Why We Can’t Afford to Ignore Positive Tipping Points in Climate Action

When it comes to climate change, we’re forever looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. We’d like to be told that there’s a proper way to decelerate these scary changes — but most often than not, we’re told we’re only moving closer to disaster. 

But recent studies have offered a ray of hope: positive tipping points that can spark cascading changes that accelerate not climate change, but climate action. 

What are tipping points?

Malcolm Gladwell calls a tipping point “moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” It’s a moment when a minute change triggers a cascading, often irreversible set of events in response. 

Tipping points can go both ways, positive or negative. They’re also seen across structures, from society to fashion, economics to the environment. The reduction of crime rates in 1990s New York City, for example, is considered a tipping point. So is the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies footwear in the mid-1990s. 

Where do tipping points feature in climate conversations?

The world has always been dangerously close to many negative tipping points that could accelerate climate change. For example, scientists assume that deforestation in the Amazon rainforest will reach a tipping point where natural recovery will be difficult to maintain. They claim that, even if human-led deforestation comes to a stop, the rainforest will still gradually disappear, and there’s no coming back from that.

Another example is arctic ice, which is melting at an alarming rate. It’s currently moving towards a negative feedback loop where the sea being ice-free means it absorbs more heat and melts arctic ice all over again. 

But it’s not all doomsday prophesizing. Researchers have found positive tipping points, many of which are well within our reach already. This is good news, given the time to tackle climate change incrementally has long passed. Our best choice now is to mobilize mass transformation through a wave of changes. 

These positive tipping points can’t be expected to come naturally. There are many barriers to reaching some achievable tipping points that only strictly enforced policies can overcome. 

That said, if chosen properly and put into motion on a global scale, positive tipping points can have a domino effect on other positive changes. These, in turn, snowball into a movement that has enough momentum and eyeballs across the world to reduce climate-caused disasters and slow global warming down. 

Positive climate tipping points are particularly being discussed in the context of 2015’s Paris Agreement, where 196 heads of states agreed to limit global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

What tipping points have had an impact so far?

In the paper “Upward-scaling tipping cascades to meet climate goals: plausible grounds for hope”, the researchers discuss tipping points that led to the UK decarbonizing its power industry and Norway increasing Electronic Vehicle (EV) sales. This is huge for reducing carbon emissions. The findings serve as an example for other countries that seemingly minor policy changes and effective implementation can create large-scale transformations. 

How the UK played out their tipping point

In the UK, gas is now cheaper than coal, thanks to a carbon tax and an EU emissions plan. When combined with rising renewable energy generation, coal became unprofitable, resulting in coal plants’ irreversible closure. In many countries, renewables are already producing energy at a lower cost than fossil fuels. This tipping point puts the UK on a similar path. Another similar threshold might be crossed when the cost of capital, or the costs of financing, for future renewable resources drops below that of new coal.

Norway’s version of a positive tipping point

Norway has also highlighted a massively positive tipping point that might just grip the world as well: electric vehicles. EVs currently account for around 2-3% of global car sales. However, Norway’s EV sales are more than 50% i.e. ten times higher than the numbers of any other country. They managed this thanks to policies that enabled EV manufacturing to cost the same as regular vehicles. By leveling the playing field, these policies made the right choice a lot more obvious for the folks of Norway. 

This could become a global tipping point when EVs also cost lesser (or the same as regular vehicles) to manufacture around the world. Certain countries are poised to accelerate this change. In particular, China, the EU, and California make up the major chunk of global car sales. That means if they’re able to sway the numbers in favor of EVs, then they’ll likely spark a global cascading effect.

Both of these tipping points contribute to one another. For one, cheaper renewable resources will make EVs and other electrified transport much cheaper and cleaner. On the other hand, an increase in demand for EVs will mean batteries become more and more necessary, which will make them more affordable. That’ll balance out the otherwise imbalance demand and supply for renewables. 

If government intervention can help reduce the cost of financing renewables to lower than the costs of mining coal, then transport, heating, and power will be the first few markets to decarbonize. That, in turn, means the world will be speeding on its way towards lower carbon emissions. 

Why do positive tipping points matter today?

Seeing as we’ve blown past many positive tipping points already and have foregone the opportunity to create incremental change, the world needs larger-scale revolutions to be able to meet environmental goals. It doesn’t help that the world needs to work twice as hard (or four times as hard, in some cases) to achieve lofty goals within shorter time frames. Tipping points offer a different approach to climate action. 

The researchers behind the study noted that the world is on the already verge of major hybrid cars and green energy turning points. However, they’re by no means a given and still need a lot of work and significant policy changes to make a reality. The paper offers hope that nations can come together to achieve these tipping points much faster than ever before, now that there’s clear-cut evidence of how effective they are. 

How tree planting can help reach positive tipping points

The restoration economy, as a whole, is already at a positive tipping point. Restoring forests can trigger positive effects on biodiversity, which in turn can have cascading effects on civilization. Plenty of individuals and corporations have realized just how lucrative investing in environmental restoration can be, making them more inclined to make positive changes. Companies such as EcoMatcher have crossed quite a few hurdles to make tree planting more accessible and affordable for companies and individuals; they have also made tree planting more engaging and, most importantly, transparent.

The final word

Our conversations around climate change can also be tipping points of their own. Usually, climate reports are full of doomsaying and fill people with dread. However, there is more potential for scalable mass in tangible actions than ever before. This is because we have access to technology and economic networks that make the world far smaller than it once was.

Each of us can quickly and easily influence friends and organizations in other countries towards positive tipping points. With the right network, and the determination to spark change, we may well find ourselves opening doors to more positive tipping points than ever before!