Biofuels' virgin flight an important step

As the price of oil passes $100/barrel, motorists aren’t the only ones that suffer. So does the airline industry, which has relied on cheap fuel to get people where they want to go quickly and affordably. Now that the price of oil has quadrupled in the last six years, alternative fuels like biofuels may help to keep oil from getting even more expensive. And since the combustion of oil for flights is a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, biofuels may help mitigate climate change as well. Thus Virgin Atlantic planned this week’s flight many months ago as a pioneer to help usher in a greener airline industry.

But recent studies, including one by my colleagues at Princeton have shown that the push into biofuels created some unintended consequences and production processes do not yet achieve the climate mitigation we all hoped for. The reliance on edible crops like corn for ethanol in the US has contributed to rising global food prices. And it turns out that the cultivation process for our corn, its refinery into ethanol, its transportation, and the lower energy content make it mostly on par with using gasoline in terms of emissions. So, the current generation of biofuels is not the silver bullet many hoped it would be. But does that make Virgin Atlantic’s flight just a publicity stunt?

I say no – it is a crucial precedent that shows the world that airplanes can use biofuels to power their flights. Now it is our responsibility to support the development of next-generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol off of bio-wastes like what Vinod Khosla supports in Georgia. But we also must not trick ourselves that biofuels can solve our cost and climate concerns. Biofuels can only supply a small part of our current demand of liquid fuels. We need much more efficiency in our vehicles, plug-in hybrids to run on wind and solar, and better public transit like Japan’s bullet trains to compete with carbon intensive air travel. Of course we shouldn’t look to an airline to stop people from flying so much – but we can support them when they take precedent-setting steps forward within their business.

We should put a moratorium on new production capacity of food-competing biofuels until the inflation of food prices gets under control – but let’s also recognize the transformation that took place as average people now see they can run their vehicles on something other than gasoline. And it’s not like Virgin Atlantic pioneered the first coal-to-liquids flight, which would double the carbon dioxide emissions of jet fuel.

Our efforts at mitigation will inevitably be a mix of successes and failures. It is up to us to try to anticipate the unintended consequences of alternatives to unsustainable fossil fuels. As long as we don’t have an attitude that stifles innovation and sincere efforts, we can together solve the global warming crisis upon us.

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