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Two Steps Forward

The good news about climate tipping points

A roadmap of what’s possible, what’s inevitable and what’s imperative if we’re to tame the climate monster bearing down on us all.

large iceberg with chunk of ice calving and falling into the ocean

Not all climate tipping points are bad. Image via Shutterstock.

A recent landmark report on the climate crisis pointed out some near-term tipping points that could mean the difference between a habitable planet and an uninhabitable one.

It is one of the more hopeful things you'll ever read.

No, not that report. I'm referring to "The Breakthrough Effect," published by the Bezos Earth Fund, SystemIQ and the University of Exeter. It describes solutions that provide "an opportunity to rapidly increase the deployment of zero-emission solutions and drastically cut global emissions," including the paths to get there.

It is, in effect, a roadmap of what’s possible, what’s inevitable and what’s imperative if we’re to tame the climate monster bearing down on us all.

Fortunately, there are positive tipping points, too.

The report, subtitled "How to trigger a cascade of tipping points to accelerate the net-zero transition," examines the "positive socio-economic tipping points" key to decarbonizing our world, including the conditions required to make them affordable, attractive and accessible, and the state of play in achieving those conditions.

Moreover, it attempts to show the synergies across technologies and sectors — "that crossing a tipping point in one sector can help to create the conditions that trigger a tipping point in other sectors, producing ‘tipping cascades’ across the highest-emitting sectors of the economy."

"Triggering tipping points and subsequent tipping cascades may be one of our most powerful tools for reducing emissions at pace and steering us away from climate catastrophe," the authors write. "Identifying key opportunities and making relatively small, targeted changes can produce huge returns in terms of decarbonization. High-emitting sectors of the economy do not exist in isolation — they are highly interconnected — and zero-emission solutions can influence transitions in multiple sectors simultaneously."

How refreshing to read about the good kind of tipping points!

"Tipping points," in the climate context, typically refer to irreversible, self-perpetuating phenomena set in motion by growing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. In the Arctic, for example, as sun-reflecting ice surface melts, deeper layers of the ocean as well as land are exposed, according to "And because both the blue ocean and land absorb the sun’s energy better and faster, this vicious cycle inevitably leads to an increase in temperatures across the region and thus further melting." The report describes the seven negative climate tipping points "most likely to be crossed this century due to human activity."

Fortunately, there are positive tipping points, too. According to "The Breakthrough Effect," they "offer an opportunity to rapidly increase the deployment of zero-emission solutions and drastically cut global emissions."

The report covers 10 such "socio-economic tipping points," which arise when "a set of conditions are reached that allow new technologies or practices to out-compete incumbents." They range from shipping and steel to aviation and avoiding land-use changes. Some will be well-known to sustainability professionals: solar, wind and storage; alternative proteins; heat pumps; and battery-electric vehicles.  

It’s much more fun to think about those climate tipping points than the negative kind.

Back to the roots

Consider, for example, nitrogen fertilizer, a significant contributor to agriculture’s status as the second-largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Synthetic fertilizers, derived from petrochemicals, have played a critical role in feeding a growing global population and in increasing crop yields, which can reduce the amount of land used for agriculture. But fertilizers are responsible for around 1.4 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions, and fertilizer runoff from fields into waterways can feed algal blooms, release methane and lead to fish-killing oxygen declines.

According to the Breakthrough report, optimizing fertilizer use could reduce emissions by 70 percent through measures "such as improved crop rotation (adding legumes), matching fertilizer with crop needs (through timing and quantities) and dietary shifts." So-called green ammonia (produced in wind-powered chemical plants) and blue ammonia (in which carbon emissions captured during the production process are permanently sequestered) are key to decarbonizing fertilizer. Ammonia is the key ingredient in fertilizer that interacts with nitrogen to make it available to plants.

According to the report, green ammonia production is projected to be both economically viable and technologically mature within a decade — that is, a tipping point.

Progress towards such tipping points "is often driven by reinforcing feedback loops in the development and diffusion of new solutions, where increases in production lead to higher performance, lower cost, greater adoption and further production," the authors note. "Once a tipping point is reached, these reinforcing feedbacks become more powerful than the balancing feedbacks (such as opposition from incumbents) that have been resisting change. Consumers, producers and investors shift decisively towards the new technology and do not look back."

I most appreciated the section of the report focusing on the enabling conditions for tipping points, such as the solutions’ affordability (the point at which scale increases and costs decline sufficiently to reach cost parity with incumbent technologies); attractiveness (improved performance and reliability of cleaner technologies, helping to tip the scales for buyers); and accessibility (ensuring supporting infrastructure is in place before large-scale adoption can take off). Another section focuses on the variables needed to accelerate the scale-up of these solutions, from network effects to "self-reinforcing expectations."

All of which is precisely the kind of insight and inspiration we need: climate solutions and the ingredients for their success. Getting to scale is never a straight line, but this report can go a long way toward straightening the twists and turns.

Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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