With footage of chunks of polar sea ice collapsing, people having to be rescued from floods and wildfires, and the sheer scale of the Amazon already lost to deforestation, the eco-anxiety that many of us feel is understandable. But consider this: although it has taken a relatively short time for human activity to get us to this point, human ingenuity might be able to get us back on track just as quickly.
The world beyond 1.5 degrees
A tipping point is the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change. One of them is the focus of COP26: the need to limit global warming to 1.5C. Coming up with an action plan to avert the most disastrous tipping points is reason to be hopeful as COP26 gets underway, as the alternative will change the world as we know it.
Beyond 1.5 degrees, we will see more extreme weather impacting lives, crops, and livelihoods. People will have to migrate from low lying land liable to flood, heatwaves will cause death and destroy the crops we depend on to eat. And then there are fragile natural ecosystems upon which many animals depend – coral reefs, for example – which will decline at an even more alarming rate.
Reducing costs to drive the market
But tipping points don’t have to be negative. Positive tipping points are already starting to occur. Consider electric vehicles (EVs). Sales are up 168% in the first half of 2021, compared to 2020. They still make up a low percentage of vehicle sales – just 4.2% – but that figure is double that of the previous year. The tipping point for electric vehicle takeup depends on policy and cost. Norway leads the way in EV takeup thanks to tax and road toll exemptions and the UK has announced a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
The Paris Effect report by SYSTEMIQ in 2020 identifies 2024 as the likely tipping point for EVs – the year in which they will compete against petrol and diesel cars on price. With road transport accounting for 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to Our World in Data, reducing the cost of EVs alongside introducing policy to make driving petrol or diesel undesirable can trigger a rapid adoption of EVs and drive down emissions.
The acceleration of EV take up illustrates the typical success curve of a product. Once an appetite for a product has been proved, the market reacts by funding innovation. As the SYSTEMIQ report puts it, “Once new solutions find an early market to serve, investment cycles can speed up, enabling performance improvement; costs often fall much faster than expected. The faster they improve, the more investment flows.”
The increasing popularity of EV has been accelerated by some of that “performance improvement”, notably battery and driving range improvements (although that also comes with its related issues).
Other tipping points
This has also happened with other planet-friendly innovations. Solar and wind power is now cheaper to implement than fossil fuel generation, for example. The SYSTEMIQ report found that 73% of coal plants will have higher operating costs than the cost of building new solar or wind power by 2025. This is partly because the cost of wind and solar is falling – by 50-65% since 2015, according to the report. In a similar timeframe, coal has gone from being 40% of the UK’s energy mix to, at the time of writing, not being used to produce energy in the UK at all.
Positive tipping points will be the focus of a podcast series produced in collaboration with SYSTEMIQ called ‘Ahead of the Curve’. You can listen to the six-part series on Spotify and all other major podcasting platforms.