As the “haves” of the world assembled this week on a mountain top in Switzerland, isolated and insulated from the seething hordes of common folk far below, the prospect of finding effective solutions to the danger of an overheating planet seems dimmer than ever. After all, most of the people who flew in their private jets to Davos this year represent the very forces that created the climate crisis in the first place. But researchers at SystemIQ and the University of Exeter are offering them — and the world — a way out, an escape hatch comprised of what they call “super tipping points” that could dramatically lower 70% of the carbon emissions the world creates every year.
Let’s start with some definitions. A tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell so ably informed us, is a point in time when change occurs. It’s when something reaches a critical mass and goes from being an outlier to mainstream. All of us have experienced tipping points in our lives, the smartphone being perhaps the most recent example (or texting instead of email if you are under 25). Gladwell subtitles his book “How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference.”
At Davos this week, the muckety-mucks had an opportunity to consider the SystemIQ and Exeter report entitled “The Breakthrough Effect: How To Trigger A Cascade Of Tipping Points To Accelerate The Net Zero Transition.” Like all such reports, it is lengthy and chock full of details, graphs, charts, footnotes, and the like designed to buttress its central thesis, which is that there are three so-called “super tipping points” in the offing that could help divert the world away from a path that drives the environment over a carbon emissions cliff. What follows is a synopsis designed to pique your interest enough that you will want to read the report for yourself.
3 Super Tipping Points
“Positive socio-economic tipping points can occur where new solutions cross a threshold in affordability, attractiveness or accessibility compared to incumbent solutions.” That’s it in a nutshell. “A leverage point is where a small intervention can cause a large effect. The “super-leverage points” identified in the report not only cut emissions in one key sector, but also support faster changes in other parts of the economy.
“Those three super-leverage points are — mandates for the sale of electric vehicles, mandates requiring green ammonia to be used in the manufacturing of agricultural fertilizers, 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 decarbonization for the shipping and steel industries, and reduced pressure for deforestation.”
A tipping point happens when a zero carbon solution advances to a point where it out-competes the existing high carbon solution. Once a tipping point is reached, feedback loops become self-reinforcing and drive exponential growth in the adoption of the new solution and a rapid decline of the old.
“High emitting sectors of the economy do not exist in isolation. They are deeply interconnected and zero emission solutions can influence transitions in multiple sectors simultaneously,” said Simon Sharpe, a lead author of the report. A tipping point has already been crossed in the electricity sector, with solar and wind accounting for more than 75% of new global capacity built in 2022.
The three upcoming super tipping points identified by the report are a.) mandates for the sale of electric vehicles, b.) mandates requiring “green ammonia” to be used in the manufacturing of agricultural fertilizers, and c.) public procurement of plant-based proteins.
The EV Revolution
According to The Guardian, the report claims the tipping point for electric vehicles is very close as EV sales surge. Setting dates around the world for the end of internal combustion powered vehicle sales — such as the 2030 date set for new vehicles by the UK and 2035 in China — drives further growth, the report adds. In the US, several states are following the path toward zero emissions transportation charted by California.
That scale-up will lead to batteries for energy storage becoming cheaper, which in turn will further accelerate the growth of renewable energy. More green energy means lower electricity bills, which will make heat pumps even more cost effective.
A Revolution In Agriculture
The second super tipping point mentioned in the report is setting mandates for green fertilizers to replace the fertilizers produced from fossil gas. Ammonia is a key ingredient and can be made from hydrogen produced by renewable energy combined with nitrogen from the air.
When governments require a larger proportion of fertilizer to be green, that will drive a scale up and cost reductions in the production of green hydrogen, the report says. More green hydrogen will promote lower emissions from aviation, shipping, and steel production. Such mandates are under consideration in India, which is targeting 5% green fertilizer production by 2024 and 20% by 2028.
The Rise Of Plant-Based Food
The third super tipping point is helping alternative proteins to beat animal-based proteins on cost while matching them on taste. Meat and dairy cause about 15% of global emissions. Think about that for a minute. We are rushing forward with plans to electrify the transportation sector, which accounts for about 20% of global emissions. Yet we seldom hear of any similar push to cut emissions from the meat and dairy industry, which produce almost as many carbon emissions as the billions of cars and trucks in the world.
The report claims public procurement of plant-based meat and dairy replacements by government departments, schools, and hospitals could be a powerful change agent. It would cut emissions from cattle and reduce the destruction of forests for pasture land. A 20% market share by 2035 would mean up to 800 million hectares (nearly 2 billion acres) of land would no longer be needed for livestock and their fodder. That’s equivalent to up to 15% of the world’s farmland today. That land could then be used for the restoration of forests and wildlife, which would help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“We need to find and trigger positive socioeconomic tipping points if we are to limit the risk from damaging climate tipping points,” says Professor Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter. “This non-linear way of thinking about the climate problem gives plausible grounds for hope: the more that gets invested in socioeconomic transformation, the faster it will unfold — getting the world to net zero greenhouse gas emissions sooner.”
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