Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Branson's Biofuel Greenwash, a Babassu Nut Boon?

It is extremely difficult to pass on reviewing virtually anything pitched by marketeering showman Sir Richard Branson. His history of attention grabbing stunts is peppered with case studies in how to generate organic media coverage that adds (ads?) bang for buck to commercial campaigns.

Which one is the babassu nut?

His latest stunt sees Sir Richard transforming the airline industry and saving the world through support for biofuels as an alternative or supplement to ye olde JP2 jet fuel. On the 24th of February a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 (using GE propulsion ?) traveled from London Heathrow to Schiphol in Amsterdam with one of its tanks allegedly full of a biofuel made of coconut and babassu oils, making it the first airline in the world to use such a "renewable energy source". The biofuel constituted an approximate 20% of fuel used, the rest being conventional jet fuel.

Branson claims that the flight was important for generating data about allegedly decreased emissions from the biofuel mix (the EU claims airline emissions count for approximately 3% of total "greenhouse gas" emissions - but jet fuel particulate exhaust is also a contributor to "global dimming" and, therefore, to global cooling, so the Bloated Plutocrat insists it's a wash) and for demonstrating the possibility of diminished airline dependence on fossil fuels. However, organizations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and others had a field day. Greenpeace's chief scientist Doug Parr called the whole thing a "high altitude greenwash". Given that the Amazonian babassu nut is a key ingredient in many soaps, he may be onto something....

Meanwhile, European Federation of Transport and the Environment's Director, Jos Dings, says that biofuel does not equal environmentally friendly. "It depends crucially on what sort of biofuel you use, how much land that biofuel actually uses," he said. "If Virgin would power its entire fleet with biofuel, it would have to use about half of the UK's arable land."

But Branson and his partners in the effort, Boeing, General Electric and Imperium Renewables, do have answers for their critics."Virgin Atlantic will move forward rapidly to produce algae" to make biofuel, said Branson. "We're talking to a lot of sewage plants about setting up algae plants above and using a lot of the CO2 coming off those sewage plants" to feed the algae.

And it's not like he isn't putting his money where his mouth is, committing to invest some $ 3 billion in Virgin Fuels, a commercial enterprise to develop alternative fuels - an enterprise not hurt by Virgin Atlantic's biofueled flights. And a year ago pundits claimed that a biofuel mix couldn't be used for jet propulsion because it would congeal in the ultra-low temp, high altitude operating environment. Problem solved with this initiative.

The Bleeding Heart is impressed. He writes, "Branson is a socially responsible entrepreneur who has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to fighting global climate change. When commerce genuinely acts in the public interest we should recognize and reward the effort". The Bloated Plutocrat, less so. "Who? That long-haired, furry gobbed gambler? He's no entrepreneur. He's a common showman. No surprise that he's grasped onto this environmental change lark to squeeze a few pennies out of the youth of today".

Regardless of whether you are in the Bloated Plutocrat's or the Bleeding Heart's camp on this, you have to admire Branson's stuntsmanship. Whether this is first and foremost about commerce or the environment, once again he has shown the ability to mix it up, successfully obfuscate, and turn the media spotlight on himself and the Virgin empire.

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