Friday, June 01, 2007

branson's biofuel bunkum

I've joined another group blog.

UK Watch trawls a mix of good UK anti-capitalist sources, not just the big media but also places like Red Pepper and Corporate Watch, saving you a lot of legwork and feeding you lashings of progressive radical politics.

They recently launched a blog section and I was flattered to be asked to be one of the contributors. The gang currently comprise about 15 activists, authors, anarchists, academics and possibly some other people whose defining characteristics begin with a.

As with my posts over at The Sharpener, I'll put a notice here any time I stick something up there.

Just put my inaugural UK Watch one up, a weep-into-my-hands at Virgin's announcement that they're looking into making biofuels for their aircraft, called Branson's Biofuel Bunkum.

[no comments on this post; the place to leave them is over on UK Watch]


UPDATE 2 APRIL 09: As UK Watch is offline, I'm republishing the posts from there on their poInter-posts here.



Virgin and Boeing announce they are looking into biofuels for aircraft.

There is every reason to think they’ll be unsuccessful. Let’s hope they are. Flying emits colossal quantities of CO2. A jumbo jet emits more in a minute than a household’s electricity does in a whole year. But still, kerosene is far better for the environment than biofuels.

Virgin are “planning to test a range of biofuel sources over the next year, including soya, vegetables and newspaper.”

The newspaper thing is surely not to be taken seriously, so let’s move on to the others. As with biodiesel and ethanol for cars, you have to ask where they are thinking of growing it. To grow oilseed rape for the UK’s cars would take around five times the UK’s arable land; we can safely assume we’d need at least several UKs for our planes.

Meanwhile, the forests we’d clear to plant this stuff need to stay up to slow the warming process.

The big soya growing region is Brazil. One of the main causes of Amazon deforestation is soya production, mostly for livestock feed. Imagine how that’d expand if we were to grow our plane fuel too. Taking down the Amazon forever for a brief luxury of a holiday flight; a whole new meaning to ‘Virgin rainforest destruction’.

Deforestation is a serious contribution to climate change; it is responsible for around 18 percent of emissions, more than all transport combined. Swapping oil for deforestation is not a move to carbon neutrality. In all likelihood, it’s far worse.

A recent study of the impact of biofuel found, “even when you exclude emissions for factors that go hand in hand with production, such as transport and fertilization, the emissions when using palm oil are at least 10 times higher than when coal or mineral oil is used”.

The crunch is worsened by the increasing population; there are 6 billion of us now, by 2050 there’ll be 10 billion people and every one of them will need to eat. That will mean more wild land goes under the plough, exacerbating climate change.

But at least feeding people is essential to their wellbeing. A week in Barbados is not. Yet when there’s competition for arable land between feeding the poor and fuelling the rich, the poor will starve. Biofuels are an industry based on the obscenity of feeding vehicles instead of people.

The science is clear. If we want to have a good chance of avoiding runaway climate change, we have about 25 years to reduce global emissions by 60%. We need to be well on the way within the next few years.

At present, there are very particular problems with biofuels in planes. Biodiesel forms a gel at the kind of low temperatures planes are subjected to. So we’re looking for an unknown breakthrough technology to be discovered, developed, mass produced and have totally replaced the current global fleet in the next decade or so. It’s simply not going to happen in time.

Aviation, unlike electricity generation or food production, is the one industry that has no technology to help us climb down from the precipice. It’s the one industry that needs to be all but eradicated. Fortunately, also unlike food and electricity, it’s an industry we can all readily live without.

If Branson were to ground his fleet until the fuel existed, I’d take him seriously. But in pinning hopes on veggie pie in the sky ideas whilst keeping burning oil at a gargantuan rate, he’s clearly not bothered about reducing emissions in the necessary timeframe.

He’s just like carbon offset companies selling spurious conscience-clearing, Heathrow Airport announcing the new eco-friendly terminal or BP putting solar panels on a handful of petrol stations. It’s a decoy to make us feel like they’ve got the problem in hand so we don’t decry them as the climate criminals they are.