Friday, 22 February 2008

Friendly Skies?

Virgin has announced their first test biofuels flight. Treehugger (in fact the treehugger founder, Michael Graham Richard wrote it up himself) reported it as follows:

"Virgin was never clear on what type of biofuel it was going to use, but it said it wanted something "truly sustainable" that did not compete with food and fresh water resources. It seems like it's not quite what we're going to get for the first flight this month: "it will not be an algae or halophyte-derived alternative, second-generation biofuels that come from renewable and sustainable feedstocks. Rather, it will be a first-generation biofuel whose feedstock is generally understood to compete with either land and water use for food crops or carbon sinks such as rainforests." But this is still partly good news. The reason why there's cause to celebrate is that this test flight will still move forward research on cleaner fuels for planes. It will also help make the issue more visible and maybe other airlines will follow suit in the same way that the Toyota Prius hybrid paved the way in the late 1990s. As oil keeps getting more expensive and new carbon taxes and cap-and-trade plans appear on the horizon, having access to low-carbon fuels might become a big competitive advantage."

I think it raises quite a few questions about US vs European views on biofuels, aviation (US views on both are much less hardline) and also the Treehugger-Discovery connection looms larger when you see them having to side for/against like this on major corporate interests. Having read it several times, however, I think I am cautiously with them on this one, and in some ways it was a brave post they must have debated quite hard internally - the kneejerk response would have been hard to resist. Yes a test flight or two with existing biofuels while (not) waiting for the viable alternatives, still in development isnt exactly going to tip development over the edge. If it's a way to speed up the process, allowing them to work on the engines while the fuel is still being developed in parallel who could argue with that? It's not some sort of religious issue (it's simply that large scale biofuel from food crop use for aviation would hurt forests and poor people in a way that's not justified by western flying addictions). And yes good for Virgin for thinking differently. Otherwise it's a case of wait and see.

But incidentally you've also got to admire the Virgin PR team for landing this one; there is a spread of coverage online from completely euphoric to 'wait and see'. as George Lackoff would say it's all about framing the debate; within a frame that says R&D it's fine. Meanwhile Virgin is still seen as trying to be part of the solution.

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