Next Step for Green: Friendly Skies?

"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."


What's Ahead?

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."

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