Shake up the system for a fair climate future

One of the key themes in Sustainability First’s 'Together for a Fair Climate Future' work has been that in order to build a fairer climate future and respond to the climate emergency before it's too late, fundamental systems change is needed.

A system, put simply, is an organised collection of components that work together as part of a network to achieve an overall goal1. Systems are complex and they are made up of multiple and often interdependent parts. These parts can be tangible, such as technology, resources, people and organisations, or intangible such as values and relationships2.

A system can therefore mean different, or very specific things, in different contexts. A technical example of a system might be an energy system – the sum of the parts through which energy is produced, distributed, stored, and used within a geographical or otherwise defined boundary. But even discrete energy systems are both connected to other systems (such as housing systems or water systems) as well as embedded in wider, intersecting social, cultural, economic, political, and ecological systems.

The climate crisis and our responses to it both result from and act upon these intersecting systems. Climate change is not a purely environmental issue existing only within atmospheric and ecological systems. Environmental issues do not exist in a vacuum. Climate change is also a social issue, an economic issue, a political issue, a fairness issue and more. And in order to tackle climate change, we need to understand the systems that have both caused and enable it to continue at pace, as well as the systems it is affecting and acting upon. Given the interconnected nature of these challenges, action in just one part of the system will have limited impact. To be effective, climate responses must simultaneously also tackle related inequalities, poverty, environmental degradation, vulnerability to climate impacts, health and wellbeing, amongst others, as well as carbon emissions.

It is these wider, intersecting systems in society that this conference will be looking at. It will be asking what shifts are needed at societal and systems levels to achieve meaningful changes that address the climate crisis and build a fairer future.

Young people across the world have been striking online and taking to the streets to calls of 'systems change, not climate change'. They have demanded that the emphasis of urgent climate action move away from the small changes we can make as individuals, towards systems level change on a mass scale and at a sufficient pace to tackle the emergency.

But what might systems change look like in practice, how does it happen, and what does this mean for different stakeholders acting within these systems?

Systems change is the process of shifting the end goal of a system and the way it functions (the ‘game being played’ and the ‘rules of the game’) through intentional interventions3. This means assessing both its tangible and intangible components and their influence on the whole. It means going beneath the surface to look at deeper patterns, assumptions, power dynamics, social norms, values, and behaviours4.

This necessitates collective action involving multiple stakeholders in the system. It not only needs to be both top-down and bottom-up, but it needs to be collaborative with solutions co-produced between actors at all levels of the system.

This includes at government levels, city levels, institutional and organisational levels, community and neighbourhood levels, and individual and household levels. But these levels aren't independent from each other - individuals are embedded within neighbourhoods, and organisations within communities for example5. They affect and are affected by change at and across other levels in complex webs of relationships that evolve over time. In addition, cutting across these levels are the different types of change, such as: behavioural, cultural, social, and structural.

To date, a large proportion of conversations about climate action, and what needs to be done to tackle the climate crisis, has been focussed on individual, behavioural level changes. For example: As an individual, what change can I make in my life to live more sustainably? As a company, how can we encourage our customers to make changes at home? As a local council, how can we inspire pro-environmental behaviours in our constituents? Individual behaviour change is undoubtedly important. As well as using hard economic measures such as prices and taxes to change peoples’ consumption patterns, there are many different approaches to behaviour change that are highly context specific. Popular models include Nudge Theory - small changes made in the choice architecture that changes behaviours in a predictable way6, such as making eco-settings default on appliances7. And the COM-B Model - which looks at how the combination of capabilities (i.e. the knowledge, skills and ability to engage in a behaviour), opportunities (i.e. the external factors that make engaging in a behaviour possible), and motivation (i.e., the internal processes that influence decision making) lead to particular behavioural choices8.

However, individual choices and behaviours are inevitably shaped by the systems in which they are made, and individual, behaviour change alone is not sufficient to deliver the changes at the scale and pace needed to respond to the climate emergency. Although behaviour change models do look at the role of social influence and social norms on the choices we make as individuals9, more holistic understandings of behaviour might see it as just one step in a process of change that connects the individual and systemic10. We also need to consider "the role of behaviour change that is more political and social, that brings questions power and social justice to the fore" and how "responsibility and agency are unevenly distributed" within societies11.

You can ask people to change their habits and to change their lives in order to tackle the climate crisis, but we can't do that if we are not given the correct facilities that we need in order to do so. You can't ask communities to change without enabling that change from a higher place" – Sunita, Climate Assembly Member

If consumers and citizens are to change their behaviours, so too must policy makers, regulators, and companies, recognising their roles within interconnecting systems and the levers they have to enable and support change. Policymakers, regulators, and companies need to bring groups together through meaningful and collaborative stakeholder engagement, centring previously marginalised voices and those currently underrepresented in decision making if we are to ensure a fair climate future. Stakeholder engagement and collaboration can break down siloes within a system and ensure that the needs of different actors are met through any change.

In order to bridge the individual and systemic, on 21st and 22nd September we will be holding a virutal conference to look at social and cultural changes. To date, essential services sectors such as energy and water have not given 'culture' significant attention. The conference will therefore consider how change can happen through conversations about cultural values, about what's important, and how values can be put into action. Values are the things that we, as individuals but also as communities and society, believe are most important or desirable in our lives12. Values can achieve meaningful social changes because they are motivators of change and of action13. This is true at an individual behaviour level but also the level of communities, institutions, and policy making. Values can help shift foci towards the structural causes of ecological, economic, and social injustices and thus help visualise goals for a fairer climate future14. They can also guide decision making when things are complex, deeply uncertain and moving quickly. The conference will look at the role of art, storytelling, and narratives in creatively engaging with our values, tackling challenges in society, and in promoting social and cultural change.  

Sustainability First has put together a framework offering five steps to link behavioural, social, and systems change together for a fair climate future, specifically for utility sector actors (in water, energy, and communications) and aimed at policy makers, regulators, and companies. We will also be exploring this framework in more detail at the conference.

To register or find out more about the conference click here. We look forward to welcoming you in September.


1. Make change real and tangible 

‘Start from where people are’ 

• Engage, identify co-benefits and co-create solutions  
• Understand the outcomes people want and the values driving their behaviour 
• Treat people in the round – as citizens not just consumers  
• Understand and value lived experience  
• Focus on place and recognise the role of communities 

 2. Make it inclusive  

‘All in it together’ 

• Recognise difference and intersectional issues  
• Explore and discover shared and common interests 
• Provide support and build social capital 
• Give people a sense of agency 
• Ensure governance balances social, environmental and economic outcomes and fairly shares risk and reward  
• Raise awareness through education and communications 
• Show connections between individual and systems change 

 3. Start at the drawing board 

‘Fair first-time planning and design’ 

• Use art, creative approaches and scenarios to envisage different solutions and reimagine and rethink problems 
• Use planning to enable and drive sustainable choices  
• Make it simple, un-noticed and automatic - or fun, desirable and attractive 
• Consider how change will work in practice and address implementation challenges 
• Keep testing and iterating 

 4. Be bold – show leadership 

‘Story tellers rule the world’ 

• Develop visions and stories 
• Properly measure social and environmental outcomes to demonstrate beneficial impacts and build hope and positivity  
• Show leadership at the systems level around climate and fairness – not just in terms of individual behaviour change 
• Forge long-term collaborative partnerships 
• Be comfortable with ambiguity and work across silos 
• Build momentum on positive tipping points (identifying hot-spots for change and linking grassroots and national action) 
• Share lessons of what has and hasn’t worked and create an open, learning culture 
• Show compassion: utilities like energy are essential services that many struggle to afford

 5. Make the most of the moment 

‘Catalysts for change’ 

• Make the most of malleable moments: life events; global, national and local crises; significant dates/times of year; closures and openings of businesses etc 
• Plan-ahead and be ready to quickly respond in a timely way 
• Use procurement and supply chains to drive change at pace and scale and practice what you preach


[1] Jack Barrie (2020) Sustainability First Event: How can we live more sustainably?

[2] R. Abercrombie et al. (2015) System change: A guide to what it is and how to do it

[3] R. Abercrombie et al. (2015) System change: A guide to what it is and how to do it

[4] Anna Birney (2020) Unlocking Potential for Deep Social Transformations Towards Sustainable Lifestyle

[5] Anna Birney (2020) Unlocking Potential for Deep Social Transformations Towards Sustainable Lifestyle

[6] Thaler and Sunstein (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness

[7] UNEP, Behavioural Insights Team (2020) The Little Book of Green Nudges

[8] Britain Thinks (2020) Event: Using Insight to Effect Behaviour Change

[9] K. White et al. (2019) How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviours to be More Sustainable: A Literature Review and Guiding Framework

[10] Cambridge Sustainability Commissions (2021) Changing our ways? Behaviour Change and the Climate Crisis

[11] Cambridge Sustainability Commissions (2021) Changing our ways? Behaviour Change and the Climate Crisis

[12] Common Cause Foundation (2010) The case for working with our cultural values

[13] Common Cause Foundation (2015) A Toolkit for Charities

[14] Elena Blackmore et al. (2013) Common Cause for Nature: Values and frames in conservation