The Bio-Fuel Delusion
Virgin Atlantic impresario Richard Branson took some bashing this week for what might fairly be called a dubious demonstration of the potential of bio-fuels for commercial aviation. Virgin Atlantic flew a 747 from London to Amsterdam partially powered by bio-fuel made of coconut and babassu oil. (Babassu is a type of palm—I had to Google it, too.) Ever the showman, Sir Richard drove the point home by gleefully sipping coconut milk through a straw.
I'd wager that no reasonable man (or woman) believes that planting and mowing hectares of palm trees will yield enough bio-fuel to make a measurable dent in the Jet A market. In fact, some environmentalists argue that given the energy, water and other resources necessary to grow and process the palms, the whole idea is a net negative on the greenhouse gas P and L. Predictably, some environmental groups labeled the demonstration a stunt and said what Virgin should really do is join the movement to limit airport expansion at Europe's biggest hubs, including Heathrow and Amsterdam.
Well, it was a stunt. But I'd argue that we ought to have more like it as we bump along toward some solution to the aviation fuel challenge that will be both economically sustainable and environmentally balanced. Palm oil might help a little, but artificially restricting demand by limiting airport growth has been, is and will always be a loser. And this may be why the outer fringe of the green movement seems so wacky to those of us living closer to the real world.
Although I'm skeptical of its ultimate value, Branson's bio-fuel initiative is at least an example of one company—one man, really—stepping up and acting on his own ideas. It also illuminates a growing PR problem the aviation industry will need to address: the role of airplanes in greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, the aviation industry is responsible for only about 3 percent of greenhouse gasses, but that number will rise rapidly as the industry expands, especially the airline and business aviation segments. Branson is at least attempting to do something about it.
Which is more than you can say for the light aircraft slice of the market. Our contribution to greenhouse gasses is so trivial as to be hardly worth considering, but as an industry, we'll have a growing PR problem as the greenhouse gas issue merits ever more popular press attention. It‘s analogous to the airport noise and land use issue. Why, argue the anti-airport Aunt Janes, should a few privileged fat cats who can afford airplanes make the rest of miserable with their din? It would be better to convert the airport into a park. And why, argue the radical global warming Cassandras, should some rich guy be allowed to spew more than his share of carbon into the atmosphere just because he can afford it? Let him take the airlines and not that often, either.
The GA industry hasn't addressed this challenge because it really hasn't come up in a meaningful way yet. It will. Although as an industry we don't talk about it much, there are a couple of trends that show the industry is inching toward wiser use of fuel. One is the growing LSA market. For recreational use—and we all agree that we're not going to get guilt-ridden about recreational flying—LSAs are a smarter way to get to the $100 hamburger. (It's still $100, but we burn fewer gallons.) Second, heavy fuel engines—diesels. Interestingly, the impetus for these is less efficiency and more the growing lack of 100LL on the world market, but the fact is, they are (marginally) more efficient.
Unless someone rewrites the laws of physics, as a means of getting from point A to B, an airplane will never be as green as a plug-in hybrid. But airplanes—especially owner flown airplanes—will always have a legitimate place in the transportation mix because they're capable of a certain kind of fast transportation that nothing else can match, least of all the airlines. As owners and pilots, we don't have to apologize for that. But as Richard Branson did this week, we may sometimes have to explain it by showing that we're paying attention to wiser use of finite resources.