Individual action or systems change? Finding the best route to net zero

30th November 2023

Individual action or systems change? Which is the best route to net zero? Sophia Mwema weighs up the options

The difficulty of inspiring sufficient individual action versus the complexity of implementing systems change – does one take precedence over the other? Can both be a focus for us? If so, the key questions are ‘why’ and ‘how’.

The debate underscores an essential element in our track record of deflecting responsibility on climate action. For example, a fossil fuel company’s popularisation of ‘carbon footprint’ infamously shifts the blame to individuals and distracts attention from its own accountability.

Despite the agreement on the ‘what’ – which is the need to act – there is significant divergence in the modalities. Questions like who needs to take responsibility often distract us from the agreement and the urgency required. I will attempt to demonstrate the importance of both individual action and systems change as well as the possibility of not having to choose between the two and implementing both to achieve the same goal.

Systemic change

The sheer scale and complexity of the climate challenge requires systems change, driven by governments, industries and international collaborations. We need large-scale transformations across sectors, industries and societies. Transforming energy systems, transportation networks and industrial processes requires structural interventions. It entails transitioning to renewable energy sources, redesigning transportation modes and implementing circular economies. These actions go beyond the scope of individual behaviour.

Individual efforts undoubtedly contribute, although are often localised. Scaling them to the needed magnitude is logistically challenging and time intensive. Confined within the systems in which they exist, the impact of personal choice is incremental rather than transformational.

Systems create the infrastructure and incentives for broader sustainable practices. Investment in research and development, large-scale infrastructure projects and industry-wide adoption of sustainable technologies require coordination. It is a systemic pursuit to drive innovation and deploy green technologies at scale. The impact of individual adaptation is limited without the broader systemic changes that drive technological advancements and accessibility. We need systemic changes to address social, economic and environmental inequalities, so that climate action benefits everyone. The social implications of the net-zero transition, protecting vulnerable communities and promoting inclusivity, are policy considerations.

Although admirable, individual efforts are insufficient to tackle the systemic inequities deeply embedded in our societies. At the systemic level, policies and programmes address structural inequalities, while individual actions promote inclusivity.

Individual action

Individual actions empower people, raise awareness and drive behavioural and cultural change. Being informed and engaged citizens, individuals vote for eco-conscious leaders and hold officials accountable for climate policies.

In the political reality, the system could be more effective. Therefore, we need to hear from all community members, in addition to technocratic solutions. Individual actions are strong economic, cultural and political signals.

Even in less-than-ideal systems, individuals are not too small to act, especially if they inspire and motivate others to join and drive social change. Grassroots movements often emerge from individual concerns and passions – for instance, energy communities, where concerned citizens pull together financial and technical resources to produce and consume renewable energy within their locality. This illustrates how climate solutions are best implemented at the individual level, in modularity.

Although systems provide the framework to support and amplify individual efforts, it is individuals who initiate them. Government regulations create a level playing field for businesses by motivating climate-conscious consumers to choose low-carbon products. The demand for eco-friendly alternatives influences companies to innovate and meet consumer preferences.

Combining the two

Individual actions or systems change is not a binary choice. A balanced approach that combines individual action with systemic transformation is the way to address the climate crisis comprehensively.

Individuals raise awareness and foster a sense of responsibility, while systemic changes set policies, regulations and incentives to achieve widespread emissions reductions. Simply put, individual actions inspire systemic changes, while systemic changes empower and enable individuals to act effectively. We need both. And urgently.


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Weather damage insurance claims hit record high

Weather-related damage to homes and businesses saw insurance claims hit a record high in the UK last year following a succession of storms.

18th April 2024

Read more

The Scottish government has today conceded that its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 is now “out of reach” following analysis by the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

18th April 2024

Read more

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has issued a statement clarifying that no changes have been made to its stance on offsetting scope 3 emissions following a backlash.

16th April 2024

Read more

While there is no silver bullet for tackling climate change and social injustice, there is one controversial solution: the abolition of the super-rich. Chris Seekings explains more

4th April 2024

Read more

One of the world’s most influential management thinkers, Andrew Winston sees many reasons for hope as pessimism looms large in sustainability. Huw Morris reports

4th April 2024

Read more

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

4th April 2024

Read more

Regulatory gaps between the EU and UK are beginning to appear, warns Neil Howe in this edition’s environmental legislation round-up

4th April 2024

Read more

Five of the latest books on the environment and sustainability

3rd April 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close