If I read, just one more time, that cleaning the lint from the filter of my dryer will prevent global warming and reduce my carbon footprint, I'm gonna scream.
If I read, just one more time, that making sure the tires of my car are properly inflated will prevent global warming and reduce my carbon footprint, I'm gonna hurl.
If I read just one more time, that Richard Branson is a prince of the environment, I'm going to dither like there's no tomorrow.
Branson is the dashing, quirky founder of Virgin Airlines who staged (and that's the right word for this theatrical performance) the first ever flight of a Boeing 747 powered (partially) by biofuel. The plane, which carried no passengers lest the stunt turn from eco-PR coup to eco-disaster, made the short hop from England to Holland in about 20 minutes, a less-than-typical haul for a jumbo jet.
The biofuel was particularly outlandish mixture of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts, organic, I'm sure. Nonetheless, Branson declared the flight a "vital breakthrough" for the commercial airline industry, stating "This pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future."
"Sir" Branson, who has earned a knighthood for his success in using massive amounts of fossil fuels to transport human flesh across vast expanses of ocean for recreational purposed, pointed out that the future of biofuel will not be in babassu nuts, but rather in feedstocks such as algae. He did not elaborate on future plans for an algae-powered plane.
Lest this flight be labeled a "publicity" stunt, Virgin officials pointed out that only one of the four engines of the plane was connected to the biofuel tank, which was filled with a mixture of 80% conventional and 20% biofuel. To further underscore their eco-credibility, the company selected the babassu nuts exclusively from mature plantations that were non-competitive with local food staples. When not powering jumbo jets the nuts are most commonly used in cosmetics and household paper products.
While biofuels sound like a development that would be championed by environmentalists, numerous environmental organizations were less than nuts about the flight which they labeled a "publicity stunt." Environmentalists point out that biofuels are currently mechanically and economically not viable, and warn of the possible negative impact on world food crops.
As Sir Branson thrust his arms skyward, sent a press release to CSRwire.com and began drafting his speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, a U.N. official, and an avowed environmentalist called biofuels a "crime against humanity." Biofuels in their current state, according to some researchers, do more harm than good. Kenneth Richter, of Friends of the Earth, blasted the flight in news reports as a "gimmick" which detracts from "real solutions for climate change."
Richter suggests a different approach, "If you look at the latest scientific research it clearly shows biofuels do very little to reduce emissions. At the same time we are very concerned about the impact of the large-scale increase in biofuel production on the environment and food prices worldwide. What we need to do is stop this mad expansion of aviation. At the moment it is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in the UK, and we need to stop subsidizing the industry."
Greenpeace chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr, believes less air travel is the answer and labeled Virgin's press release as "high-altitude greenwash." Dr. Parr states, "Instead of looking for a magic green bullet, Virgin should focus on the real solution to this problem and call for a halt to relentless airport expansion."
Virgin, undeterred by the criticism, plans to forge ahead with its biofuels program. Airbus is testing another alternative fuel: a synthetic mix of gas-to-liquid. On February 1, it flew a plane from Filton near Bristol to Toulouse in a three hour test-flight using the fuel mix. Unlike Virgin, Airbus does not have a Sir Branson to provide the sound bites.
Those of us who are "friends of the environment," and therefore served by journals such as Green Living, are very quick to criticize business when they steadfastly maintain the status quo in spite of mounting scientific evidence of the dangers of fossil fuel consumption. We're also the first ones to clamber onto the pedestal to start throwing stones when someone like Richard Branson actually does something. Management obviously decided that the publicity benefits offset the development costs and the slings and arrows from the scientific community.
Is Branson a good guy or a bad guy? A green hero or a green washer? It's a question more difficult than "paper or plastic?" And a question that is becoming more and more common as corporate America (and increasing corporate Planet) wants to leap onto our little green bandwagon for their own marketing purposes.
For those of us pushing this little cart for the past few decades, it poses a dilemma. Do we tell the Richard Bransons of the world to bugger off and to leave us to our isolated green islands, or to we embrace the momentum that we've worked so hard to achieve and have faith that the springs of our green bandwagon can handle the increased load. To intentionally mix a metaphor, it's a double-edged spoon.
I say we didn't come this far to stand still. Hop on board, Sir Branson. We're not going to let you steer the ship, but we welcome you along for the ride. Just be forewarned, it's not a free ride. You're not a passenger. You're one of the crew.
Editor and Publisher
The Double-Edged Spoon of Biofuel
(The following "factoids" were harvested from news reports of the Virgin flight powered by biofuel. They have been edited for length and to avoid duplication.)
To fully power the flight of a 747 across the Atlantic with biofuels will require more arable crop land than exists in England at present.
When the processing of biofuels is considered in its overall efficiency equation, they are only slightly more environmentally friendly than petroleum. It is estimated by UK government researchers that biofuels cut emissions "by 50-60 percent compared to fossil fuels."
New research indicates biofuels emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. A research team led by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen calculated nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from crops such as rapeseed, corn, and sugarcane were twice as high as previously understood.
Jean Ziegler, the United Nations special reporter on the right to food, predicts dire results if the development of biofuels continues. He blames biofuel development for the record high price of staple grain crops.
Between September 2006 and November 2006 corn prices rose 55 percent and are at record highs of over $3 USD per bushel, due in part to the new industrial demand for corn for ethanol conversion.
Ziegler fears biofuels will bring more world hunger, calling the reckless convertion of maize and sugar and other foodstuffs to biofuel a "recipe for disaster."
In the U.S., the production of corn for ethanol has already overtaken its use for food. President Bush recently announced higher targets for the use in biofuels in U.S. vehicles.
Wheat prices have more than doubled in the past year, exacerbated by reduced cultivation of the grain. Prices of meat and dairy staples, driven by higher food stock prices for farm animals, have also risen.
It takes (according to Ziegler) 510 pounds of corn to produce 13 gallons of ethanol, enough to feed a child in Zambia or Mexico for a year. Diverting arable land from food production to crops for biofuel production constitutes or a "crime against humanity."
Ziegler advocates a five year worldwide ban on biofuel to allow time for technological advances that will allow conversion of waste materials such as corn cobs and banana leaves into fuel, as opposed to the crops themselves.
The International Monetary Fund has issued similar, but less drastic, comments: "One country's policy to promote biofuels while protecting its farmers could increase another (likely poorer) country's import bills for food and pose additional risks to inflation or growth."
The charity organization Grain condemns biofuels as contributing to deforestation. The group also slammed biofuels for causing the return of the old colonial planting system to Asia, Africa, and Latin America, at the expense of local and indigenous communities.
Between 2000 and 2005 the use of biofuels worldwide grew four-fold. Brazil leads the world in production, with over 16 billion liters of ethanol produced yearly from sugar-cane. The European Union is also jumping on the biofuel bandwagon, with a mandate which calls for 5.75 percent of transport fuels to come from biological sources by 2010.
The promise of cheap, renewable replacements for fossil fuels has turned America's Breadbasket into America's Gastank almost overnight. The transition is not without consequences, however. In New York City, bagel makers report that for the first time ever, the cost of a bagel to the consumer is now more than $1, double what it was five years ago.