For a new government – the how will be just as important as the what

What a time for politics. Donald Trump’s unprecedented trial and criminal conviction in the States. Mexico and Iceland welcoming their first and second woman presidents. India’s election playing out against a 49°C heatwave. A snap election in France. And closer to home, a campaign trail gathering pace towards a July general election that’s already gripping the nation, with some own goals along the way.

The implications of political upheaval on our climate and social movements can’t be understated and discourse has erupted about the specific sustainability issues the UK’s next government should prioritise. From food security and microplastics to water pollution, worsening inequality and unethical supply chains, there is a lot to debate.

This is understandable, as there’s a lot that isn’t working. The UK has notoriously creaky and leaky houses. We’ve seen, and continue to see, a cost-of-living crisis driven by through-the-roof energy prices, promising green innovations that too often cost too much to put in place, polluted ecosystems (including in some areas, water that is unsafe to drink), and a throw-away economy which is fuelling over consumption and mountains of waste.

I could go on – and that’s before we account for an intensifying climate crisis that will bring more extreme and frequent heatwaves, severe fires, droughts, crop failures and floods. By impacting the most vulnerable the hardest, our climate crisis will also exacerbate the social inequalities that already fracture our communities.

It’s tough. That’s precisely why, regardless of who wins the election, we need a fundamentally different approach from government. Let’s look beyond headline-grabbing policies to understand how any future Cabinet should go about creating change. Rather than getting granular, let’s step back and recognise the UK as the living system it is. What does it need to flourish?

A system is a configuration of parts working with a specific function. It can be living, like the human body, inorganic, like a bicycle, social, like our education system or socio-economic, like our energy system.

How the UK functions as a whole directly results from its component systems – food, energy, business, transport, the NHS, education, immigration and more. The interconnections between these systems run so deep that changing one means impacting many more, often in both positive and negative ways, whether this was intentional or not.

So in the race to No 10, as important as prioritising any one issue is the need to join the dots between them all.

Systems change

At Forum for the Future, we believe many of the systems underpinning how we live are no longer fit for purpose. Our economy prioritises short-term profit maximisation over long-term business success. Our health system is designed to cure us, rather than keeping us well in the first place. Our food system too often depletes the biodiversity on which we all rely.

And the clearest example of why so many of our vital systems are not fit for what will be a very different future is the social inequalities they perpetuate; for too long, the few have disproportionately benefitted from today’s outdated status quo while others struggle. Look at gas. British Gas profits for 2023 increased 10-fold to £750m. That same year, the average fuel poverty gap increased by 20%.

It’s clear that the lived experience of many is in stark contrast to their idea of a flourishing UK. What people want is easier access to affordable, nutritious food delivered through supply chains that meet ethical and environmental standards – and grown in ways that enable farmers to make money, not lose it. They want access to new forms of green energy and to heat their homes without breaking the bank. They want clean air, clean water and efficient transport systems.

How can essentials like this seem so aspirational and right now, be so far out of reach?

From a business perspective, there is growing recognition that private sector leadership is critical in determining whether we can radically change things for the good of people and planet. But for businesses to step up, they need the right operating context. One in which policymakers put in place firm but fair regulation that helps, rather than hinders, sustainability efforts. Most businesses are willing and able to invest in the transitions needed, they just need government to adopt policies that de-risk those investments and help guarantee they can deliver. Flip-flopping policies – as we saw recently with electric vehicle targets – do the opposite.

But, how?

So then comes the ‘big how’ – what action from government would demonstrate a genuine commitment to lasting change?

While there are no silver bullets, Forum believes the answer lies in delivering system change and whoever wins the election will be in one of the strongest, most influential positions to do just that.

The first thing needed will be a proper diagnosis of the challenges, especially across our food, energy, health and economic systems. For too long, the UK has been on a vastly unsustainable trajectory and we need an honest appraisal of what’s really at the root of where we’re going wrong. We need to ask ourselves which mindsets, structures and patterns sit behind visible issues. Take empty food shelves as an example. Behind the gaps is an economy wired to reward short-term profit maximisation over longer-term business success. It’s an economy offering a massive incentive not to invest in putting long-term resilience and food security at the heart of the UK’s supply chains.

The second thing. We need a government galvanising joined-up action that goes far beyond the usual suspects. The widest range of stakeholders – especially frontline communities – must be engaged in ways that leverage diverse skills, experience and expertise. Any one brand or government that thinks they can shift the dial alone is misguided.

The third thing will be innovation and creating the routes for new innovations to scale. Whether it’s new services and products or new business models, we need to shake things up. Ideas must have game-changing potential to tackle multiple challenges at once. Take our housing as an example: creating net zero, energy-efficient homes is one thing, but if we retrofit in ways that compromise indoor air quality, we’re simply swapping one problem for another.

Which brings me to a final, crucial point. The new government must ask itself what policies, taxes and subsidies are needed to turbocharge system change in the UK. Only fundamental shifts in each of these can create the conditions for a more socially just and ecologically regenerative nation to emerge. It may seem like a stretch but examples of innovation and people-centred approaches shaping policy development do exist, and we’re living in an unprecedented, unpredictable age.

What a time for politics.  What an opportunity to do things differently.

Dr Sally Uren is chief executive at Forum for the Future

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie