(adds reaction from Friends of the Earth paragraphs 5, 10, 11)
By Nigel Hunt
LONDON, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Nuts picked from Amazon rainforests helped fuel the world’s first commercial airline flight partly powered by renewable energy on Sunday.
A Virgin Atlantic [VA.UL] jumbo jet flew from London to Amsterdam with one of its fuel tanks filled with a bio-jet blend including babassu oil and coconut oil. A Virgin Atlantic statement said the biofuel mix provided 25 percent of the fuel for the test flight.
The biofuels blend on the Virgin flight contained 20 percent neat biofuel and 80 percent conventional jet fuel. Virgin founder Richard Branson said tests had shown it was possible to fly with a 40 percent blend.
"Today marks a vital breakthrough for the whole airline industry," Branson told reporters in a hangar at Heathrow airport prior to the flight’s departure.
Environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth said biofuels were a distraction in the fight to cut carbon dioxide emissions, and that related carbon savings would be negated by increased airline travel.
British billionaire Branson said it was unlikely the nut of the wild growing babassu palm would play a key role as airlines turn to renewable fuel sources to cut the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.
"We did not want to use biofuels such as corn oil which were competing with staple food sources," he said, adding he believed algae produced in places like sewage treatment farms were the most likely future source of renewable fuel for the airline industry.
Biofuels, which are currently mainly produced from crops such as grain, vegetable oils and sugar, are seen by advocates as a way to cut emissions of greenhouse gases and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
There has been concern, however, that an expansion in the area of crops grown for energy has helped drive up food prices, and some scientists have questioned the environmental benefits of so-called first generation biofuels.
Friends of the Earth said in a statement: "There is mounting evidence the carbon savings from these crop-based fuels will be small at best."
"Even if every plane leaving the UK was able to run on biofuels from tomorrow, any carbon savings would be wiped out in less than 10 years by the rapid growth of the aviation industry."
Many scientists believe so-called second generation biofuels, which could be made from products such as municipal waste, will provide more substantial environmental benefits without competing with food crops for land.
Branson, whose Virgin Group business spans an airline, a rail service, drinks, hotels and leisure, has committed to spending all the profits from his airline and rail business to combat global warming by cutting carbon emissions.
Last year, Virgin started to power some of its trains using a fuel containing 20 percent biodiesel produced mainly using British rapeseed oil blended with U.S. soybean oil and palm oil from the Far East. (Additional reporting by John Joseph; Editing by Caroline Drees)