Climate Action

What are the 'positive tipping points' that could help us accelerate out of climate disaster?

Concept of renewable energy storage at bright clean blue sky environment. Modern black photovoltacis, modular battery energy storage system and a wind turbine system in the background. 3d rendering: We need to accelerate the change we need to reverse adverse climate change effects through positive tipping points.

Positive tipping points ... Decarbonizing the economy starts with self-propelling exponential change, says climate scientist Tim Lenton. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Anna Bruce-Lockhart
Editorial Lead, World Economic Forum
Sophia Akram
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • You've probably heard of climate “tipping points”, the dangerous phenomena that could suddenly make climate change worse. But did you know there are also “positive tipping points” that could help do the opposite?
  • Tim Lenton, Professor of Climate Change and Earth System Science at the UK's University of Exeter, says this is how we combat climate 'doomerism'.
  • Listen to the podcast here, on any podcast app via this link or YouTube.

“Climate doom - that's disempowering and just leaves us paralysed by fear but also by the complexity of the situation.”

Tim Lenton is among a number of climate scientists who believe that there are positive tipping points - particularly the exponential growth in certain technologies - that humanity could use to "accelerate out of trouble".

Lenton, a professor at the University of Exeter in the UK, is clear about the enormity of the challenge of stopping greenhouse gas emissions, especially as we face potentially disastrous tipping points, such as melting ice sheets and thawing permafrost, which could suddenly accelerate climate change. "We need to go at least five times faster in decarbonizing the economy," he tells the Radio Davos podcast.

"And the only credible way to do that now is through self-propelling exponential change, what I'm calling positive tipping points."

But positive tipping points are more than a distant pipe dream, Lenton says. "Whilst it may not look like we're progressing very fast, if you understand the laws of exponential change and doubling and doubling and doubling and doubling of action, we do really have a chance to accelerate out of trouble."

Here are some highlights from the interview.

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Grounds for optimism

Tim Lenton: I've been working on the urgent need to find and trigger positive tipping points to accelerate action towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid some damaging and dangerous climate tipping points.

It's vital to shift away from a sense of climate doom, because that's disempowering and just leaves us paralysed by fear - but also by the complexity of the situation.

Instead, it's really important to know that we can work with the beautiful, complex systems of the Earth, and also our societies and economy, to accelerate the change we desperately need, to avoid the worst of the climate and ecological crisis.

I feel it's extremely urgent that we accelerate action on climate change. But I also know that it's a possibility, and that gives me what I call plausible grounds for hope, rather than naive optimism.

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Super-leverage tipping points

Tim Lenton: A massive tipping point to electric vehicles means that batteries are getting cheaper and cheaper the more that get built, through something called economies of scale. For example, when you put on the kettle isn't always when the sun is shining or the wind's blowing. So we need cheap storage of electricity. Cheap batteries is a really key form of that.

So these two tipping points are reinforcing each other, and that's just one example of how things couple across sectors in reinforcing ways. And that introduces the idea that you can come up as somebody in policy-making with policies that aren't just designed to tip one sector, you know that they will have an impact across other sectors.

And that's where I came up with the idea of what we're calling a 'super-leverage point', a point where you can intervene in the economy not just to change one bit of it, but to create change that will spread across the economy to other sectors.

[...] You might well be asking, 'Well, what's the next sector to tip?'

Green ammonia is ammonia that we manufacture by putting together nitrogen that we've separated from the air with hydrogen that, crucially, we've separated from the water molecule using renewable electricity in a process called electrolysis. So that's a source of ammonia that can be zero carbon. And ammonia is crucial for fertilizer, but it also offers potential as an energy carrier and as a fuel, for example, for big ships in the ocean.

[...] It's a cascade of what we might call tipping points across sectors, all starting with what I call a super-leverage point to incentivise green ammonia production, which we might do by encouraging governments to have a mandate to include a certain amount of green ammonia in the fertilizer that's used in their country or in their marketplace.

Accelerating progress

Tim Lenton: Well, it's absolutely clear to me as a climate scientist that we have to stop fossil-fuel burning as soon as we can and limit what are called the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases.

It's also absolutely clear that we're going nowhere near fast enough at doing that. We need to go at least five times faster in decarbonising the economy. And the only credible way to do that now is through self-propelling exponential change, what I'm calling positive tipping points.

So the whole motivation to be researching those, to be researching what can trigger them sooner, is to avoid the climate tipping points that are otherwise a source of existential risk to me, my kids, your kids, your grandkids, and all the generations to come.

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