Positive “tipping points” in the uptake of electric vehicles and the decarbonisation of electricity generation could spark a global transition to a climate neutral economy, scientists say, providing fresh hope in the fight against global warming.
Tipping points are moments of small change that trigger a large, often irreversible response.
The world is already “dangerously close” to several tipping points that could worsen climate change, warned co-author Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.
But positive changes could help tip the scale, with a small coalition of countries triggering “upward-scaling tipping cascades” to rapidly decrease carbon emissions, according to Lenton and Simon Sharpe, who co-authored a study on the matter, published on 10 January.
“We have left it too late to tackle climate change incrementally,” said Lenton. “Limiting global warming to well below 2°C now requires transformational change, and a dramatic acceleration of progress.”
The Paris Agreement aims to keep global warming at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, but research shows the world has already reached 1.1°C warming.
World nations will need to rapidly decrease their carbon emissions in order to keep the planet well below 2°C and avoid the most catastrophic consequences of global warming, like rising sea levels and increased extreme weather events.
“For example, the power sector needs to decarbonise four times faster than its current rate, and the pace of the transition to zero-emission vehicles needs to double,” said Lenton.
“Many people are questioning whether this is achievable. But hope lies in the way that tipping points can spark rapid change through complex systems,” he explained.
The report highlights two areas, where policy has already triggered tipping points at national level.
The first is electric vehicles, which account for 2-3% of new car sales globally, but are essential for clean future transport. In Norway, policies that make electric vehicles the same price as conventional cars have helped increase the share of new car sales to over 50%, ten times higher than any other country.
Collective policy changes in China, the EU and California, which are responsible for half the world’s car sales, could shift investment globally and increase electric vehicle production, decreasing costs and improving the share of electric vehicles on the road.
The electricity sector is a second area that could unlock drastic carbon emission cuts. The report points to the UK, which has decarbonised its power sector faster than any other country, with a carbon tax and EU emissions trading scheme making coal unprofitable compared to gas and renewables.
According to the report, a tipping point could be reached when the cost of capital of coal plants falls below that of solar and wind in every country. Decarbonising power could then trigger a domino effect where large parts of transport, heating, and industry are also decarbonised.
“If either of these efforts – in power or road transport – succeed, the most important effect could be to tip perceptions of the potential for international cooperation to tackle climate change,” Lenton said.
These are not inevitable and will require policies to overcome the many barriers that prevent transition. But their introduction could cause social and economic responses that help drive change, and result into “cascades” that alter the global economy, he said.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]