Biogas to offset air travel emissions

Total has deployed a number of solutions to minimize the environmental footprint of employee air travel, from reducing the number of trips to offsetting flights that can't be avoided. That could easily have been the end of it. But when two programs — presumably worlds apart — come together, the resulting solutions have all kinds of benefits.

Scale back and offset

For more than a decade, GoodPlanet Foundation Chair Yann Arthus-Bertrand has been urging big French companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from air travel and offset the remainder. Total stepped up to the plate in 2017. "We were aware of the issue because we'd already introduced a program to curtail air travel because of cost and impact," says Philippe Cabus, head of energy access in Total's GRP[1] business segment. "We'd reduced the number of trips by 20 percent since 2014. It didn't make sense to offset our carbon emissions without cutting back on air travel first."

Total and GoodPlanet Foundation signed an agreement in late 2017 to neutralize the carbon emissions of all Total employee air travel through a biogas digester project in Adilabad district, India.

Installation of the First Biogas Digesters in the Adilabad District in India

What's a biogas digester?

A biogas digester is a concrete structure with a fermentation chamber that is fed with livestock slurry each day. As the slurry decomposes, it produces biogas (methane and CO2) that can supply a household with two to three cubic meters of gas per day, or three to four hours of cooking heat and hot water. The dung from two cows is enough to supply an average family. Matthieu Jousset, who heads the GoodPlanet Foundation's United Carbon Action program, points out the many advantages of this simple but effective solution: "Besides providing energy from a renewable, accessible resource, it eliminates the need to burn wood, which has many drawbacks. These include indoor air pollution, which is responsible for 4 million deaths annually according to the World Health Organization, and deforestation (one household uses four tons of wood a year, a chore that always falls to women), among many others." Circular to the very end, the fermented slurry, called digestate, is also used as a natural fertilizer, replacing purchases of costly and polluting chemical agricultural inputs.

Livestock slurry is fed into a biogas digester
Livestock slurry is fed into a biogas digester

Fully funded by Total's carbon offsets, the project plans to install 8,400 biogas digesters for use by 45,000 residents in the Adilabad district of the Indian state of Telangana over three years (2018-2021). Operated by SKG Sangha, a local non-profit that has built more than 150,000 biogas units since it was created in 1992, the project will keep 50,000 tons of CO2 out of the air each year[2] and earn Gold Standard-certified carbon credits over a 10-year period. That's equal to the residual emissions of all Total employee air travel. "The program directly or indirectly addresses 15 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those concerning the environment, health and empowerment of women," notes Philippe Cabus. "So it's about more than just carbon offsetting."

Two worlds meet

That is probably why the initiative has been so popular with Total employees. "It was welcomed with open arms internally, because everyone felt concerned," says Philippe Cabus. "Providing clean, affordable energy to as many people as possible is what Total is all about. The biogas digester project fits in perfectly. That's why we've already had requests to replicate it internally, but also to serve as skilled volunteers." As GoodPlanet Foundation's Matthieu Jousset notes: "The air travel carbon offsetting was done in the right order," meaning emission reduction first, carbon offsetting second. What's more, "Employees' enthusiastic embrace of the project and their ability to learn biogas technology" was a surprise bonus.

"We continue to learn from one other," says Philippe Cabus. Matthieu Jousset agrees: "Total has expertise in gas and improving health and safety conditions, which makes the project much stronger. The partnership makes sense." But, he adds, "Offsets alone will not be enough to achieve the Paris Agreement goal."

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Two things to know about the carbon credit* Expresses the emission of different greenhouse gases in terms of the amount of CO2 that would have the equivalent global warming impact
** Certified Emission Reductions, issued under the rules of the Kyoto Protocol
*** Verified Emission Reductions, and exchanged in the voluntary or over-the-counter market

[1] Gas, Renewables & Power.

[2] A round-trip Paris-New York flight emits one ton of CO2.

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