How to trigger a cascade of tipping points to accelerate the net zero transition
27 Jan 2023
The world is heading towards a series of climatic tipping points that risk causing irreversible damage to our planetary life-support systems. Despite political and business commitments, the world remains off-track for meeting our climate targets, with global temperatures already 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels and raising doubts about our ability to limit the temperature increase to below 1.5°C. We keep hearing that “now is the time for action”. Well, a fresh off-the-press report by Systemiq and the University of Exeter shows exactly how parts of the global economy could move rapidly towards zero emissions, with far-reaching effects across 10 of the highest-emitting sectors.
We know from experience that the adoption of new solutions can increase dramatically when tipping points are crossed, such that incumbent solutions are replaced and decline at an accelerated pace. In addition, the strong reinforcing feedback loops that exist within and between sectors for zero-carbon solutions mean that tipping cascades can spread change rapidly across sectors and make it less reversible.
A focus on joint international action to activate these tipping points and cascades could have an outsized impact on global emissions and contribute materially to reducing the risks of dangerous climate change.
In the Breakthrough Agenda, launched at COP26 in 2021, 45 countries – together representing 70 per cent of global GDP – committed to working together to make clean technologies and sustainable solutions the most affordable, accessible, and attractive option in each of the high-emitting sectors before the end of this decade.
Systemiq’s Breakthrough Effect report aims to help show where these tipping points lie.
How do positive tipping points work?
The report focuses on the elements required to reach the tipping points, flip the incentives in favour of the low-carbon solution, and unlock reinforcing feedback loops as a dominant market force.
We call “leverage point”, a point where a small intervention can cause a large effect. The report identified three “super-leverage points” that can not only cut emissions in one key sector, but also support faster changes in other parts of the economy.
These interventions points are: mandates for the sale of electric vehicles, mandates requiring “green ammonia” (a pungent gas that is widely used to make agricultural fertilisers) to be used in the manufacturing of agricultural fertilisers, and public procurement of plant-based proteins. These changes could trigger a cascade of tipping points, leading to cheaper batteries to help solar and wind scale-up in the electricity sector, cheaper hydrogen opening up decarbonisation for the shipping and steel industries, and reduced pressure on deforestation.
Kirsten Dunlop, CEO of EIT Climate-KIC says: “The Breakthrough Effect report highlights the importance and timeliness of thinking and acting in systems to accelerate the net-zero transformation. We need to consider how much more effective we could be if we comprehend, embrace and design for dynamics of change in human systems, from politics and policy to societal norms. I welcome a report that highlights the opportunity before us; one that calls for our policy decision-making to build and reflect an understanding of these system dynamics. The report further calls attention to the role of international cooperation in creating the conditions for positive ‘super tipping points’ and ‘tipping point cascades’. This is extremely relevant to efforts underway in Europe through the Green Deal and EU Missions which offer a case in point to put this into action across national and market boundaries, and extend that further to international partnerships, to create the conditions for global-scale systemic change.”
Read the report