The net zero transition: more systems thinking, please

A hand drawing on a board with a pen

To achieve net zero by 2050, new technologies need to be developed and deployed faster than ever before. Systems thinking can help avoid unintended consequences.

‘But in this world, nothing can be certain, except for death and taxes’: so wrote Benjamin Franklin in the late 18th century. I feel compelled to add ‘change’ to death and taxes. If there is one thing that history shows us it is that the world and mankind has continued to transform and innovate. Not to say that everything that has changed has been good but overall things do improve.

Unknown unknowns

If we agree that change is as certain as death and taxes, why do we rarely assess the possible unexpected impacts of that change before or while we implement measures? To quote another notable figure from more recent times, Steve Jobs: ‘There are downsides to everything, there are unintended consequences to everything.’

As the UK moves through the next decade, there will need to be change at an unprecedented pace and scale if we are to achieve net zero in 2050. That change will affect everyone and everything in some way. It will demand transformations at technological, societal and behavioural levels and these system levels are all interconnected.

We must not view them as linear and independent: they are highly inter-related complex systems. If the nation is going to manage the transition, then we need to take a more holistic and co-ordinated view, expect the unexpected and ensure the communication is clear.

I realise unintended consequences are not easy to identify, there is no solution here. They are, by their very nature, unpredictable and non-obvious as Donald Rumsfeld once observed. My unease however is that with an increasing rate and amount of change across society we must be ready to assess and adapt on the fly. It seems to me that traditional policy to action practices aren’t that agile and are often too focused on the original stated objective alone.

The plastic bag speaks

A recent Green Alliance paper touched the topic. In the paper, they briefly reviewed the UK policy approach to single-use carrier bags, welcoming the intent but concluding there had been:

  • a failure to fully consider consumer behaviours
  • a failure to fully address / challenge business behaviour (for example, supermarkets)
  • implementation with weak incentives to change (minimal cost implication)

I need to be clear at this point: I am not advocating a return to single-use carrier bags, far from it. Single-use plastics in all their forms need attention. What I am suggesting is that the measures put in place must consider the system-wide challenges and patterns of behaviour that could result.

Heads of two people with colourful shapes of abstract brain - stock photo

Heads of two people with colourful shapes of abstract brain – Credit:
Radachynskyi / Getty images

So was this a missed opportunity? I think it is roundly accepted that the plastic itself is not the main problem, more the way that we as humans deploy and dispose of the material.

More attention to the system and likely responses to the measures rather than just the end goal may have been beneficial in leading to improved outcomes.

It takes me back to the original point. Change will happen, and there are downsides to everything. Unless all the potential consequences, not just the intended ones, are considered at the outset then measures driven by well-meaning policies can lead to sub-optimal or even counter-productive end results. (Noting that unintended consequences may be positive too!)

Can we adapt?

The government will need to make some major policy decisions in the coming years to support the goal of achieving net zero in 2050. Those decisions will need to be turned into action and adopted faster than ever before. This means having clear metrics and appropriate feedback loops to evaluate and, if necessary, adapt.

There is a greater need to take a wider range of perspectives into account and perhaps reach out ever more widely to disciplines that are not always front and centre. This includes systems thinkers, psychologists, scenario planning, futurists, and more.

Missing Jigsaw puzzle piece with lighting. Credit: Amankris / Getty images

There will be many pressures. The context is that the UN estimates the world population will rise to 9.7 billion by 2050. There will be increasing global demand on resources. We must find ways to be more resource efficient and to stop raiding the Earth’s finite resources.

We need to use less material to make more products with less energy, have them work better, last longer and be easily recoverable at end of life. Advanced materials play a big part in all of those steps but, like all other interventions, their application must be thoroughly thought through.

Policy development and deployment already seeks input from a wide range of stakeholders. But with the looming challenge and pace of change in materials development, manufacturing and many other sectors to enable net zero there is an imperative to get it right or adapt quickly.

In implementing measures, we must stop doing the human thing of assuming everything will be linear, smooth and the outcome rosy with no unintended outcomes.

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