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Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic conducted the first flight of a commercial aircraft with some jet biofuel in the 747’s tank. You can basically call it ‘J05’ as the biofuel represented a mere 5 percent of the total fuel mix — three of the plane’s four tanks were filled with standard jet fuel, while the last one contained 20 percent coconut oil and babassu nuts.
While even this event might have been cause for rejoice just six months ago, in a sign that the environment around biofuels has changed dramatically, environmental groups armed with a new Nature study criticized Branson’s flight.
Kenneth Richter of Friends of the Earth told the Guardian:
“Biofuels are a major distraction in the fight against climate change. There is mounting evidence that the carbon savings from biofuels are negligible.”
That tone reflects the sentiment we heard last week at the annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, where a half-dozen panels were dedicated to the mixed blessing of biofuels.
For those who merely want to cut our oil imports from the Middle East, biofuels are a clear answer. But as an increasing amount of scientists agree, they might end up being almost wholly tangential to the fight to slow or stop climate change. The reports are so varied, the cleantech industry is splintered over the debate.
A report out in Science magazine earlier this month says the use of cropland for biofuels actually increases greenhouse gas emissions. Then there’s rebuttals like this one from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) last week claiming those author’s findings are not supported by their data.
And at the same time that we’re all starting to become aware of the problems with first-generation biofuels, technologies that offer a happy middle ground are also emerging.
Some people think algae-based biofuels could turn out to be more eco-friendly than many first-generation biofuels. Others think marginal land crops like jatropha could work. And then we have the fuels that are derived from waste streams, like Coskata’s vision of turning tires into fuel, that seem to make a lot of sense.
Even though the prevailing green wind has clearly turned against biofuels, we can’t completely give up on them. And neither has Richard Branson.