Climate Sustainability:  Goals & Leverage Points

Note: This is a copy of a google doc here. If you have anything you can contribute please feel free to comment on the doc itself.

Goals of this document: 
  1. Collate and synthesise my most up-to-date understanding of the climate crisis and what needs to be done, in order to understand where I may be of most use in this effort (ongoing)
  2. Be an easy reference for reading recommendations for others.  

To avoid a climate catastrophe we need to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming of the planet. To do that we need to cut our carbon emissions in half in the next 10 years and achieve net 0 emissions by 2050. This means everyone on the planet needs to have an annual carbon footprint of 2.5 tonnes CO2 equivalent (CO2eq/cap) by 2030. By 2050 that needs to have reduced to 0.7tonnes CO2eq/cap.

In the EU today the average person has an annual carbon footprint of 8.2tCO2eq/cap (more than 3 times the target), and the worst households have a per-capita carbon footprint of 55tCO2eq/cap (22 times the target). 

About 80% of the emissions are from energy production. The other ~20% is agriculture, land use, waste, and industrial processes. Or more explicitly; methane emissions from the meat sector, the industrial processes that produce most steel and cement, refrigerants being lost from our refrigerators and air-conditioners and emissions from landfill.

There is no silver bullet to hit our target in the timeframe we have. The most likely way we do it quickly is by switching a huge number of energy-consuming things we use globally (cars, furnaces, planes, power stations, gas cookers) from carbon fuel to electricity from renewable sources (and possibly hydrogen & other clean energy as it becomes available).

However, even if every powered machine sold from tomorrow was electrified, the lifecycle of all the fossil fuel-burning things currently in circulation will mean we continue to produce enough emissions to take us over 1.5 degrees and likely hit 2 degrees warming.

Additionally, we will see increased emissions from the growing demand for emission-intensive lifestyles like meat consumption and air travel, while seeing decreases in the emission absorption/recycling we get for free from healthy natural habitats like forests & oceans that we are destroying.

But it is possible, and the future we create is going to be better for everyone. It’s cleaner, it’s healthier, it holds more natural beauty and it unlocks opportunities for innovation beyond anything we’ve ever imagined. The oil rush started in 1859 and by the time JD Rockerfeller’s Standard Oil was broken up for being too powerful (a mere 52 years later) that rush had unleashed a level of economic and technological momentum that is still driving us forward today. Cars, planes, cargo shipping, the light bulb and electricity (leading to computers and the internet) all stem from this energy being unlocked. That level of potential is what we’re capable of unleashing again if we get this right, but we have limited time.

So we must act now. 

High-level goals 

There are 5 big things we need to do:

  1. Rewild: Reinstate large diverse natural habitats on the planet, maintaining 100% of our current biodiversity
  2. Sustain: Create sustainable sources of water & nutrition for everyone
  3. Power: Transition to carbon-neutral energy generation and consumption
  4. Produce: Complete our transition from unsustainable to sustainable global manufacturing & consumption
  5. Stabilise: Continue to support the current trend of population stabilisation

#4 and some of #5 can be bundled under the heading ‘decarbonisation’. There is a great primer on how we might do that here

For all goals (1-5) the Marrakech Partnership, a UN agreement and organisation that outlines visions of what a 1.5-degree climate-resilient world looks like 2050, have set out the actions needed to achieve these goals. See their 2020 review here and their ‘Action Pathways’ (semi-tactical docs that identify what action needs to happen in each vertical) in the appendix.

The levers we have/need to pull to implement these goals

The levers we have fall into 5 categories:

  1. Policy/Legislation 
  2. Finance 
  3. Business Practice 
  4. Technological innovation 
  5. Individual behaviour

Breaking these down:

A) Policy/Legislation

Owned by: Local & national governments and international cooperation

Important because: Once in place, laws are one of the biggest levers we have to change business and individual behaviour. Changing the rules of a system is the 5th most effective leverage point in any system (see ‘Leverage Points’ in appendix). Short of rule changes, this is also where national & international subsidies and tariffs can be altered to create sustainable incentives. 

Tactics for this lever: Law-making and regulation (including subsidisation and tariffs/taxation).

Rewild: Legally recognise and protect existing natural habitats of both land and ocean, as well as the species that reside in them. Create new areas of legally protected natural habitats.

Sustain: Encourage technical innovation that produces low-carbon food. Manage water supplies to ensure sustainable access to potable water. Provide citizens with clear guidance on recommended sustainable food consumption, [nb rationing could theoretically be a tactic in the future, although a heavy-handed one].

Power:  Remove subsidies for fossil fuels, provide incentives for businesses, and individuals to move to sustainable energy sources & assets. Encourage the development of new clean-energy technology. Encourage installation of sustainable energy production plants (wind, hydro, solar etc), including implementing a distributed, localised energy generation & delivery grid. 

Produce: Require businesses to provide guidance on the cost of their products if the price for emissions was included. Encourage the promotion of sustainable consumption. Ban high-emitting products or practices.

Stabilize: Continue to support the current trend of population stabilisation through family planning, education and delivery of vaccinations to reduce child mortality, and helping those below the poverty line increase their standard of living.

What needs to happen/is happening: Ensuring the right legal incentives/barriers are created at the national, local and international governmental levels to direct all behaviour towards environmentally sustainable actions. This is coming together piecemeal on a per-country and per-region basis, with events like COP26 used by activists and forward-thinking politicians as a forcing function to try and move things forward faster. (Shout out to Costa Rica, who demolished their military and used some of the budget to preserve about 25% of the country’s land area in either national parks or biological reserves).

B) Finance

Owned by: Funds, International money markets, financial regulators, the IMF, financial suppliers like Bloomberg

Important because: The flow of global capital from private businesses far outweighs the investment ability of national governments. 

Tactics for this lever: Creating investment vehicles and business measurements help global private finance confidently invest in sustainable businesses while also correctly pricing in the damage and risk from unsustainable businesses (leading to lower investment in unsustainable businesses). One clear tactic is accurately pricing the cost of emitting carbon into the atmosphere by everyday production. To get to net 0 we need to be honest that the cost of emitting carbon is $80-$100 dollars per one tonne of carbon dioxide emitted. In Europe, the current price is $30 in Dec 2020 (up from $5 in 2018). 

Rewild: Find ways to reward businesses that are protecting natural habitats

Sustain: Drive investment towards businesses that are investing in sustainable nutrition (e.g. water recycling, low-impact meat….)

Power: Creating investment vehicles & business measurements to help global private finance confidently invest in sustainable energy businesses while correctly pricing in the damage and risk from unsustainable energy businesses.

Produce: Creating investment vehicles & business measurements to help global private finance confidently invest in sustainable businesses while also correctly pricing in the damage and risk from unsustainable businesses.

Stabilize: Provide investment vehicles that help small businesses in emerging markets to grow, increasing the founders & employees’ standard of living.

What needs to happen/is happening: The creation & measurement of the sustainability risk (e.g. ESG goals) for businesses. This means the finance industry can price sustainability into their valuations of investment opportunities. One of the ways this is being done is in collaboration with the IMF and also the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). The TCFD will develop voluntary, consistent climate-related financial risk disclosures for use by companies in providing information to investors, lenders, insurers, and other stakeholders.

The Task Force will consider the physical, liability and transition risks associated with climate change and what constitutes effective financial disclosures across industries. The work and recommendations of the Task Force will help firms understand what financial markets want in order to measure and respond to climate change risks and encourage firms to align their disclosures with investors’ needs.

C) Business Practice – all businesses globally

Owned by: All businesses globally, especially carbon-intense industries such as;
Energy suppliers, livestock farmers, cement producers, iron and steel producers, and road transportation providers. [This is also co-owned by consumers, as a reduction in demand will decrease the carbon output of these businesses]

Important because: Legislation from governments takes time. Businesses can move faster and have a direct impact on their supply chains, which cross borders & industries. They can both remove their carbon footprint/climate impact and create markets for sustainable suppliers much faster, as long as they can still sell their end product.

Tactics for this lever: This requires voluntary adoption of sustainable behaviour where there isn’t regulation. Ensuring all businesses globally are operating in a way that is sustainable, making their production processes and supply chain carbon neutral and sponsoring natural habitats so they can be protected from development.
NB: While the cost of negative climate behaviour in business remains free (e.g. it costs very little to pollute and a lot to invest in the technology to sequester carbon emissions from your factories) this may make business less competitive on price.

Rewild: Privately invest in the protection of natural habitats in line with supply chain impact (ideally through a fund or foundation like Acres for America).

Sustain: Promote sustainable sources of water & nutrition for everyone, especially important from the food sector such as supermarkets who have a large bargaining influence over suppliers.

Power: Transition to using only carbon-neutral energy for all business operations, ideally investing in local renewable energy generation where surplus can be shared with local communities.

Produce: Produce only sustainable products by measuring the climate impact throughout the production and supply chain of goods. Encourage cultural shift towards sustainable consumption through the promotion of sustainable goods and lifestyles.

Stabilize: Help employees have access to family planning, child education and vaccination programs where needed.

What needs to happen/is happening: Industry leaders to adopt these practices & sustainable technologies voluntarily throughout their footprint and supply chain, and then share the tools and playbook they used with the rest of their industry to encourage everyone to adopt it.

D) Technical Innovation

Owned by: University & private research laboratories, the risk-investment community, business founders with appropriate technology …..& eventually consumers. 

Important because: As policy, finance and business practice changes come online, there will be a greater need for higher volume and increased efficiency in each of the 6 strategic areas. This will expand the existing market for new technologies that provide these benefits. (e.g. solar in energy, synthetic meat in nutrition….). However, this is the least important of the categories; 

“I’m not worried about the technical progress, as E.O.Wilson said, “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have palaeolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous.”… the change we need is in our institutions and our emotions” 

– Professor Rebecca M. Henderson, Harvard Business School

“We have the technology we need, today, to solve climate change. If carbon-free isn’t already the cheapest form of energy, it’s very very close to it, and soon will be. The biggest barriers remaining have the same origin: inertia, the stubborn insistence of the incumbent way of doing things”

 – Saul Griffith

Tactics for this lever: Research, development, demonstration, and deployment. Development of new technology and processes that reduce the climate impact of human activity on the planet. From algae that consume the carbon from emissions before it is released, to lab-grown meat reducing the carbon footprint of food.

Rewild: – 

Sustain: Create sustainable sources of water & nutrition for everyone (e.g. “clean meat”, improved water filtering, pumping and desalination….)

Power: Continue to deploy mature sustainable energy generation solutions (solar, wind, sea, nuclear) while developing the energy of the future that will lead us past 2050 (hydrogen, fission etc.). 

Produce: Deploy intervention technologies and practices for high-emission producers to reduce their emissions in current facilities (e.g. carbon capture technologies). 

Stabilise: Continue to innovate in faster, easier ways of providing family planning and vaccination technologies.

What needs to happen/is happening: Research & development of new technologies that are commercially viable (possibly with government subsidisation).

E) Individual behaviour (consumption & advocacy)

Owned by: All individuals globally, community organisations, NGOs, trade unions 

Important because: Ultimately most activity on the planet is to directly or indirectly  serve our needs & desires. If all citizens globally decided to live their daily lives in a way that is environmentally positive tomorrow, markets and governments would have to respond. 

To be effective without legislation, change through this lever requires large numbers of individuals to voluntarily switch to behaviour that is potentially more inconvenient and/or expensive en masse.

Tactics for this lever: 

Much more on this in the below section:

Rewild: Support organisations that are protecting and expanding natural habitats 

Sustain: Where appropriate, reduce consumption of how emission foods such as meat. Reduce food waste

Power: Move electricity suppliers to a carbon-neutral energy company and reduce energy. Replace existing carbon-fuelled household items (e.g. gas cookers, boilers) with items using sustainable fuel (electricity). 

Produce: Move purchasing habits to goods that are sustainable; more recycled products, less plastic, more organic, less steel or concrete etc. and ask businesses where you spend money to ensure their products are sustainable.

Stabilise:  Support organisations who are providing access to family planning, child education and delivery of vaccinations where needed and those helping people who are below the poverty line increase their standard of living.

What needs to happen/is happening: Providing individuals with the information needed to help show their impact on the climate and then make lifestyle changes. Commercially available technology that helps individuals reduce their carbon footprint. A ‘cultural sea change’ in behaviour that sets new, sustainably-driven societal norms that compels people to follow (like how skinny jeans became a thing). Individuals organising together to influence businesses leaders, local & national political representatives for climate-positive behaviour.

None of the levers exist in a vacuum

All of these levers are interconnected. Governments will only pass legislation that their businesses and citizens will agree to (including stopping the subsidisation of fossil fuel production). Finance will only invest in things they can measure and be confident of a return in. These returns are made possible by industry or consumer demand creating a growing market for them.

Businesses react to; costs, consumer demand and regulation. 

People change behaviour based on what is available to them in the market as well as the personal & societal expectations and legal boundaries placed on them. Members of local climate advocacy organizations voluntarily monitor the meetings and actions of their local governments ensuring they are acting in a sustainable way (e.g. campaigning against the approval of the expansion of a waste incineration plant).

” Despite the amazing progress from corporations so far – without appropriate government policy we’re not going to get to net-0 emissions. A critical part of what needs to happen is for businesses to ask for regulation to drive increased efficiency. It’s critical for businesses to be actively lobbying for regulation.” 

Helen Clarkson, CEO of the Climate Group

Two examples:

Businesses and individuals moving from milk to milk substitutes have created a market for more sustainable milk alternatives which will lead to decreased milk production and decreased emissions. That change required input from all 5 categories;

  • the technology to make the product possible
  • the investment to help the business pay the up-front costs of setting up
  • the businesses to successfully make and market the products
  • consumers to agree to pay for it
  • governments to not get in the way while still ensuring food safety and blocking non-competitive behaviour. 

Another example is the building industry, which needs to rapidly shift away from carbon-intensive resources like cement and steel. Here, radical collaboration is needed across all stakeholders at the project and sector level. The supply chain needs to align around zero-carbon solutions and work in collaboration to deliver them. Many of the technology solutions needed to do this already exist, but finance and policy intervention are needed to support their implementation, which can be helped with increased demand from buyers. (Global Action Pathway – Human Settlements).

So, none of this can get solved by one person or group. We need leaders in every community, every business, every industry, and every local and national government pushing those in their circle of influence forward. To borrow a framing from Thomas Kuhn, via Donna Medows;

  • We must all point to the anomalies and failures of the current system where we see them, and provide a vision or solution of what a better future will look like. 
  • We must insert people who see this new future and have the urgency to do what must be done into places of public visibility and power in all areas mentioned above.
  • We must not waste time with reactionaries, but rather work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.

The good news is that the momentum is building, however many experts are not optimistic that we will hit our goals in time. We need to do more, faster. 

So what can you do as an individual? [this section is work in progress]

Because none of the levers work in a vacuum and the world is one large interconnected network, the answer is complicated and depends on your personal resources & timeframe.

These include:

Your behaviour & consumption (Business Practice)

  • Voluntarily adopting behaviour & consumption that is low/no impact on the environment (where there isn’t regulation or industry behaviour). 

E.g; no meat or dairy consumption, less travel, recycling, having fewer children, insulating houses, turning down the thermostat, not using products that contribute to deforestation or the reduction of natural habitats (including unsustainable fishing), making purchasing decisions based on the sustainability of products, using less water and energy….etc.

  • Become literate in sustainable benchmarks like tCO2eq/cap and then ask the business you purchase from to provide their numbers.

Your advocacy in your community and business (Policy/Legislation)

  • Making it clear to local & national political representatives of the importance and priority of sustainable behaviour (e.g pressuring local planning permissions to include requirements for sustainable materials, asking local representatives to support climate-positive bills and legislation).
  • Join a local community group to help communicate the need for sustainability from local governments. 
  • Write to your local & national political representative and make it clear you want them to support sustainable legislation. Find organisations that are organising to encourage all representatives to support sustainable legislation and ask them what they need from you.
  • Find groups who are advocating for changes in key industries like dairy and construction and ask them what they need.

Your Work (Business Practice)

  • Find the people in the company you work for who are responsible for sustainability and ask them what they need. If there isn’t someone, organise your colleagues and advocate for one. Ask others in your industry what their best practices are and advocate for your company to adopt them.
  • Switch companies to work for a business or organisation that is helping/pressuring businesses or governments to act quickly against one of the goals, or a company leading the way in creating sustainable business practices for their sector.

Your money (Finance)

  • Donate to national advocacy groups and climate organisations
  • Move any investments you have into sustainable businesses or funds

Your emotional support

  • Find the people working on these hard problems in businesses and governments and just thank them for it. Congratulate political representatives when they support climate-positive bills. These can often feel like thankless jobs so let them know that people out here in the big blue world care and appreciate it. 

Note on carbon offsetting/swaps/credits (Finance)

Carbon offsetting/swaps/credits are a way of trying to neutralise the carbon you have created by paying for low-emission technology to be installed in places where there are currently high carbon emissions. This effectively removes the same amount of carbon you just produced from being produced by something else. 

The low-emission technology it pays for (e.g. giving families in India more efficient cooking stoves, or contributing to the installation of a new wind farm) are important to pay for and the market created by these swaps is driving more people and organisations to invest in climate-positive initiatives.

However, this model by itself is bad for individuals or organisations to use as a way to control their carbon footprint. They are insufficient for individuals to reduce their emissions and we won’t achieve our goals this way.

For this reason, the UNFCCC recommends people and organisations offset their footprint only after they have completely removed as many emissions from their footprint as possible.


Footprint makeup
Food accounts for 10-30% of a household’s carbon footprint, typically a higher portion in lower-income households.2  Of that, Production accounts for 68%* of food emissions, while transportation accounts for 5%. *68% is an average, it’s higher for vegetables as a % of their total footprint because their total footprint is low, it’s less for meat (as a %) because meat is so high. Outliers include food that needs 0 or a lot of cooking e.g. potatoes are low for production but require long cooking time.



The Climate Group – Climate Week NYC 2020

The talks from Climate Week 2020 NYC (see all on their FB Watch page) have a huge amount of examples of actions currently being taken and that could be taken by Businesses,  Finance and legislation.

This is co-lead by the WeMeanBusiness Coalition an organisation that works between governments and businesses to connect the dots on sustainable goals & practices from businesses and the legislation/regulation needed from governments.  

The Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action [link]

The Marrakech Partnership is an organisation that supports the implementation of the Paris Agreement by enabling collaboration between governments and the cities, regions, businesses and investors that must act on climate change.

  • See their 2020 review here
  • And their ‘Action Pathways’ documents (semi-tactical docs that identify what action needs to happen in each vertical:
EnergyExecutive SummaryAction Table
Human SettlementsExecutive SummaryAction Table
IndustryExecutive Summary
Action Table
Land UseExecutive Summary
Action Table
Oceans and Coastal ZonesExecutive SummaryAction Table
TransportExecutive Summary
Action Table
WaterExecutive Summary
Action Table
Saul Griffith

Wrote the note on decarbonisation written above [“How do we decarbonize? We don’t need a miracle. Everything we need to solve climate change is already here”

He is also interviewed on the Ezra Klein podcast here:

Carbon pricing dash

The UN Climate Neutral Now movement:

Climate Neutral Now invites organizations, governments and citizens to work towards

global climate neutrality by addressing their own climate footprint through a 3-step method:

  • Measure their greenhouse gas emissions. also called the carbon footprint;
  • Reduce them as much as possible through their own actions; and
  • Compensate those which cannot be currently avoided by using UN certified emission reductions (CERs), a type of carbon credit
Donna Meadows on Leverage points

Taken from Donna Meadows’ fantastic essay ‘Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System’ [link]. Some highlights are that she shows the places to intervene in a system in order to affect change (in increasing order of effectiveness) are:

12. The system’s constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, and standards).

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.

10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, and population age structures).

9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.

8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.

6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).

5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, and constraints).

4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.

3. The goals of the system.

2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.

1. The power to transcend paradigms.

It’s also important to note, as Donna does, that “The higher the leverage point, [you try to use to bring about change] the more the system will resist changing it”. I re-worded the below excerpt in my final section. The original states:

“So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science,7 has a lot to say about that.

In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep coming yourself, and loudly and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.”

“COUNTERPOWER – How to Make Change Happen” by Tim Gee

Goodreads link here

“No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age” by Jane F. McAlevey

Goodreads link 

Which industries and activities emit the most carbon?

Guardian article 






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s