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.


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