The world's first commercial aircraft powered partly by biofuel took off from Heathrow yesterday to a storm of criticism from climate change experts, who insisted it was nothing more than Sir Richard Branson's latest "nonsensical" publicity stunt.
The Virgin Atlantic 747 flew from London to Amsterdam using a 20 per cent biofuel mix of coconut and babassu oil in one of its four main fuel tanks.
Sir Richard said the "historic" flight was the first step towards using biofuels on commercial flights. But campaigners said that carbon savings from bio-fuels, often made from organic materials such as wheat, sugarcane and palm oil, were "negligible".
Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner, said: "Biofuels are a major distraction in the fight against climate change.
"There is mounting evidence that the carbon savings from biofuels are negligible. If Virgin was really serious about reducing the aviation industry's impact on the environment, it would support calls for aircraft emissions to be included in the Climate Change Bill."
The World Development Movement said yesterday that even if all flights in the country used biofuels, the reduction in British aviation's contribution to climate change would be cancelled out by one year's growth in flights.
Its head of policy, Pete Hardstaff, said: "This is nothing more than a Virgin publicity stunt with dangerous consequences for the planet.
"The concept of using bio-fuels and continuing the rate of expansion in the aviation industry is nonsensical.
"If Richard Branson is serious about combating climate change, instead of experimenting with biofuels, he should be backing the campaign to include aviation in the targets to reduce emissions in the Climate Change Bill.
"Biofuels are generally sourced from crops that displace the production of staple foods. Consequently, food prices are rocketing as those crops are diverted from food to fuel. If this pattern continues and expands, millions of people in the developing world will see the price of staple foods soar out of their reach."
Aviation is one of the fastest growing contributors to carbon emissions, producing about 3 per cent of all EU CO2 emissions – more than oil refineries or steel works. Experts forecast that airlines will account for 5 per cent of global warming gases in 2050. The forthcoming Climate Change Bill aims to reduce CO2 output by at least 60 per cent by 2050.
Last week the Government announced a study into the environmental and economic impacts of biofuels after growing concerns over the knock-on effects of their production.
Research has found that, in some cases, converting land to biofuel production caused many times more emissions than the savings the fuels delivered. And the demand for palm oil has also been linked to human rights abuses, with conversion of millions of hectares of forests into plantations in Indonesia said to have destroyed the lives of indigenous peoples.
Sir Richard said the oils used in the Virgin biofuel came from existing rainforest and derelict plantations, and did not compete with food supplies or cause deforestation. Speaking from the Virgin hangar at Heathrow, he said: "What we are using today isn't going to be the fuel that we are using when we come to commercial use." He said it was more likely to be an algae, possibly made in sewage plants.