Industry Climate Action Veteran Eric Balian Dives Deep on Carbon Emissions Measurement, Offsetting and Carbon Removal Tech

30 August 2022

Welcome to Part Two of my conversation with Eric Balian of Terres d’Aventure, a company based in France that has been evolving its climate strategy for more than twenty years. Terres d’Aventure was the first company to measure, reduce and absorb the greenhouse gas emissions of its staff as well as those of customers. 

This discussion with Eric began as a way to answer one of the most common questions I hear from ATTA members when it comes to climate: “What can you tell me about how other companies are tackling their climate strategies?” 

Thank you, Eric, for being kind enough to answer our questions in email and allowing us to share with the ATTA community.  

If you missed Part One of our conversation, you can catch up here.

Eric Balian, Terres d’Aventure
Q: Can you share more about what it looks like practically, on the inside of your company, to measure emissions? Did you create your own tracking method? I'm imagining spreadsheets galore. Or did you hire someone? What can you share about how your processes changed and the precise tools you used?

A: The CO2 calculation is based on data, and data means Excel! So yes, all this is Excel based. The calculation in itself is not that complex. What is more time-consuming is gathering the data needed to enter as input in the formulas. The main data you need to gather are:

For your customer:

  • Flight segments used by your customer. This is information we provide our customer with when they travel, and travel companies are likely to have this information for their guests
  • Number of nights slept during the trip and in what type of accomodation (e.g. hotel, eco-lodge, etc
  • Local transportation used (bus, vehicule, train), number of kilometers
  • Number and type of meals

For your company:

  • Premises: type of premises used, size
  • Energy bills
  • Number of computers, screens, phones, etc..
  • General overheads (printed paper, …)
  • All staff transportation type and distance to come to the office

(ATTA’s Neutral Together program includes a carbon dioxide emissions calculator created in partnership with Ted Martens from Natural Habitat Adventures and South Pole, you can have a look here. In addition, Charlie Cotton of ecollective is a resource for developing an emissions calculator tailored to your business.)

Once this information is structured and gathered, it is possible to convert it into carbon dioxide emissions using conversion factors defined by government agency approved methods (for example, ADEME for us in France, DEFRA in the UK). The Excel matrix proposed by these agencies can be complex because they define all carbon dioxide emission concepts for all industries. At Terres d’Aventure we ended up designing our own matrix based only on relevant concepts for the tourism industry. On the whole we have "only" 25 main figures to enter into this matrix.

Internally in our group, we have one person in charge of this. It is not a full time job and she is able to make this calculation for ten different companies. The initialization process takes more time in order to identify where you can find the information, but once it is done the first year, the following years are much easier. 

When we began, we estimated data that we could not easily gather, and each year we have improved our processes in order to be more accurate. For instance, now for staff transportation, we have a very simple online form that helps us gather all info and convert it directly into usable data in our Excel spreadsheet.

Q: What do you think of the Science Based Targets Initiative? For companies just starting down the path SBTi might seem overwhelming. As someone with a lot of experience in corporate climate action, what’s your perspective?

A: Yes, the ScienceBased Targets Initiative is one of the various methods for addressing the problem of "how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions". On the positive side, I have to say that any structured method that can help organizations to start working on this subject is good. Setting goals and objectives is also a good point and commits the organization to reach these objectives.

One of the main limitations of the SBTi for me is that the method only deals with Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, not Scope 3. As noted on the SBTi website, “SMEs can immediately set a SBT for their scope 1 and 2 emissions by choosing from one of two predefined target options…the SBTi does not require SMEs to set targets for their scope 3 emissions. But, SMEs must commit to measure and reduce their scope 3 emissions.

And as far as tourism is concerned, Scope 3 is 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. (Recall that scope 3 emissions are those generated by the customer when they travel as an example).  

It is also very complex, not to say impossible, to understand the SBTi calculation method. I still haven't understood the link between the COP26 objective to limit global warming under 1.5°C and the calculation in SBTi method, and I have deep familiarity with this topic! In my view, setting up an objective to reduce carbon dioxide emissions on Scope 1 and 2 in our industry (like some companies do) is purely demagogic and does not take into account 90 percent of the tourism industry impact.

Starting with this subject can be overwhelming and actually is, as with any new subject. But it is not at all impossible. 

My advice is to 1) first really understand how to calculate your carbon dioxide emissions and 2) once this is complete, focus on where you can reduce. It would be quite long in this article to detail how to really understand how to calculate it, but I would be happy to chat with those who would like to learn more about this. The more you will dig into detail, the more you will understand what you do and the better you will do it and try to improve your actions.

Decide which calculation method you will use: Ademe in France, Defra in the UK, EPA in the US… and make sure you understand how to use conversion factors. In our industry we need to apply them to three main topics: your office, your people and your customers. 

Q: Eric, you mentioned in our first interview that a key learning for you was to go and visit projects Terres d’Aventure invest in, but I know from my own experience in this, it can be quite an expensive undertaking to go see the place, and it seems like flying a long distance (generating emissions) to investigate a project to help eliminate emissions... somehow this feels a bit contradictory. Do you have any tips for how to find local projects? What is your perspective on local projects that might not be certified by entities like Verra or Gold Standard with carbon credits on the international market? I have heard from small businesses that they would like to support these even if they are not verified.

A: You're right, visiting the project can be seen as the "cherry on the cake". Previous steps can be achieved before that. First, I would not recommend investing on projects that are not certified or at least not on the major part of your investment. Why is that? Because we need to be committed, and then to prove our commitment. How could you prove that the project you invest in really absorbs carbon dioxide if not calculated, audited and estimated in terms of carbon credits your investment generates? Also, make sure to never resell your carbon credit. It could be tempting because carbon credits value is increasing every day, but doing so, you would enable others to emit carbon dioxide when your objective is to reduce your impact.

Second, certified projects must have a very detailed documentation to pass the certification. This documentation can sometimes be very technical but, here again, it is very interesting to deep into the details: how long does it take for a tree to grow? How large will be its trunk after five years? How can carbon dioxide absorption be measured based on the tree and soil metrics? How is the project certifier counting the number of trees in a forest? How is local impact on population measured, decided and implemented? Reading this documentation is a fantastic way to really understand the project.

Finding projects can be complex, but there are many consulting companies offering access to carbon dioxide absorption projects. ATTA’s Neutral Together program supports projects made available through South Pole, and I think this is a good way for a small company to begin. And in each country, local actors are offering similar services.

Q: Would you be willing to share your unvarnished perspective on carbon removal technologies and hybrid nature + technology strategies? What do you feel you understand/ do not understand in this space and what are you hoping to learn in the coming months and years about innovations in this category of climate solutions?

A: Even if I try to follow new technology development on carbon absorption or removal, I am not an expert, by far. I try to read as much as I can on the main topic for our industry: what are the solutions to reduce emissions from flights for example. I don't think we will have time to wait for carbon removal technologies to be mature enough (if one day they are). We need to act now in order to be able to start and reduce airplane impact in the coming years. 

Electric engines for commercial flights are not and will not be an option for medium to long flights. The unique near-term technology seems to be sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). SAF prices today are four to five times more expensive than current kerosene and production capacities are still very low. (For more detail on SAF see this blog on the Tomorrow’s Air website.) This means that we will need strong political incentives if we want the airline industry to move on to more SAF use. A first incentive will be needed in developing green electricity to produce more SAF. Today's green electricity capacity is not by far sufficient enough to produce all SAF we need at a reasonable cost. A second incentive might also come from more taxation on standard kerosene in order to motivate the airline industry to move on to SAF.

Carbon removal technologies such as those supported by Tomorrow’s Air are still, for me, a "mystery." I find it hard to feel whether it will become a solution to climate crises. Scalability and cost seems to be difficult to reach even in a medium to long term period, but I would be happy to discover that I am wrong.

When it comes to carbon removal technologies it seems to me that while we are waiting for technologies to mature, and this maturation process will take another 20 to 30 years, we must get to work on adapting our client portfolio mix. These adaptations should include: promoting more local trips that do not require fossil-fuel based transport, and continuing to invest in reforestation programs. 

Watch this space for more climate action commentary from our members in the coming months. Have a question you would like me to ask in conversations? Comment below or email me directly [email protected].