With flying being one of the greatest contributors to growing carbon emissions, airlines are scrambling to find ways to clean up their image — carbon offsets, recycling, zero emissions targets — but it is up to some scrutiny and debate as to whether these measures will be effective.
Nevertheless, it shouldn't stop the airlines from trying. With New Zealand's government declaring itself to actively become the world's first carbon neutral nation with sustainability underpinning the "four pillars of the economy, society, the environment, and nationhood," Air New Zealand is planning to launch the first test of a commercial 747 airliner flying partially on biofuels, as part of a deal between the airline, engine maker Rolls-Royce and aircraft manufacturer Boeing to study greener flying, with the first flight slated to take off late 2008 or early 2009 (without passengers).
One of the plane's four engines will be powered by a combination of kerosene and biofuel — though it is not clear yet which type of biofuel is to be used.
Virgin Atlantic — along with General Electric and Boeing — is already planning a test commercial flight early next year that will have one engine out of four powered partially or entirely by biofuel.
Even with the airlines jumping on the bandwagon, biofuels have nevertheless garnered some criticism recently as to whether they actually cause more emissions than previously thought. Some critics have pointed out that existing biofuel technologies may actually produce more emissions than conventional fuels, aside from the fact that biofuel crops such as maize and rape require large amounts of land to grow that would actually call for increased deforestation.
There is now growing interest in so-called "second-generation" biofuels, where whole plants are grown and processed specifically for biofuels, rather than parts of food crops, as it is now. Though it would be more efficient in land-use and make for higher emission reductions, the technology is at least a decade away from feasible implementation.