Virgin guilty of "high altitude greenwash"

Last edited 25 February 2008 at 10:59am -
24 February, 2008

Virgin Atlantic was today accused of an environmental con-trick after the airline prepared to fly a test plane between Heathrow and Amsterdam powered partly by a biofuel made from babassu nut and coconut oil.

Greenpeace claimed that production of this biofuel could lead to massive greenhouse gas emissions and that Virgin's support for a third runway at Heathrow airport betrayed the company's true attitude towards climate change.

Bosses at Virgin have been vocal supporters of a third runway at Heathrow (1), a proposal which is set to increase the airport's capacity from 480,000 flights per year to 702,000 by 2030 (2). A report from the respected Tyndall centre for Climate Change Research demonstrates how the predicted increase in aviation emissions will single-handedly make it impossible for the UK to meet its responsibilities to tackle climate change (3).

One engine used in today's flight was partially powered by a biofuel made from a combination of babassu nut and coconut oil. Recent scientific studies have shown how the cultivation of biofuels can cause severe damage to the climate, due to "indirect effects" such as the displacement of traditional crops onto newly deforested land (4).

Reacting to the news, Greenpeace chief Scientist Dr. Doug Parr said: "Despite what Virgin want us to believe, today's flight is nothing short of high altitude greenwash. This is a company hell-bent on unrestrained airport expansion, starting with a third runway at Heathrow which would almost double the number of flights from one of the world's biggest airports.

Biofuels can often cause more damage to the environment than fossil fuels, and Virgin is using this flight to divert attention from an irresponsible, business as usual attitude to climate change."

Steve Ridgeway, the chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, claims that limiting growth at Heathrow wouldn't prevent climate change (5). But research shows that if the UK is to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 - a proposal that Gordon Brown is now thought to support - then every other industry in Britain would have to reduce its emissions to zero by that date. Even then, the target would still be missed (6).

So-called "first generation" biofuels - those that are based on existing food crops - have been comprehensively discredited as a solution to transport emissions. The Royal Society and the government's own Environmental Audit Committee have warned that the technology can seriously damage the climate, and both the French and British governments have recently announced reviews into the adoption of biofuel targets, citing mounting concerns over their environmental impact. (7)

For example, the "indirect effects" of biofuel production include an increase in demand for palm oil, which is imported into the EU to be used in the food industry because homegrown rapeseed oil is increasingly being used in biofuels. Palm oil is heavily linked with deforestation in the carbon rich peat swamps of Indonesia, which creates massive greenhouse gas emissions (8).

Dr Parr continued: "The scientific evidence is now clear - using the finite amount of land we have to grow biofuels is bad for the world's poor, bad for biodiversity and bad for the climate. Instead of looking for a magic green bullet, Virgin should focus on the real solution to this problem and call for a halt to relentless airport expansion."

For more contact Greenpeace on 07766 165323 / 0207 865 8255


(4) Searchinger et al, Science, published online 7 Feb 2008:
(7) See: ; ; ;
(8) See

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