‘We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.’

Hoesung Lee, IPCC Chair

Over a decade ago, Climateworks launched with a focus on decarbonising Australia’s economy. During our first years we delivered significant impacts, playing an influential role in supporting all tiers of government and key sectors within the economy to commit to low-carbon action and policies.

But with the UN Paris Climate Agreement and the call to limit warming to well below 2 degrees and striving for 1.5 degrees, the message became clear: The world must go harder and faster in the race to decarbonise.

And so, while we stayed true to our original mission, Climateworks responded by ramping up our work and expanding the regions we work in. Aligning with global leadership, we introduced a more ambitious ‘systems change’ strategy.

‘To avoid the worst climate impacts and build equitable and prosperous societies, we must ignite widespread change across all the global systems.’

Safeguarding our Global Commons

So what is the reasoning behind a systems change approach and how does it work in practice, at Climateworks?

Systems change refers to transformation from the current state to a future, more desirable state.

We refer to the many interrelated parts, inputs and processes that come together as a whole and contribute to an agreed purpose as a ‘system’. Examples include the transport system, our energy system, urban systems, industrial value chains, the financial sector, and the business sector.

Systems exist at all scales, and encompass the myriad of mindsets, rules, institutions and behaviours as well as natural and man-made elements contributing to their function.

Because the elements within systems and their relationship to each other are complex and dynamic, it is near impossible to change a system by addressing a single element with a pro-forma approach.

So we view the system as a whole, addressing both what is apparent alongside the sometimes less obvious behaviours, power dynamics, relationships, patterns and mental models that are perpetuating current outcomes.

Doing so reveals that we can’t simply and unilaterally step in to control and change complex systems.

However, we can work with others to influence the deep structures and underlying patterns of the system by intentionally altering, influencing and motivating changes in behaviour, attitudes and processes, so that the system works better for the people and places affected. In the case of Climateworks’ strategy, that means acting from our place of agency on the most influential elements within systems that are able to reduce our emissions to net zero and keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.

‘Climateworks supports and enables the people, processes and structures that will create the greatest change in the transition to net zero.’

Anna Skarbek, Climateworks CEO

Today our organisational model embeds systems change across seven systems – four of them physical systems: Cities, Industry, Energy, and Land, Food and Oceans (LFO); and three which we call enabling systems: Sustainable Corporates, Sustainable Finance, Sustainable Economies.

Our strategy in action

To apply a systems change approach, we first must acknowledge that systems are already functioning and have their own momentum – and they are perfectly designed to get the results they currently get – we just want to change those results.

So, we take a holistic view in order to understand, learn and navigate the best way to interact with that system for change, learning from our context and the systems in which we work.

This begins with backcasting from our vision, to identify the transformations needed and the points where intervention would most effectively impact the system and realign it towards the vision.

We ask questions including where are the blind spots, the biases? What are the dynamics amongst stakeholders – which are always changing and shifting – and what should we define as the boundaries of that system?

This big picture view enables us to identify specific intervention points as well as opportunities to accelerate transformation, working across systems, geographies and scales (national, regional and global), also identifying opportunities to connect actions and share solutions.

We consider theories of change – how change takes place – to determine what we work on/ where best we can contribute and intervene, and how to deliver our work.

And we focus on highest impact opportunities – which might mean tackling a smaller section of the economy producing a higher percentage of emissions, or working with the small number of decision makers who have the greatest influence on their sectors.

Our initiatives fill gaps to accelerate system transition

It is also important that Climateworks avoids doubling up on the existing work of actors already involved in the change, so we ensure our actions complement the capabilities of project partners.

Our strategic interventions include:

  • knowledge translation
  • scenario development and modelling 
  • convening and coalition building
  • policy and strategy advice
  • connecting key influencers to collaborate for greatest impact 
  • capacity building
  • shaping the narrative.

There are three overarching phases to this process: defining what ‘good’ looks like; triggering action by decision makers, and; helping embed change into systems. Our ultimate goal is to catalyse self-sustaining change in systems to drive implementation in line with 1.5 degrees.

Critically, systems change is a living, adaptive process. It is not set and forget – because systems themselves are not static. And so during delivery, we constantly check in, measuring progress, reporting what we are learning about and what impact we are having. We do this to better understand how and why systems are changing, how we may need to adjust, adapt, include other measures, address unknowns. And then, we learn from our actions – what do we keep and what new ideas have entered our thinking.

In 2022, the world is experiencing growing consumer momentum towards net zero, global government recognition and corporate anticipation. For Climateworks, implementation of our systems change approach is underway, alongside continued scaling of expertise and capacity to accelerate systems level change.

Net zero targets have been set – now is the time to scale up and ensure the systems that need to change are supported to do so, and that this change becomes self-sustaining for a safe climate for all.

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