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Virgin boss aims to save the planet

September 27, 2006 By Katharine Sanderson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Airline entrepreneur tackles climate change.

British business mogul Richard Branson made headlines last week by pledging to invest a whopping US$3 billion in programmes and businesses that tackle climate change. Less than a week later, he is back on the trail, announcing plans to cut carbon emissions in British aviation by up to 25%.

Both moves are winning applause from environmental groups and scientists, although they note that the money is an investment rather than a donation, and that the scheme for air emissions looks extremely optimistic.

Branson wrote to the major airlines operating in Britain two weeks ago, and is organizing a forum for them through his company Virgin Atlantic. He has suggested a number of initiatives he wants to see implemented by all airlines, worldwide.

"What we're suggesting would save over 150 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year," he claims. That would be 25% of total global airline emissions.

It all adds up

Each initiative suggested is small, but could add up to definite fuel savings if widely adopted, says Douglas Thompson of the University of Glasgow's aerospace engineering department.

At the forefront of Branson's scheme is a plan to tow planes to runways, instead of making them taxi there. The amount of fuel saved this way, as a percentage of that used during a seven-hour transatlantic flight, would be tiny, says Thompson. But, he adds, "each thing is an improvement."

Branson also advises that pilots start their descents from higher altitude, to improve efficiency. And a raft of other small steps to make aircraft lighter and so more fuel efficient are suggested, such as using carbon-fibre oxygen bottles, and even painting aircraft with lighter paint.

Streamlined air-traffic control systems would make for better efficiency and less time in the skies. "The mess of European air traffic control is punishing the environment," says Branson.

Climate sceptics

Others don't think the changes will add up to a 25% reduction in emissions.

"It's playing around at the margins, there's very little going on in the air," says Peter Lockley, a spokesman for the UK Aviation Environment Federation (AEF).

Jeff Gazzard, also at the AEF, adds that towing planes out to runways will not be practical. "We don't know of any airport in the world that would be prepared to introduce this system," he says. It would be much easier, and similarly effective, to have aircraft taxi on half engines, he says. "That's practical, they can do that now."

Gazzard guesses Branson's plan would actually cut emissions by only 1%. There are more effective ways to cut emissions, says Thompson, including switching to synthetic fuels.

A spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic says that preliminary talks with the British Aviation Authority are being held, in an attempt to get it to implement some of Branson's suggestions.

Digging deep

Branson's biggest push towards putting the brakes on climate change came last week at the Clinton Global Initiative, a meeting where he pledged to invest ten years' worth of profits from his transport business (expected to be $3 billion) into climate-change initiatives.

Branson is not the only celebrity digging deep to save the planet. In California, film producer Stephen Bing has pledged $40 million to the campaign to pass the state's proposition 87, which will see oil taxed as high as 6%, with the proceeds going towards alternative energy vehicles, fuel stations and research.

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