What's wrong with biofuels?
Environmentalists are often accused of being a little hard to please. Along comes this great techno fix and we stubbornly question its credentials. We start mumbling about corporate greenwash and false solutions, and ask who stands to benefit. Is the latest solution intended to prevent climate change or to line the pockets of corporate bastards?
Virgin's ventures into biofuels are a great example of this dilemma. The government told us that aviation can’t expand unless it miraculously becomes sustainable - so last year Virgin launched a spectacular stunt, flying from London to Paris on a plane which used 5% biofuels. It was widely hailed by the press as a revolution in the skies; one which would solve climate change and doubtless wipe out jet lag as well. But there are several reasons why Virgin's pilot will never be rolled out widely.
Not only do most of them require more carbon to produce than oil based products, but agrofuels have a catastrophic impact on the ecosystems we rely on to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. The need to grow fuel has exascerbated the already widespread deforestation of the world's ancient woodlands as greedy profiteers send in the bulldozers. As more land is taken from long-established forests and turned over to fuel mono-crops, the earth becomes less able to turn CO2 into oxygen. This is very bad news indeed.
It's not just the planet which is being killed by agrofuels: people around the world are being forced off their land so that western agrobusinesses can grow petrol-plants. Widespread commercial biofuel production has turned land which should be used to grow food used for fuel production and indigenous people driven off the land into extinction. The impact of this is stark: every year an estimated 100 million people die as a result of the rapid introduction of biofuels around the globe. As the UN recognised, agrofuels are the driving force behind last year's food crisis.
Faced with this, Virgin conceded that first-generation biofuels may not be the final solution, but have conveniently found the answer: ‘second-generation’ biofuels. These are sold as a refined and scientific solution to the failings of first-gen agrofuels, but with a great caveat: even if they don’t work, "the history of aviation is full of people doing the impossible".
Unfortunately second generation biofuels have exactly the same destructive impact as the first generation. First there's the issue of supply: the plane needed 150,000 coconouts to fly from London to Paris, despite being only 5% agrofuel. Imagine the amount of land needed to fuel all the planes departing Heathrow.
Aviation may be full of people "doing the impossible", but there are some things which simply can't be done. In 2003, Sir David King, then chief scientist for the Labour government, stated that there was no green alternative to aviation fuel. There still isn't. Rolling out a full programme of biofuel aircraft would lead to deforestation, food shortages and millions of climate refugees. Ask yourself: are you willing to give up eating to fly to Spain?