Biofuels a solution? you're pulling my...

Let's be clear, we at Plane Stupid don't like getting our kit off, not in this sort of weather, but we're prepared to go to some lengths  to get word out about the bare faced cheek of biofuels.

The launch of the countries first commercial biofuel flight from Birmingham is a terrible departure for aviation. While the industry claim that biofuels offer a greener future for flights, respected environmental and social justice organisations from Friends of the Earth to The World Development Movement and Christian Aid believe that they will make a bad situation worse. Why?

Because waste veg oil as a solution just doesn't add up. Demand from road transport vehicles for recycled oil currently far outstrips supply. Optimistic estimates suggest that at best the UK produces enough waste veg oil to replace 0.6% of UK vehicle diesel. With road transport being much more efficient than flight, anyone with basic maths can see that used veg oils will never be a viable solution. A recent article in the aviation trade press highlighted that many insiders don't think the groundless hype will stand up to scrutiny either.

The first commercial biofuels flight launch followed a delay of some months, after Thomson found they couldn’t source enough used cooking oil even for one short haul flight a week from one airport. They ended up importing it from the States. Not only that, but they have recently announced, without explanation, that they won't be running the once a week commercial biofuel fights to Lanzeroti they proudly promised to the media and customers. They're now promising to run daily flights from the new year.

So what was the stunt all about? The industry is legally obliged to meet carbon reduction targets, and currently, biofuels are registered as being a way to collect carbon brownie points. This is despite widespread recognition that the only commercially used options are based on nasties like palm oil and jatropha, which have already been responsible for the trashing of vast tracts of rainforest. They are a massively inefficient way of making fuel that destroys the very ecosystems we need to control runaway climate change. While encouraging massive land grabs that rob the worlds poorest people of their homes and food. Thomson think that by softening up the public with recycled oil, they can get a nice green sheen on the term 'biofuels' before turning the system over to the neocolonialist disaster of mass plant oil imports.

Those of us who took part in the action had spoken directly to colleagues in Columbia the previous month who described the devastating impact palm oil production was already having on the forest they lived in. 7 hours in the cells and a charge of 'causing an annoyance' pass quickly when you can still hear their voices in your head.

What's wrong with biofuels?

Environmentalists are often accused of being a little hard to please. Along comes this great techno fix and we stubbornly question its credentials. We start mumbling about corporate greenwash and false solutions, and ask who stands to benefit. Is the latest solution intended to prevent climate change or to line the pockets of corporate bastards?

Virgin's ventures into biofuels are a great example of this dilemma. The government told us that aviation can’t expand unless it miraculously becomes sustainable - so last year Virgin launched a spectacular stunt, flying from London to Paris on a plane which used 5% biofuels. It was widely hailed by the press as a revolution in the skies; one which would solve climate change and doubtless wipe out jet lag as well. But there are several reasons why Virgin's pilot will never be rolled out widely.

Not only do most of them require more carbon to produce than oil based products, but agrofuels have a catastrophic impact on the ecosystems we rely on to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. The need to grow fuel has exascerbated the already widespread deforestation of the world's ancient woodlands as greedy profiteers send in the bulldozers. As more land is taken from long-established forests and turned over to fuel mono-crops, the earth becomes less able to turn CO2 into oxygen. This is very bad news indeed.

It's not just the planet which is being killed by agrofuels: people around the world are being forced off their land so that western agrobusinesses can grow petrol-plants. Widespread commercial biofuel production has turned land which should be used to grow food used for fuel production and indigenous people driven off the land into extinction. The impact of this is stark: every year an estimated 100 million people die as a result of the rapid introduction of biofuels around the globe. As the UN recognised, agrofuels are the driving force behind last year's food crisis.

Faced with this, Virgin conceded that first-generation biofuels may not be the final solution, but have conveniently found the answer: ‘second-generation’ biofuels. These are sold as a refined and scientific solution to the failings of first-gen agrofuels, but with a great caveat: even if they don’t work, "the history of aviation is full of people doing the impossible".

Unfortunately second generation biofuels have exactly the same destructive impact as the first generation. First there's the issue of supply: the plane needed 150,000 coconouts to fly from London to Paris, despite being only 5% agrofuel. Imagine the amount of land needed to fuel all the planes departing Heathrow.

Aviation may be full of people "doing the impossible", but there are some things which simply can't be done. In 2003, Sir David King, then chief scientist for the Labour government, stated that there was no green alternative to aviation fuel. There still isn't. Rolling out a full programme of biofuel aircraft would lead to deforestation, food shortages and millions of climate refugees. Ask yourself: are you willing to give up eating to fly to Spain?