We live in an era of negative narratives. Across coverage of the climate crises, the ones that capture the headlines tend to relate to “catastrophic planetary tipping points” – we are pushing the planet’s life support systems beyond a state that has allowed humans and nature to co-exist for thousands of years. Nine of these tipping points have either been crossed or are at imminent risk, another seven will likely be breached if global average temperature rises above 2C.
Human existence is precarious, a lot more so than most of us realise. Think of the planet as a big spinning top. Now imagine a marble balanced on top of this. It’s a fragile set up and one that, with the slightest shift, has disastrous consequences for the marble. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to realise that the marble represents the human race, and the planetary boundaries are the shifts. Tip too much one way, and the marble comes crashing down.
But tipping points don’t have to be negative. There are positive ones, and these are already setting the course for a more sustainable future. Typically, they happen when lower-carbon solutions advance to the point where they outcompete the old carbon-intensive ones. They often create cascades, where several positive changes combine, driving exponential growth in the adoption of the new solution and rapid decline of the old.
A good example is the explosion in growth of electric vehicles (EV). The cost of lithium-ion battery cells declined by 97% in the last three decades. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind have become the cheapest form of new bulk power in geographies representing 90% of electricity generation. Solar is set to become the cheapest source of power this decade. In Norway, between 2009 and 2021, EV sales skyrocketed from 0.1% to almost 90% of all car sales in the country.
All too often, climate change is regarded as an issue that is too big to solve individually. Positive tipping points will support this change, underscoring that all is not lost and that through small actions and groups of like-minded individuals, positive change is possible.
Collaboration between government, business, civil society and communities is essential for change to happen. These types of solution-oriented coalitions have the potential to radically disrupt the global emissions curve and chart a course for humanity that exists within planetary boundaries.
Clear, courageous and bold policies from government are essential to greener technology and further unlocking the transformative power of financial markets, industry and innovators. Every success story, whether it’s the rise of EVs, the rapid growth of renewables, can trace its roots back to bold, market-creating policy.
Green investments must become less of a risk, and ideally, yield a higher return. Once returns for sustainable projects rise to meet and exceed the falling returns of pollutive investments, market forces will push trillions of dollars into the global energy transition. This will only be possible if government, multilateral finance and private finance partners deliver investments on the ground to achieve a low-carbon energy transition.
This is especially crucial in emerging economies, which will be the engine of the global economy for the next 30 years. Their development, however, needs to be as green as possible if we are to maintain the integrity of the planetary boundaries. All efforts must be taken to ensure these economies leapfrog the dirty, carbon-intensive technologies that were the foundation of the West’s economic development.
COP28 in December will see the first Global Stocktake Process, forcing world leaders – and the public – to take a long, hard look at the precarious state of the planet and assess our progress on tackling the climate emergency.
We have just six-and-a-half years left to determine whether we can shift the global emissions curve ahead of the 2030 deadline. If we don’t, humanity for several hundreds, if not thousands of years will bear the brunt of the decisions we take today.
To have any hope of addressing climate change, we need transformational change and a rapid acceleration towards a greener global economy. We can achieve this transformational change through positive tipping points.
Nathan Cooper leads the World Economic Forum’s strategic climate partnerships, was a COP26 policy advisor for the UN Climate Change Conference, and sits on the expert advisory panel of the Prince of Wales’s Earthshot prize