This is an obvious PR effort for airlines and aircraft makers to keep air travel relevant and politically favored. (Virgin Atlantic has a whole website section on sustainability). Planes will be burning hydrocarbons and spewing CO2 for decades to come, so the aircraft sector needs to come up with a way to help its image even if there’s not a lot they can do about the substance.
At the time, Wired was appropriately skeptical about the effort, with a balance of praise and criticism of Sir Richard’s stunt.
This morning, the NY Daily News reported some tidbits about the flight from an apperance by Sir Richard in NYC:
Branson, on hand at JFK yesterday [told] us that "the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is not to fly at all. But that's not realistic. You can't walk to England."This suggested a simple back of the envelope calculation. Crude Google search suggested that the average weight of a coconut is 300-500g. So 150,000 coconuts is 45-75 metric tonnes, or about 100-165,000 pounds worth.
So what's the next best thing? "Fly Virgin," Branson laughed. "One hundred percent of all profits from all our airlines are reinvested into finding a cleaner fuel solution. We had an experimental 747 that ran on coconut oil ... but it took 150,000 coconuts for one flight. So now we're looking at developing fuel from algae. If you fly Virgin, you'll support this cause."
Let’s assume best case — 300g coconuts, negligible babbassu oil. Biofuel was only 5% (20% x 25%) of the fuel used on the flight, so pure biofuel would require 2 million pounds of coconuts for this flight.
The flight was 231 miles (or 370 km), while the average fight distance is probably closer to 1000 miles. Since fuel consumption is more proportionate to hours rather than miles, I’m guessing the flight was about half as long as normal, but a 747-400 holds more than twice as many passengers (416) as an average plane.
In 2007, there were 29 million flight departures last year. So if we assumed the world’s airlines together need 10 million times as much fuel as the Virgin flight used, that’s 2 trillion pounds (1 billon tons) of coconuts a year.
How big is that? To quote from an Indian website:
The world production of coconut currently is around 55 million tons, Indonesia having the highest production figures accounting up to around 30% in world figures. The nut is cultivated on around 26 million acres of land throughout the world in more than 90 countries of the world. The production of coconuts has increased significantly during the last decade with the increase in the world demand. The world consumption figure in context of coconut oil is around 3.8 million tons.So converting the global supply of coconut would supply only 5% of the world’s jet fuel needs, leaving nothing for Mounds bars and coconut milk.
World trade in coconut complex is limited as most of the produce is consumed at the place of its production. The countries that have demand supply mismatch usually indulge in the trade of the fruit. The exports of coconuts fluctuates depending upon these factors and hovers around 1800000 tons per year.
Of course there is a broader question as to the economics (let alone energy budget) of the crops-to-fuel biofuel effort. But it’s a shame that people are not doing the simple math to see how little an impact some of these initiatives would actually have on global energy consumption.