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We can trigger positive tipping points to cut carbon emissions faster

Governments should be aiming to trigger technological, economic and social tipping points that accelerate climate action, according to a major report

By Michael Le Page

6 December 2023

The rapid growth of solar energy in recent years can be seen as a positive tipping point

Henry Do/Solent News/Shutterstock

There are tipping points in technological, economic, political and social systems that could lead to carbon emissions falling faster if triggered, according to a major report. The authors of the Global Tipping Points Report are calling on governments worldwide to introduce coordinated policies designed to trigger these tipping points.

“We’ve left it basically too late for incremental action on the climate crisis,” says lead author Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter in the UK. “Instead, we need to find and trigger positive tipping points that accelerate action towards zero greenhouse gas emissions.”

Rather than responding steadily to gradual change, some systems reach tipping points where a little change can result in them abruptly switching into a different state.

For instance, it is thought that as the Amazon gets hotter and drier, the rainforest could die off and be replaced by grassland. The loss of some trees increases the heat and dryness, causing other trees to die.

“These tipping points are driven by reinforcing feedbacks that drive self-amplifying change, and the same is true in our technological, social and political systems as it is in physical Earth systems,” says Tom Powell, also at the University of Exeter, who is a co-author of the report.

“When we look back at history, we can see that rapid transitions are possible when conditions are right,” he says. “Think of the incredible momentum of the industrial revolution or the very rapid displacement of horse-drawn transport by motor vehicles, or the way that internet and smartphones have changed our lives in a couple of decades.”

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Solar and wind power have also passed a tipping point, becoming the cheapest form of electricity generation in much of the world, says Powell. “That’s very good news.”

But this tipping point didn’t just happen by itself. It was a result of decades of effort, he says. “The solar energy revolution is the result of really significant investment, first by the US, then by Germany, then by China, to bring down costs.”

Electric cars are also nearing tipping points in Europe and China, as more and more people buy them. But more could be done to bring about these tipping points earlier, says the report, such as ensuring that electric cars are cheaper than petrol or diesel cars.

Similarly, reducing the cost of electricity could help speed up the adoption of technologies such as heat pumps. For instance, electricity in the UK is currently more expensive than gas, which means swapping a gas boiler for a heat pump doesn’t always provide big savings, even though it greatly reduces carbon emissions.

“Policy-makers need to think systemically and look for those leverage points where small interventions can make a big difference,” says Powell.

“Triggering positive tipping points requires coordinated action – they don’t just happen by magic,” says Lenton.

But triggering one positive tipping point can sometimes help trigger others, like dominoes, he says. For instance, the adoption of electric vehicles is bringing down battery prices, which then makes it feasible to use batteries to back up the intermittent electricity supply from renewable sources.

Simon Sharpe at the World Resources Institute, who is a former adviser to the UK government, agrees that governments should aim to trigger positive tipping points.

This isn’t part of traditional economic theory, but as a result of the work of researchers such as Lenton, UK government guidance on policy appraisal now includes a section on transformational change, says Sharpe. “This is a helpful step in the right direction, but I think probably not enough people in government are aware of it yet, understand it, or know how to put it into practice.”

Not all economic and social tipping points are positive, though, warns report author David Armstrong McKay at the University of Exeter. The impacts of climate change could trigger financial instability, mass migrations and conflicts, making it harder to cut emissions and adapt to a warming world.