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Implications of blinkered thinking for protecting the environment

This article explores examples of flawed attempts to solve environmental crises by focusing on one outcome at a time.
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© University of Reading

Kayden’s fingers flash over the keyboard. He takes a slurp of lukewarm coffee and breathes a deep sigh of relief. It always feels satisfying to complete a code and to see a job well done. Later, in the cafeteria, he explains with excitement to colleagues how the code allows a car to cheat air quality emissions tests. This means the vehicle has higher fuel efficiency and salary bonuses are on the cards for them all this year…

Such a scenario may have occurred in one of many car companies in the early 2000s. Volkswagen alone sold over nine million diesel cars fitted with fraudulent ‘defeat’ devices helping them cheat air quality emissions tests1. Many of these vehicles still pump poisonous nitrous oxides (NOX) into the air, forming an invisible fine particulate smog known to cause serious respiratory diseases, reproductive problems and neurological effects.

Take the case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine year old girl, who lived 30 metres away from the busy South Circular ring road in London. Ella was exposed to traffic fumes for years and legal history was made in the UK in 2020 when air pollution was, for the first time, listed as a cause of her death. Her story is potentially just one of thousands of similar deaths around the world.

Volkswagen cars cumulatively emitted 526 kilotonnes (526,000,000 kg) of nitrogen oxides more than legally allowed, leading to an estimated loss of at least 45,000 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) across society1. And Volkswagen isn’t the only culprit. When 37 top-selling diesel car models were tested, every single one produced more air pollution than legally allowed. The average for ‘Euro 5’ cars registered between 2011 and 2015 was over six times higher than the official legal laboratory test limit2. Newer vehicles weren’t any better. A smaller sample size of 12 ‘Euro 6’ car models were found by the International Council for Clean Transportation to produce NOx emissions seven times higher than the Euro 6 standard3. Seen in the context of public health impacts, the actions of these car companies is quite astonishing.

Why would a company take such risks with human health?

Part of the explanation is due to the narrow focus government regulators had on improving fossil fuel efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New technology allowed diesel cars to drive more miles per gallon of fuel. The vehicles emitted less CO2 than petrol-powered cars and so seemed to be a better solution to limit climate warming.

In the early 2000s, the UK government introduced tax break subsidies to promote diesel cars. The focus on improving fuel efficiency neglected other impacts, such as air quality. However, this narrow focus on a single outcome turned out to be a mistake as Lord Drayson, the science minister of the time, admitted: “We did get it wrong. We now have a much better understanding than we did just a few years ago of what are the health effects of the products of diesel cars and they are literally killing people so it’s clear that in retrospect that was the wrong policy”.4

Another example of perverse policies that focus narrowly on a single outcome and lead to undesirable outcomes elsewhere are the bioenergy policies you looked at in Step 1.12 (eg, incentivising the expansion of crops such as soy to produce biofuel for vehicles). These also had a focus on reducing CO2 emissions but, as a consequence of this myopic approach (what we call ‘blinkered thinking’), created unanticipated problems for biodiversity and food security.

A narrow focus on improving a single desirable outcome for society, like action on climate change, can be problematic if it hampers progress on other desired outcomes, such as protecting biodiversity or reducing hunger.

What’s the alternative to blinkered thinking?

‘Systems-thinking’ approaches (you’ll look at the practical detail of how to do this in Step 2.13) are so important because they can be used to understand how to pursue multiple desirable outcomes simultaneously. This reduces the likelihood of solving one problem at the expense of another. In simple terms, the approach involves asking ‘what are the likely ways that this action could affect other things we care about?’ So, for example, we might analyse policies and technologies which aim to mitigate or adapt to climate change and understand their multiple outcomes by creating a matrix of possible trade-offs and synergies5. Trade-offs describe the undesirable effects the action might have, whereas synergies describe positive effects in addition to the main purpose of the action.

This type of analysis can be done for high-level societal targets, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And it can just as effectively be done for individual goals; for example, we might explore how an action we could take to address climate change in our own lives would affect other things we care about. Finding a balance that ensures we can effectively address multiple goals helps us avoid the ‘burden shifting’ of problems (solving one problem but causing another) that comes with blinkered thinking.


  1. Valuing the human health damage caused by the fraud of Volkswagen. Oldenkamp, R., van Zelm, R. & Huijbregts, M.A.J. Environmental Pollution, 212, 121-127. 2016
  2. Vehicle emissions testing programme: data and conclusions. Department for Transport Cm 9259, April 2016
  3. Real-world exhaust emissions from modern diesel cars. Vicente Franco et al., International Council on Clean Transportation, 2014
  4. UK Government Wrong To Subsidise Diesel, Says Former Minister. The Guardian 1 Oct 2015
  5. Climate (Co)benefits Portal: A global and regional assessment of the (co)benefits and trade-offs of climate mitigation & adaptation. University of Leeds, Priestley International Centre for Climate. You can filter by region and other factors to discover the evidence for the outcomes of particular interventions.
© University of Reading
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Using Systems Thinking to Tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis

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