The biggest risk of dangerous climate change comes from the way all the tipping points in the Earth system are linked. Ice sheets, ocean currents, permafrost, and the Amazon Forest are all connected. Crossing one tipping point increases the chances of crossing others, increasing the pace and scale of change until the whole climate enters a different – and for us, less hospitable – state.
What if the same is true in the economy: that the greatest opportunity for rapid change comes from the links between positive tipping points in each of the emitting sectors? In a new report that I’ve worked on with friends from Systemiq and Exeter University, we’ve mapped out some of these positive tipping points and the links between them. The links come from the way that certain technologies can support low carbon transitions in many sectors, and from the fact that the more these technologies are deployed, the more their costs come down.
When we put all those connections together, we see a map of the global economy with many positive tipping points, each linked to others by reinforcing feedbacks that amplify change. Looking at this map presents us with an obvious question: where are the most powerful places to intervene, if we want to change the whole system quickly?
In any individual sector, we can identify leverage points: actions that are relatively low cost or low difficulty but that have a high impact in accelerating the transition. In the whole system, we can identify super-leverage points: we define these as actions that are high leverage in the sectors where they are taken, and that influence transitions in other sectors in a way that is positive in direction, high in impact, and reasonably high in probability.
We propose three. To be clear, none of these is enough on its own – but each of them stands out for its unusually high degree of leverage.
1) Zero emission vehicle mandates. Evidence from California, China, British Columbia and Quebec shows this policy can be outstandingly effective in accelerating the transition to zero emission vehicles. Cars are quickly becoming the largest global market for batteries. Giving electric vehicles a 60% share of global car sales would increase battery production volumes by a factor of ten, and bring down battery costs by around 60%. This would help cross the second tipping point in the power sector, where power from solar or wind with energy storage becomes cheaper than power from coal or gas. Cheaper batteries would also help the transition to zero emission trucks. And cheap, clean electricity will support the transitions to zero emissions in heating, cooling, and many industrial sectors.
2) Green ammonia mandates in fertilizer production. Of all the sectors where green hydrogen could support decarbonization, fertilizer production is the one where it could be the least difficult to create large-scale demand for green hydrogen quickly. This is because the clean vs fossil cost differential is relatively low, and because no change in the end-use technology is required – it involves replacing a fuel, not a factory. Giving green ammonia a 25% share of fertilizer production could create demand for 100GW of hydrogen electrolysers, enough to bring their cost down by 70%. Together with cheap clean electricity, this would enable low-cost green hydrogen to support the transitions in steel, shipping, and potentially aviation. It would also lower the cost of long-term energy storage, important for power sector decarbonization.
3) Public procurement of alternative proteins. Reducing emissions from livestock is difficult, but product substitution could be easier. Growing plants uses far fewer resources than growing animals, so plant-based proteins can be cheaper than meat. If they taste the same, why not eat them? In Europe, public procurement accounts for 5-6% of food sales – so it can be used to rapidly scale up the market for alternative proteins, helping to improve their quality and bring down their costs. A 20% market share for alternative proteins could free up 15% of agricultural land, reducing pressure for deforestation. The combined effects on livestock and land use mean that emissions from alternative proteins could be 90% lower than those from meat.
No country on its own can activate these super-leverage points, but small groups of countries aligning their actions can. In most emitting sectors, the top ten countries account for a half to three quarters of global production or consumption – easily enough to shift the global market.
These opportunities are under-recognized. When governments meet for their next big climate get-together, they should spend less time lobbying each other on far-off targets, and more time agreeing on how to align their actions now to create a positive tipping cascade in the global economy.
The new report, The Breakthrough Effect: how to trigger a cascade of tipping points to accelerate the net zero transition, is online here: https://www.systemiq.earth/breakthrough-effect/.