can be extraordinarily difficult. The slightest changes in temperature, CO2 levels and potential overcrowding can stymie their growth. Relying on algae, at this point, is little more than a pipe dream.

So is the idea, introduced by Virgin Cars in 2002, that planting a tree for every car it sells will do anything to offset carbon emissions from automobiles. As is the establishment of the Virgin Green Fund, which lists expanding and accelerating company growth first and foremost, with zero emphasis placed on the environmental angle. And so too is the establishment of the Virgin Earth competition, in which Branson will throw £12.5 million at anyone who comes up with a plan to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. These ploys might sound appealing to the consumer who feels mildly guilty about atmospheric destruction, but they do absolutely nothing to reduce Virgin’s massive carbon wingprint.

In reality, Branson’s conversion to environmentalism has more to do with expanding profits than anything else. Virgin Airlines has announced its intention to expand its fleet by 10 per cent in the coming years. ‘Branson’s investment in biofuel is all to do with keeping aviation expanding and expanding his own hold in the market,’ says Andrew Boswell of BioFuel Watch. ‘The whole idea of trying to run aviation on biofuels is lunacy.’

In the end, the only thing we can learn from this ill-fated exercise is that biofuel does not freeze at 30,000 feet, and Branson will try anything to make a buck.

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