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You’ve heard of offsetting, but what in the world is carbon insetting?

Carbon insetting works with farmers and workers to balance emissions.
Carbon insetting works with farmers and workers to balance emissions.   -   Copyright  Unsplash
By Rosie Frost

These days, paying to plant trees or investing in green projects as a way to balance out your carbon emissions is a pretty standard method of easing your environmental conscience. Known as carbon offsetting, the process has spawned a thriving business making billions of euros every year as companies trade carbon credits to reach climate change goals.

You can now even offset to undo your own personal environmental damage, with airlines and organisations offering to help you take full responsibility for your residual emissions. For a small fee, of course. Increasingly, however, this sustainability solution has come under fire from activists as being little more than greenwashing. Critics have compared it to the practice of selling indulgences in the ancient Catholic church; you can live how you want as long as you have the money to buy off your sins.

What if, instead of making environmental protection a side issue, businesses made these kinds of carbon-absorbing projects a part of the new normal?

Restoring biodiversity

Tilmann Silber, director of sustainable supply chains for environmental expert, South Pole, discusses how important a completely new approach could be in allowing brands to show they are serious about fighting climate change.

“Insetting is derived from offsetting, as the name suggests,” Silber explains. Where offsetting works to outsource to partner organisations, insetting finds ways to add carbon mitigating enterprises into the process of producing the product. “They would be looking for projects in or close to their supply chain.”

Conventional carbon neutralising usually involves investing in projects unrelated to products, but insetting instead addresses a company’s balance with the ecosystem directly. Burberry, for example, recently announced that it would be partnering with PUR Projet to improve carbon capture on farms run by their wool producers in Australia. Restoring the biodiversity of these habitats helps capture CO2 from the atmosphere but also ensures the future of the landscape.

Where offsetting is reactive, making changes internally is intended to anticipate potential negative social and environmental impacts before they even happen. Ultimately the goal is to provide a net positive outcome.

Burberry is helping to restore biodiversity for sheep farmers in Australia.Unsplash

Making important investments

Insetting can be expensive to set up, but there is a range of benefits beyond purely financial rewards. “It improves the resilience of the supply chain by investing where it is most vulnerable,” Silber says. Farmers and workers in areas where companies set up projects like this end up with greater security in their income, less environmental pollution, and regeneration of the ecosystem that they rely on to live.

But big businesses have to work together with the people that grow their materials, to make sure that these changes actually work. “There has to be a partnership approach, it’s not sustainable to force farmers to make changes,” explains Silber. “It’s not enough to just make it financially attractive in the short-term, that means a farmer signs up for 5 to 10 years and then stops doing it.”

Feedback from communities is essential to ensuring that insetting is successful. Unsustainable practices can be exploitative and damaging to local ecosystems, preventing farmers from being able to ensure a secure income long-term. Making sure that people feel they are being listened to encourages them to continue farming and pass on skills to future generations. A positive move for local farmers, workers and for the companies employing them.

So how central is insetting to a net-zero future? Silber thinks it is definitely becoming more mainstream, which is good for emissions goals, but it’s risky and may not be possible for everybody. “Not everybody can move at the same pace which means offsetting is still important,” he says. Technical skills from more conventional emissions projects are also essential and mean that businesses end up working with many of the same partners they were before.

Lukas Rodriguez/ Pexels
Carbon insetting is about more than just tree planting.Lukas Rodriguez/ Pexels

Is insetting just another way to plant trees?

Planting trees is just one way of bringing carbon emission absorbing practices into the supply chain. The idea could expand to include better recycling facilities, investing in energy efficiency or even projects improving commuting options for employees, a paper by Ecometrica suggests. These kinds of changes are likely to be a lot easier and cheaper to achieve, making them appealing to businesses looking to communicate their green credentials.

Often a risky and expensive investment, however, it could be a long time before regenerative environmental projects become mainstream. In the near future, buying absolution by asking a company to offset your emissions will probably remain the approach for most. Ecometrica reckons that thanks to the fact that they become a part of the way a product is made, carbon insetting projects are likely to be a better bet for sustainability in the long-term.