Electric cars are billed as the green alternative to traditional combustion-engine autos, but these eco credentials are often called into question. Opting for a Tesla over a BMW is a small gesture on the part of an individual — a by-product of a hyper-capitalist system that focuses on consumer decisions, rather than bigger systemic issues to tackle environmental disasters.
But according to new research published in the journal Climate Policy, these small actions may have bigger, unappreciated affects. By focusing on electric vehicles and the energy sector, national governments and consumers can generate a set of climate change tipping points that would ultimately catalyze a global movement towards a new, more stable future for us and for our planet.
Why it matters — The proposals set out in the paper are not only desirable in that they offer a chance at a better future for our climate. They also offer a different spin on the climate-crisis tale, where being green is not only the height of fashion, but also a sign of consumer power.
Here's the background — Most climate studies frame tipping points in a negative light. For example, global warming leads to ice sheets melting in the Arctic, which ultimately leads to drought in Africa's Sahel region. That is a tipping point.
But this a limited interpretation, according to Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter. Lenton co-authored the new study with Simon Sharpe, a Deputy Director in the UK Cabinet Office COP 26 unit. (COP 26 is another name for the United Nations' upcoming climate change summit, due to take place in Glasgow, Scotland later this year.)
As Lenton tells Inverse, "Tipping point’ is a general, mathematical concept – it simply refers to situations where a small change leads to a big difference for some ‘system.'"
"The change could be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from a human perspective," Lenton says. "In all cases, there is some reinforcing feedback that amplifies the initial change."
Lenton's study reframes climate 'tipping points' in a positive light, focusing on a series of upward-scaling cascades. Picture a series of waterfalls, but inverted upward.
Each cascade generates an action that creates a bigger action, which generates a bigger action, and so on and so forth. An example of such a positive (depending on whom you ask) cascade would be England's invention of the steamboat, which led to the expansion of coal mining and a rail system, ultimately catapulting the country into the industrial revolution.
What's new — Lenton's study applies the principle of upward cascades to efforts to quell the climate crisis. The study focuses on two key industries that could, theoretically, make a big impact: electric vehicles (EVs) and the energy sector. Unlike other work, this study looks to real-world examples of how both factors have played out in two case studies — electrical vehicle adoption in Norway, and green energy generation in the United Kingdom.
"The paper is founded on tipping points that have already happened – for EVs in Norway and electricity generation in the UK – based on actual data," Lenton says.
"It then goes on to look at what other countries or jurisdictions could work together to ‘cascade’ the tipping points up to global scale – that part hasn’t happened yet, but our choice of jurisdictions is informed by data," Lenton explains."
Right now, electric vehicles only make up to 2-3 percent of new car sales globally, according to the study.
But the study suggests that as electric vehicles become cheaper to produce — and thus, cheaper for consumers to buy — compared to fossil-fuel vehicles in certain countries, that could generate a tipping point that leads to cheaper electric vehicles worldwide.
It would also shift attention away from industries that serve fossil fuel vehicles, and generate more interest in the global manufacture and development of products for EVs, such as long-life batteries. This is one of Elon Musk's biggest efforts, for example, in support of his electric vehicle firm, Tesla.
"In the case of EVs, there are several [tipping points] at work – a key one is that the more batteries we make, the cheaper they get to make — an economy of scale — and this is a crucial determinant of the cost of the electric vehicle," Lenton says.
In other words, it would ultimately shift business incentives away from gas-guzzling cars toward more sustainable electric vehicles on a global scale.
How it works — Take the example of Norway. According to the study, Norway implemented subsidies that made electric vehicles attractive to consumers. As a result, Norway's EV share is at 50 percent – ten times higher than any other country.
Norway's example could serve as a tipping point for other countries to implement similar policies to incentivize electric vehicles, thereby driving down production costs and making EVs cheaper for consumers.
"There is also a strong social tipping point referred to as ‘social contagion’ – people start following other people’s acquisitions of new technology and the uptake (here of EVs) accelerates," Lenton says.
"Any policy intervention that encourages [the] purchase of EVs can then be reinforced by these feedbacks. That’s what’s happened in Norway, and we describe how it could spread worldwide," he adds.
Right now, he argues, countries have to put in place policies — like subsidies or tax benefits — to get consumers to buy cars. But eventually, consumers will buy electric vehicles without subsidies, because the electric vehicles are cheap enough for most people to afford.
A similar theory can also apply to the energy sector. Many countries and world leaders have called for a shift to renewables in a carbon-neutral future to tackle climate change, including the United States President-Elect Joe Biden.
The study cites the example of the UK, which has decarbonized its energy sector faster than any other country in the world since 2015.
Through a combination of fixed taxes and incentives offered by the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme between 2015 and 2018, the UK made gas cheaper than coal.
This tipping point led to the closure of coal plants, which in turn forced people and industry away from continued coal use, which is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 63 percent of electricity in the United States comes from burning coal and natural gas.
From the UK's example, we can see how small actions can have much greater ripple effects.
As the study states:
"In this way, a small change in the relative prices of carbon, coal and gas led to a disproportionately large decrease in the number of hours coal plants could generate electricity – and revenue."
Why it matters — According to the study, tipping points are reversible. There is a risk of sliding backward and undoing progress generated by these upward cascades.
Initially, national governments to put forward certain policies to make these sectors — electric vehicles and renewables — attractive to business and consumers.
But if a new government comes to power in a country or region with outsized influence on climate change and the energy sector — such as the US or the EU — that is less committed to renewable energy, that could undo these tipping points.
That's why it's important for national governments to begin providing incentives and subsidies now — as the UK did with the energy sector and Norway did in electric vehicles — in order to generate bigger actions that are harder to reverse, such as the shuttering of coal plants.
What's next — The study acknowledges there is a lot of work to do before we can hit these sweet tipping points.
In order to prevent global temperatures from exceeding 2°C increase per the Paris Agreement, we must act fast. The study states that the energy sector would "needs to decarbonize four times faster" than its current rate, in addition to doubling the rate of transition to electric vehicles.
Some countries and states are already doing their part. The state of California, which the study says has an outsized number of car owners, has already committed to zero-emission vehicles by 2035.
But it's still important for world leaders to act together. According to the study, leaders have historically thought of decarbonizing as a zero-sum game, in which one country shifting away from fossil fuels gives an advantage to another country.
This zero-sum mentality has prevented cooperative action on climate change, especially in making the cost of renewables cheaper.
For example, the study notes that that three countries — China, Japan, and South Korea — provide most of the global capital for new coal plants.
If these three countries acted together — instead of just acting in their own country's best interests — they could significantly raise the cost of coal plants globally, helping to phase out the coal industry altogether.
The study ultimately concludes, "Positive-sum cooperation between small groups of countries could bring this tipping point closer."
Abstract: Limiting global warming to well below 2°C requires a dramatic acceleration of decarbonization to reduce net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to zero around mid-century. In complex systems – including human societies – tipping points can occur, in which a small perturbation transforms a system. Crucially activating one tipping point can increase the likelihood of triggering another at a larger scale, and so on. Here, we show how such upward-scaling tipping cascades could accelerate progress in tackling climate change. We focus on two sectors –light road transport and power – where tipping points have already been triggered by policy interventions at individual nation scales. We show how positive-sum cooperation, between small coalitions of jurisdictions and their policymakers, could lead to global changes in the economy and emissions. The aim of activating tipping points and tipping cascades is a particular application of systems thinking. It represents a different starting point for policy to the theory of welfare economics, one that can be useful when the priority is to achieve dynamic rather than allocative efficiency.