08. 06. 2007

A Branson pickle?

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Richard Branson had one of those days yesterday. He flew back from Africa (doing stuff with one of his charities out there), launched a new Virgin train which will now run on 20% biodiesel, lobbied Gordon Brown (who was launching it with him), and then descended on the Cheltenham Science Festival to be subjected to an hour’s worth of questions from the Green Movement’s very own Jeremy Paxman (that’s me, apparently, according to David Cameron – but that’s another story!) and several hundred festival-goers keen to work out what’s put the green in the Branson brands.

Anyone feeling a bit gloomy about climate change and the state of the environment should be obliged to spend an hour with Richard Branson. This man does answers to problems like Cassandra did apocalyptic prophecy. Inadequate efforts on my part to flag up growing concerns about today’s biofuels bonanza (especially the really barmy stuff going on in the United States or Indonesia) were politely batted away as issues that could be dealt with relatively easily. I ended up feeling as if my reservations were somehow unworthy of me!

I’m not quite sure whether or not we really “nailed it” – the pros and cons of the biofuels debate are immensely complicated, and there are a lot of very sophisticated arguments along the way. But it was certainly uplifting stuff!

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08. 06. 2007
Mark Sharp

Given the mounting evidence and concern against biofuels I am still amazed at the amount of effort being thrown at it. But I shouldn't be really, in the short-term it's a quick cheap win to green credentials.

In the end, though, given the choice between running trains or cars on biofuel, I think I prefer trains.

11. 06. 2007
Sean Furey

The biofuels argument is not clear cut because re-using waste vegetable oil as biodiesel has got to be good idea, hasn't it? (as much as anything can be unequivocally a good idea)

I do agree using brand new Indonesian palm oil as deforestation-diesel for our trains or Toyota Landcruisers is clearly madness.

12. 06. 2007

Was he asked in what way his proposed new business class only transatlantic air route would improve fuel use efficiency?

And what's the carbon footprint of a tourist spaceflight?

12. 06. 2007

Branson flew back from Africa after being made a tribal elder by the Masai, to celebrate Virgin Atlantic's new flights from London to Nairobi. Africa is on the the front line of climate catastrophe. Branson's airline is helping to fuel this catastrophe.

We have just heard that the mix of biofuel being used in Branson's trains includes palm oil, one of the primary causes of forest destruction, responsible for almost 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. There is currently no certified sustainable source of palm oil. Branson's trains are now helping to fuel this deforestation.

Of course Gordon Brown was there to launch the Virgin train. Gord wants to be seen doing anything supposedly 'green' on transport, to help deflect attention from the fact that he is supporting the biggest expansion of airports the UK has ever seen, that is set to wipe out the UK's chance of tackling global warming.

Jonathon, it's not surprising that you are writing with a positive spin about Branson given that Virgin Atlantic are one your partners in Forum for the Future.

'Uplifting stuff' indeed.

16. 06. 2007

One of our BCA members has been a bit hot under the collar about Branson. The snippet below was from the Guardian in February (I think there was a cartoon to go with it):

Blazing a trail

Leighton King, from the Devon community group, Bovey Climate Action, is less than impressed with Richard Branson's Virgin Earth Challenge - the great man's mega-bucks incentive for scientists to invent a way to suck carbon from the air. He writes: "In honour of Richard and his offering such a wonderful prize while he continues to fly his aircraft, we have started referring to contrails in the sky as 'Bransons'. Please feel free to spread this a bit further." Happy to oblige, Leighton.

22. 06. 2007
Gage Williams


I think we are attempting to achieve a task that is too difficult, namely converting energy crops into bio-ethanol so as to replace gasoline and diesel currently used for transport. It would be far smarter to grow biomass such as miscanthus, SRC willow and couple that with wood waste and forest/sawmill trimmins and use these as feedstocks for pyrolysis. The pyrolysis would convert these to electricity, heat and charcoal ('organic coal'). The charcoal can then be pelletised to replace heating oil. The heating oil can then be used for transportation.

Charcoal has a CV of 32 MJ/kg compared to heating oil with a CV of 42 MJ/kg. Therefoere 1.3 tonnes of pelletised charcoal can replace one tonne of heating oil. Each tonne of heating oil saved, saves 3.15 tonnes of CO2e emissions. A similar equationcan be arrived at when converting from gas heating to pelletised charcoal heating.

If Bush had said that he wished to replace all fossil fuelled heating with biomass it would have been a far easier target to achieve than his push for 35 billion gallons of bio-ethanol.


26. 06. 2007
Jonathon Porritt

[Re biffvernon 12 June 07 and BransonWatch 12 June 07]

Harking back to Branson and his biofuels, he wasn’t exactly grilled at the Cheltenham Science Festival on “net carbon balances”, let alone the degree to which biofuels could really make a substantive difference in terms of substituting for jet fuel/kerosene. As it happens, all calculations show that even if it was possible to do some kind of partial substitution (at 5%, 10% or perhaps even 15%), on top of all the substitutions currently under way for ground-based transport fuels, the competition for land would become fierce and hugely damaging to the interests of poorer countries.

Biofuel advocates all argue that we’ve got to “test things out” with the first generation biofuels (from wheat, palm oil, sugar, corn or whatever) in order to reap the full benefits of “second generation biofuels”) – using waste products from agricultural forestry, or grasses like switchgrass and miscanthus. But these second generation biofuels are still some years off.

The idea that “you can’t have the one without the other” strikes me as pretty dodgy, especially if the costs of the first generation fuels turn out to be as serious as some people now believe them to be. And that debate is only just seriously under way.

04. 07. 2009
mark dowding

Biofuels is already a loser, the land surface already needed for food and 'lebensraum', i.e. living space*.
Only hydrogen will work, or, at least biogas, in the long term.
*For both human and non-human life, as animals and plants.
Unless the deserts are being reclaimed, we can all forget it.
Hydrogen will prove to be the answer, its a matter of designing an engine that exploits the water vapor exhaust.

28. 06. 2007
Sarah Daly


I was at the Cheltenham Science Festival and was, as ever, intrigued by Richard Branson. He is first and foremost an entrepreneur and a businessman - he makes no excuse for that. But he is also a deeply ethical man who DOES think about the impact of what he does. I believe he is driven to find sustainable solutions not least because he knows the mood has changed and this will give him enormous market advantage. He admits there is a long way to go, but he is pouring millions into R&D. Some of it will make modest gains - others are more radical, pretty risky attempts to innovate and gain IP advantage on new technologies that could make his organisations and supply-chains billions of pounds - as well as ameliorating the carbon issues.

We have to be realistic that this will be an ever-changing world of discovery as we all try to make conscious incremental changes to the way we live and do business. It is wildly unrealistic to think that in the western world we will suddenly revert to living the good life in local, sustainable communities.

But on a larger scale we have the opportunity to let technology and innovation drive the change to meet the challenges. Meanwhile this will create commercial opportunities, jobs and hopefully a wider awareness of the true principles of sustainability - whereby we all have a social and environmental conscience whilst continuing to enjoy everything our wonderful planet has to offer.

Branson is having a damned good go at driving towards solutions that will mean we can continue to travel with less impact - that's the kind of solution we need and we should be praising and celebrating his attempts to influence our political and business leaders to support sustainable capitalism as a driver for change. We are all aware, as he is, that there is no merit in swopping one problem for another but let's give the guy a chance - this is a massive task and new technologies need to be tested. The typical British mindset of criticising first really drives me mad! We all know there will be trial and error. Positive thinking and constructive team working is what we need. Less of the doom and gloom merchants and more inspiration and praise of innovation should be the order of the day!

Sarah Daly
SkyGreen Developments

29. 06. 2007
Jonathon Porritt

(Re: Gage Williams, June 22)

I couldn’t agree with you more. I think the bio-ethanol boom will lead to some kind of bio-ethanol bust – the point at which people get to recognise the difference in good bio-ethanol (or bio-diesel) and bad bio-ethanol (or bio-diesel). I just hope the second generation of biofuels kick in before too much damage is done in the transition.

But your most important observation relates to heat. What is it about politicians here in the UK that makes them blind to heat. It’s not like that in Scandinavia, the Netherlands or Germany. The recent Energy White Paper was really, really weak on addressing the challenge producing the heat we need both more efficiently and more sustainably.

DTI has never given any serious attention to this issue – and the new EU target for securing 20% of all our energy from renewables (not just electricity) has put DTI into a total panic. Few people have as yet clocked what that overall target looks like when broken down for each major area of energy consumption: 12% of our transport fuels, 18% of the heat we need, and 34% of our electricity from renewables to make up that total of 20%.

18% of all the heat we use from renewables! You’d better be right about the viability of some of the new pyrolysis technologies, and the possibility of producing huge amounts of “organic coal”. But certainly some exciting times ahead.


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