The media is in a tizz, Richard Branson is beaming from every orifice and coconut plantation owners are keeping their fingers crossed because a commercial airline has just flown the first flight to be powered partly by biofuels.
Sir Richard claims it’s a major breakthrough in replacing fossil fuels, while GE Aviation, Boeing and other aviation companies are working to perfect the technology.
Various organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are outraged, with some reason when you consider that 19.5 billion tonnes of aviation fuel was burned in the US alone in 2006. Where would that amount of biofuel come from?
But that’s not the point I want to make.
The question that’s often put is “should we use fossil fuels or biofuels and, if so, which biofuels can best replace fossil fuels?”.
In the case of aviation, the reason we need so much cheap fuel is to maintain our obsession with cheap travel so we can go where we like, when we like, for as little as possible.
If we try to maintain a vast supply of cheap fuel while simultaneously curbing fossil fuel use, then the only way it can be done is through converting vast swathes of food-growing land to biofuel production and clearing most of the world’s remaining forests and jungles.
Do we really want to cause food shortages and massive, direct environmental damage just to so we can continue travel cheaply?
If fossil fuel use needs to be curbed to reduce the impact of global warming, to make declining reserves last longer, or even just to cut smog in our cities, then why not simply stop travelling as much or as cheaply?
If replacing fossil fuels with biofuels is going to not only compound the problem, but worsen it, why go down that path at all?
It’s not a grey area. It’s not fuzzy. It’s not difficult.
If we’re running out of resources because we travel too readily and cheaply, then we should stay put.
If we do enormous, irrevocable damage because we pour pollutants into the environment when we travel, then we should stay where we are.
Biofuels are the wrong answer to the wrong question, “can we find a substitute for fossil fuels?”
The real question is “should we clear food crops and forests or should we clear our departure lounges”
It really is that simple.