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

IEMA and IFoA publish guide to climate-related financial disclosures

IEMA and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) have today published up-to-date guidance to help companies and individuals understand climate-related financial information.

22nd February 2024

Read more

Global corporations such as Amazon and Google purchased a record 46 gigawatts (GW) of solar and wind energy last year, according to BloombergNEF (BNEF).

13th February 2024

Read more

Three-quarters of UK adults are concerned about the impact that climate change will have on their bills, according to polling commissioned by Positive Money.

13th February 2024

Read more

Tom Pashby reviews Anna Trompetas’s OffSet, a dystopian climate fiction novel that explores questions of morality, motherhood and class inequality

1st February 2024

Read more

Almost 100 global companies have signed up to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) First Movers Coalition, which aims to transform the supply chains across high-emitting sectors.

24th January 2024

Read more

Up to three quarters of the global building industry’s emissions could be slashed if the engineering and construction sectors embedded circular economy principles in their operations, according to a major report.

18th January 2024

Read more

Matt Tompsett looks beyond tree planting to the pros and cons of land and sea-based carbon sequestration projects.

15th January 2024

Read more

The reality of delivering net zero is that we need solutions tailored to specific areas. Peter Gudde explores models that local authorities could adopt

15th January 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