Delivering Environmental Sustainability: ‘Top Down’ vs ‘Bottom Up’

This is a question that bugged me the other day, I couldn’t decide which approach was more effective so I did a little research and jotted down a couple of notes, have a read and let me know your thoughts in the comment section.

A ‘bottom up’ approach to delivering environmental sustainability relies on the general populace making changes in their lifestyles and demanding that the government make changes too. Rayner (2010, p.617) explains that the basic proposition of a ‘bottom up’ approach is that “climate change policies should be designed and implemented at the lowest feasible level of organization”. This ‘bottom up’ approach is the opposite to the ‘top down’ approach that sees governments/powers implicating changes that affect societies as a whole; things such as laws, initiatives and incentives.

The first thing to address is the problem with a system that relies solely on ‘top down’ approaches to achieving environmental sustainability. Smith (2008, p.363) argues that even though ‘top down’ approaches have the advantages of expert insight as well as financial and technical resources, it will always be unsuccessful without the participation of local knowledge. Bäckstrand (2003, p.31) supports this by saying that the current system is flawed because of a lack of collaboration; experts should be considerate of local knowledge and more effort should be made to establish dialogue between experts and citizens.

It has been argued that the Kyoto treaty was a failure in terms of delivering environmental sustainability due to lack of understanding of the intricacies of the problems it faced, which reveals the weaknesses of a ‘top down’ approach. Prins and Rayner (2007, p.975) criticise the treaty, saying that instead of aiming for precise targets for emissions reductions, governments should instead promote a ‘bottom up’ approach that benefits from social learning. This would also allow governments to drive towards a goal of ‘fundamental technological change’, whilst focusing on how governments, firms and households actually do to reduce emissions. So it seems that even though people may think that governments will have the power to bring change, in fact the most important way to do this is by working up from the bottom.

An important aspect of the ‘bottom up’ approach is self-evaluation and analysis of one’s current lifestyle, which has been made far easier thanks to EFA, which was pioneered by Professor William Rees in British Columbia, Canada. It is described as the greatest tool for measuring an individual’s ecological footprint by measuring: food and renewable material consumption, transport use, energy use, built land and waste production (WWF, 2002a, cited in Sutcliffe et al, 2008). After using the WWF footprint calculator, it was revealed that I use only 40% of my share of emissions, and I was given tips on how I can even further reduce my impact. This encourages people to make changes on an individual level, by changing small aspects of daily lifestyle to reduce carbon emissions; it’s the small things that will add up to make big differences.

In conclusion, since ‘top down’ approaches seem to be more flawed and harder to control than one may think, the best approach for delivering environmental sustainability would be to work from the bottom. This would require work to encourage governments, industries and households to analyse and evaluate their ‘footprints’, and make every effort to reduce their own impact on the planet. Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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Bäckstrand, K. (2003). Civic Science for Sustainability: Reframing the Role of Experts, Policy-Makers and Citizens in Environmental Governance. Global Environmental Politics 3(4), pp.24-41.
Prins, G. & Rayner, S. (2007). Time to Ditch Kyoto. Nature 499(7165), pp.973-975.
Rayner, S. (2010). How to eat an elephant: a bottom-up approach to climate policy. Climate Policy 10(6), pp.615-621.
Smith, J.L. (2008). A critical appreciation of the “bottom-up” approach to sustainable water management: embracing complexity rather than desirability. Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability 13(4), pp.353-366.
Sutcliffe, M. et al. (2008). Can Eco-Footprinting Analysis Be Used Successfully to Encourage More Sustainable Behaviour at the Household Level? Sustainable Development 16, pp.1-16.
WWF Website. (2002a). Ecological Footprinting: a Guide for Local Authorities.

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