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Tipping points in technology, economy and society could drive rapid decarbonisation

Major new tipping points initiative launched at conference

Efforts to activate "positive tipping points" to tackle the climate crisis have been boosted by a £1 million (US$1.15m) grant from the Bezos Earth Fund.

A team – led by the University of Exeter and including Systemiq and the Systems Change Lab – will use the funding to "improve the assessment, forecasting and activation of positive tipping points" and produce a first "state of tipping points" report.

The new initiative is launched as experts meet in Exeter for a major tipping points conference.

A tipping point occurs when a small change sparks a rapid, often irreversible transformation – and positive tipping points could transform human societies to protect the planet.

Exeter researchers have helped to highlight the threat of climate tipping points – with a recent study showing five could be triggered at current levels of global warming – so the need for positive tipping points is increasingly urgent.

"Positive tipping points in socio-economic systems must be found and triggered to radically accelerate the decarbonisation of the global economy, to limit the risk from highly damaging tipping points in the climate system," said Professor Tim Lenton, Director of Exeter's Global Systems Institute.

"To do this, we need to improve assessment of positive tipping point opportunities.

"In particular, if ‘early indicators’ can be found that reveal a sector is close to a positive tipping point, this would provide an opportunity for policymakers to give it one last push and for investors to quickly reallocate funds – knowing they would get disproportionate returns on their efforts and investments."

"The Bezos Earth Fund is committed to creating transformative systems change across sectors and identifying positive tipping points is a critical piece of the puzzle," said Kelly Levin, Chief of Science, Data and Systems Change at the Bezos Earth Fund and Founding Director of the Systems Change Lab.

"We hope this first-of-its-kind assessment will provide critical information to tackle the climate crisis. The goal is to identify key tipping points across the roughly 50 transitions that are needed in this decisive decade."

Positive tipping points have already occurred in some sectors and locations.

For example, rapidly declining battery costs and policy support are combining to "tip" the global car market. In 2021, pure battery electric vehicles began their S-curve upswing with market shares jumping to 6% and 13% in Europe and China respectively, two of the largest car markets in the world.

Also, cost declines of wind and solar enabled by supportive policy environments mean that they are now the cheapest form of generation in the vast majority of countries. As result, of all new generation capacity added in 2021 globally, wind and solar took 71% share and other renewables (e.g., hydro, geothermal) provided another 10%.

Promising areas for more positive tipping points exist across emissions sectors, including: solar/wind plus storage becoming cheaper than coal/gas as battery prices decline; large customer segments becoming favourable to plant-based diets; solutions to drastically reduce fugitive methane taking off as tracking and certification take hold; heat pumps becoming economically and practically competitive with gas boilers.

IPCC-like assessment

The project will be run by Professor Lenton, Dr Andy Richards, Dr Jesse Abrams, Dr Chris Boulton, Dr Josh Buxton and Dr Tom Powell, all from the University of Exeter, collaborating with system change company Systemiq, the Systems Change Lab (a Bezos Earth Fund and World Resources Institute initiative), and Simon Sharpe, Director of Economics for UNFCCC Climate Champions.

The team will produce a comprehensive report on both positive tipping points and the risks posed by climate tipping points.

This will reflect the structure of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which are divided into three "working groups" covering different aspects of climate change.

Systemiq will lead on producing an updated analysis ahead of COP27, building on its findings from the Paris Effect reports (2020, 2021) which highlighted that positive tipping points could be achieved before 2030 in sectors representing 90% of emissions.

"At Systemiq we focus intently on accelerating positive tipping points that can deliver outsized returns in terms of climate impact and build a resilient economy,” said Mark Meldrum, lead author of Systemiq’s Paris Effect reports.

"Understanding how to engineer positive tipping points should help us to zero-in our collective efforts in slowing climate change.

"We hope that this analysis will shed light on where the biggest opportunities lie, and highlight critical gaps in knowledge where more research would prove valuable."

To find out more about the conference, visit: https://global-tipping-points.org/

Date: 14 September 2022

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