Is he really Virgin Green, or is Branson killing the planet to save it?

Virgin Blue’s Richard Branson has stolen a march on other airlines with a flight from London to Amsterdam on what many describe as the new wonder fuel, biofuel.

He was ecstatic. He fronted the cameras and gushed his excitement. He claimed the flight as the world’s first commercial airline flight powered by renewable energy.

“Today marks a vital breakthrough for the whole airline industry,” said a breathless Branson. It’s not the magic bullet but it’s an important step on the path to sustainable air travel.

It was a story with added colour because the fuel was a blend which included babassu oil produced from nuts picked from Amazon rainforests along with coconut oil.

How green can one get?

Air travel is often and rightly sighted as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change, and at a superficial level Branson makes an important point.

Fuel produced by biofuels does not release additional carbon into the environment in the way fossil fuel does. Because they are made from plant material already in the environment they don’t add to the amount of carbon in circulation. On the other hand when coal, oil and gas are burned, carbon in the environment increases. In theory if we could convert to biofuels we could use as much as we like without disturbing the balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Is this too green to be true?

Yes is the simple answer.

Branson hinted at one of the major problems when he said the company chose not to use fuel from corn oil as this competed with the growth of food needed in a hungry world. This is not a new story. Across the globe land is being set aside to grow crops and already this is having a huge impact on food production and the price of food.

For example, in the United States two years ago, 20 per cent of the whole maize crop was used for biofuel production. With less grain available for food the price of grain- related food around the world is climbing quickly.

We are now being told the age of cheap food is over (if any of us were aware we were in such an age). In a deeply disturbing symptom of the problem international aid organisations are seeking greater donations to help purchase the food they need for existing food programmes even before they look at extending these for the one billion of the world’s population who go to bed hungry every night.

We get a better perspective on Branson’s claims when we see the extent of the land required for biofuel production to replace fossil fuels. Estimates have been made that an eye-popping three-quarters of all the cultivatable land on earth would be required to produce enough ethanol for vehicles in the United States alone.

We should remember also Branson’s biofuel was a mix of 20% renewable and 80% normal jet fuel. He predicts the mix could be increased to 40% renewable in future. In any case, the more biofuel used by aircraft the less is available for essential transport needs.

So let’s get real here. Branson’s biofuel is a boutique fuel which is masquerading as the saviour for air travel. If this is sustainable flying we are on a different planet.

Worse still the production of more biofuel can only result in those least able to pay increases in food prices supporting environmentally damaging air travel. To put it bluntly: the world’s poor are once more expected to subsidise, with their lives, the lifestyles of the world’s rich.

It’s been a very successful publicity stunt and Branson has a lot to gain telling us Virgin Blue is the new green in air travel. The expansion of his company depends on consumer perception. It’s not unlike the re-branding exercise conducted by BP several years ago when they changed to green with yellow trim and included a sunflower motif. It’s disturbing to think we can be so easily taken in with such superficiality to divert us from uncomfortable realities.

Branson claims he is committed to spending all the profits from his airline and rail business to combat global warming by cutting carbon emissions. On the one hand, this is an admirable objective and more research is needed into alternative renewable energy sources. But let’s keep our eyes open. Branson is killing the planet to find ways to save the planet. His carbon footprint is colossal and his proposed solution is unsustainable and self-serving.