For years, the "green" movement has battled to secure a place within the American national consciousness. But now it looks as if it's about to take off -- literally.
Sure, the travel industry has been toying with small steps in environmental consciousness — like starting recycling programs on passenger jets, and offering hybrid rental cars. But at the end of this month, Virgin Atlantic will take a bigger step (while ideally leaving a smaller footprint) when it tests the first biofuel-run commercial airline flight.
"It's important for the industry, and we have to start somewhere," says Virgin Atlantic spokesperson Brooke Lawer.
But passengers aiming to reduce their carbon footprint should know exactly what biofuel is, why it can be good for the environment, and also why it could be potentially worse.
The Demand for Green Travel
Until now, travelers' options for going green have been basic and relatively unheralded, especially when it comes to flying.
"Airlines definitely have a long way to go as far as going green," said Melissa Evans of Rezhub.com, an online travel site that donates 20 percent of profits to green organizations.
She noted that airlines have it a lot harder than the hotel industry, which has scores of hotels touting energy-efficient lighting and water-saving options like a pass on your daily linen change.
What airlines can do: implement on-board recycling programs, use lighter materials to burn less fuel and introduce carbon offset programs — a small donation passengers can make to offset the environmental impact of their trips.
Virgin Atlantic has done all three, not that too many people seem to care yet.
Case in point: The travel Web site Expedia.com launched a carbon offset program in 2006. It's one of the largest programs of its kind in the world, but thus far the company has only sold offsets for 60,000 round-trip flights.
"Overall, it's a small number of customers, but growing," said Expedia spokesperson Katie Deines. "Purchase behavior follows consumer consciousness."
According to Expedia's qualitative research, in 2007, 77 percent of consumers said they'd have a more favorable opinion of a travel company that offers sustainable products. But are they willing to pay more for it?
"It will be interesting to see," said Deines, comparing the trend to the increasing demand for pricier organic food. "If it's delivering a value and people can see that value, they'll be willing to pay more."
Not everyone agrees. In October of last year, a survey by the Travel Industry Organization found that while more than half of adults say they're likely to choose environmentally friendly airlines, hotels and rental cars, only 13 percent would be willing to pay more for it.
"The results of the survey suggest that awareness of a travel service supplier's efforts to operate in an environmentally responsible manner may be sufficient to attract additional patronage, but not at a significantly higher fare or rate," said Suzanne Cook, TIA's senior vice president of research.
Virgin Atlantic understands that point, but they also don't care.
"There is a tipping point, and we're not there yet," Lawer said of the questionable consumer demand.
She declined to speculate on what additional cost a biofuel-run flight would eventually bring the consumer, but quickly added that it's also not Virgin's main concern at this point.
"We're making baby steps here. We just want to try. And if we don't start now, then we're going to be in trouble."
Trouble is, biofuel isn't always environmentally friendly.
The Dark Side Biofuel
Just last week, two studies called the environmental efficiency of biofuel into question — just as the energy source seems poised to replace our dependence on fossil fuels.
The way biofuel works is by mass-producing ethanol crops to be burned as a fuel source. The idea is that the carbon burned in a jet engine, for example, is offset by the carbon those crops have already taken out of the atmosphere.
It can work. But for anyone watching the bottom line and cutting corners, it can also backfire.
"'Business as usual' for biofuel is probably really bad from a climate perspective," said Nathaniel Greene, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Climate is tightly interwoven," he continued, noting that often biofuel crops are created on land that's been stripped of whatever ecosystem was already there. "Anytime you clear a savannah or a prairie or a rainforest, there's all sorts of ecology and wildlife that was on that land. So, the biggest issue is how you grow your crops."
Anytime you burn a fuel source, you put carbon into the air. So the real benefit to using biofuel is balancing your carbon footprint with the production of your fuel source. "But if at the same time you're chopping down an ecosystem to create your biofuel, you won't have this so-called balance. And you can actually be much worse off from a climate perspective," Greene went on. "If you don't get this macro question right, then the details are unimportant."
Virgin is mum on those details at the moment. Lawer was unable to comment on the production of its biofuel, as well as its chemical make-up. "It will be a hybrid flight — a combination of regular fuel and alternative fuel," she said.
She said it's really more about the message, the precedent that Virgin is setting.
"It will prove that a commercial aircraft can fly on alternative fuel. If we can prove that these things are possible now, then we just keep working on it into the future."
"Those potential innovations are what's encouraging — because both consumers are venture capitalists are working really hard to bring them about," Greene said.
Still, he added, it's not just about finding a fuel source to replace petroleum.
"If we don't also focus on vehicle fuel economy, we are going to demand so much fuel that none of the solutions will work out," he said, calling for a conjunctive goal to cut down on our consumption. "Then we have a chance to make the fuel environmentally sustainable."
Though Virgin Atlantic's upcoming flight is the first of its kind, it will be a while before you will be able to book a seat on a carbon-balanced flight.
"We will have to see what comes out of this test," Lawer said. "There will naturally be lots of analysis before moving to the next step."