The world's 7,000 airlines could switch to low-carbon jet fuels much faster than other transport because aeroplanes have very few "filling stations", says Richard Branson.
"Unlike cars where there are millions of filling stations, there are only about 1,700 aviation stations in the world. So if you can get the right fuel, like mass-produced algae, then getting it to 1,700 outlets is not so difficult," Branson said in an interview with the Guardian from the British Virgin islands.
Branson, who announced last month he hoped Virgin would soon be able to use waste gases from industrial steel and aluminium plants as a fuel, said the industry should aim for 50% sustainable fuels by 2020.
"I would be very disapointed if not. Once the breakthrough takles place, getting to 50-100% is not unrealistic. Aviation fuel is 25-40% of the running costs of airlines so the industry is open to new fuels."
Branson, whose Virgin group owns 51% of Virgin Atlantic Airways, was speaking in advance of the launch in Durban of RenewableJetFuels.org, an open access website that assesses and updates the progress of companies planning to produce commercial-scale renewable fuel for aviation.
It suggests that of the 40 companies claiming to have the potential to deliver large-scale amounts – about one third of them are "credible" from an economic, scalable and sustainability perspective in their current state.
In the next five years, says the website published by business NGO Carbon War Room and academic publisher Elsevier, some renewable jet fuel companies "could be producing enough renewable fuel to replace 10-20%
of the fuel of a typical mid-sized airline".
The data, said Branson, should allow airlines to accelerate linkups with fuel companies.
"Producers can continually update and re-submit data. This is then reviewed by experts, enabling RenewableJetFuels.org to be the independent, gold standard for investors and airlines in the market," said Suzanne Hunt, head of operations at Carbon War Room.
"Trying to address climate change makes business sense", said Branson, whose Virgin Airlines spends around $3bn a year on jet fuel.
"The jet fuel industry can charge what they like at present. New fuels will compete. You could finds the price of aviation fuel comes down.
Three years ago Virgin flew a plane to Holland on coconut fuel and no one took it seriously, said Branson. "The industry thought it was PR. BA was pretty dismissive, saying planes will never fly on bio-fuels. But it actually kickstarted thinking. Since then, even BA has started investing in new biofuels.
"We're heading in the right direction. The industry could go from one of the dirtiest to one of the cleanest in 10 years. We are investing in different companies and really beginning to see traction".
The five leading alternative jet fuel companies identified by Carbon War Room are Lanzatech, SG biofuels, AltAir, Solazyme and Sapphire.