Topics: Resources and Pollution
Type: Briefing paper
Publication date: May 2023



Authors: Liam Kirkpatrick, Professor Claire S. Adjiman, Professor Helen Apsimon, Dr Alex Berry, Dr Audrey De Nazelle, Dr Ana Mijic, Dr Rupert J. Myers, Professor Guy Woodward, Dr Mark Workman

Systems approaches are vital for coordinating decision-making in the face of complex issues because they provide the whole picture view needed to avoid negative unintended consequences and to generate genuine benefits. This briefing explains how systems thinking can be used to capture the problems involved in addressing environmental pollution and support decision-makers in finding solutions.


  • The complexity of pollution means that we need systemic transformation to tackle it. Systems approaches can help uncover ways for people and sectors to work together to achieve this change, identify new solutions and improve existing ones, reveal co-benefits, and avoid negative unintended consequences.
  • The multiple scales of pollution challenges can be better appreciated using a systems approach, which provides a deeper understanding of the links between global, national, regional, local and individual pollution impacts.
  • An interdisciplinary approach is essential, considering perspectives from different disciplines and stakeholders to understand the system boundaries, identify leverage points and potential technical, behavioural and policy solutions.

Key recommendations

  • Understand the problem from a systems perspective: engage systems experts from across disciplines to help frame the problem and develop solutions.
  • Understand the system boundaries: bring in perspectives from a range of academics and industry, policy and societal stakeholders.
  • Develop systems tools: use data and systems models to make collaborative decisions and understand trade-offs.

View and download: Systems thinking for the transition to zero pollution