May 4, 2008
Trying to Lighten That Carbon Footprint
By JENNIFER CONLIN
May 4, 2008
In February, on a chilly, clear Sunday morning, Sir Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic, along with the co-sponsors Boeing and GE Aviation, lured more than 200 journalists to a hangar at Heathrow Airport near London to witness what they said was airline history. Over flutes of Champagne and plates of mini-bagels filled with salmon, everyone’s eyes were fixed on a 747 as it took off on the world’s first biofuel demonstration flight.
Never mind that only one of the plane’s engines used biofuel, and that was about 25 percent mixed with standard kerosene jet fuel. It was still significant, given that air travel is the fastest-growing source of global greenhouse gases, and the race to find an alternative to kerosene is now crucial. The biofuel used — a combination of coconut and babassu (a Brazilian tree) oil, which Mr. Branson pretended to drink that day like an island cocktail from a coconut shell — worked in this very small test. But even its developers, Imperium Renewables, are aware it could never become a substitute for what John Plaza, president and chief executive of Imperium, another sponsor, says is the 87 billion gallons of fuel needed each year to fly the world’s airline fleet.
“This is just a first-generation product,” Mr. Plaza said. “But the test was meaningful in that it showed that a biofuel was viable with the infrastructure in a commercial jet.” Imperium created the fuel from oils harvested from existing plantations, but Mr. Plaza said he believed that algae was the fuel of the future. “You would only need the landmass of West Virginia,” he said, “to make enough fuel to replace aviation’s demand for kerosene.”
Still, the environmental group Friends of the Earth was quick to criticize the Virgin event as a public relations stunt, restating its view that carbon savings from biofuels are negligible, and the now well-publicized position that growing crops for alternative fuels cuts into the land available to grow food. “There is a finite amount of land for food,” said Kate Horner, a climate and energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, “and using it for the expanded production of fuel is driving deforestation, which accounts for one-fourth to one-third of our global emissions.”
Mr. Plaza said the biofuel industry was receiving too much blame for the food crisis. “There are many factors, like drought, that are causing the problem,” he said. “And for those of us looking for funding to develop future biofuels that do not rely on feed stocks, it makes it very hard given all the negative press.”
Few in the transportation world dispute that solutions must be found. According to the International Civil Aviation Authority, more than 2.2 billion people flew last year, and though commercial flights account for only 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the International Panel on Climate Change recently stated its concerns that aerosols in jet engine exhaust may be depleting the ozone at two to four times the rate of ground-level carbon dioxide. Add to that Boeing’s prediction that by 2025 the global fleet will have doubled to 36,000 planes, and the need to find answers seems unquestionable.
Many government leaders and environmental groups would prefer to see more regulatory action taken, such as an international pact to stem global aircraft emissions. Last September a petition was filed with the United States Environmental Protection Agency asking it to address the effects of global warming from the world’s aircraft fleet.