At The Climate Threshold

The race between negative and positive tipping points.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Human interaction with the climate has reached a critical threshold. The biosphere is poised at a tipping point that could go either way — beyond the threshold to climate calamity or remaining on this side of the line through the accumulation of globally distributed efforts to ward off disaster.

A Positive Tipping Point Breakthrough

As Katarina Zimmer has argued in Noema, the same dynamic of cascading effects that propels climate change can work in the opposite direction.

“In the same way that melting begets melting for Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier, green technologies can also spread in a self-reinforcing manner,” she writes. “And once they pass that tipping point where they’re more attractive than their fossil fuel incumbents, they can take over the market.”

Zimmer cites research by the climate scientist Tim Lenton that documents how technological change can occur very quickly with policies that boost green technologies to “tipping point” thresholds,  turbocharging the energy transition at a pace akin to the steam engine kickstarting the Industrial Revolution.

Looking at the United Kingdom, Lenton’s research shows how government subsidies for wind and solar, combined with a stiff tax on every ton of carbon burned, transformed a century-old energy infrastructure virtually overnight.

“In the past decade,” Zimmer reports, “the country has transformed its power sector by almost fully phasing out coal power which it had previously used to produce 40% of its electricity. As a result, the U.K.’s carbon emissions fell faster than any other large country in the world.”

Norway is another case in point she cites. By deciding to remove taxes on purchases of new electric vehicles, while leaving them on those powered by petrol and diesel, “Norway has seen an unparalleled per capita adoption of electric vehicles with some 80% of new cars sold in Norway — and around 20% of all cars on its roads — fully electric.” 

This pattern is repeating itself across the globe where the introduction and diffusion of cleantech, from hydropower to wind to lithium batteries, are incentivized relative to fossil fuels. Such efforts range from President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S. to China, where the installed capacity of renewables — wind, solar, hydro and nuclear — last year surpassed fossil fuel capacity for the first time.  

As Zimmer writes hopefully, citing a report presented at Davos last year, the key to a threshold breakthrough globally could come through concerted cooperation on key “super-leverage points” — such as zero-emission vehicles, substituting green ammonia for fertilizer production and protein alternatives to meat — that would “trigger a cascade of tipping points for zero-carbon solutions in sectors covering 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Axis Of Resistance

Unfortunately, momentum is building in the other direction as well. In some ways, the worse the climate crisis gets, the more resistance is growing to effectively address it.

Earlier this month, we saw dramatic evidence of what is in store from opposite ends of the famously mild Mediterranean climate: drought and intense forest fires plagued Chile while a days-long torrential deluge inundated otherwise sunny California. Scientists also warned last week that computer models show the Atlantic Ocean currents, which keep Europe temperate, are in danger of collapse.

More alarming still, a just-released study of the carbonate skeletons of marine sponges indicates the planet has already warmed beyond the 1.5C limit set by the 2015 Paris Climate Accord — the point beyond which damage to the biosphere may not be reparable.  

Yet, the very kind of ambitious policies just noted, devised to meet the Paris target, are being rolled back as they start to bite more deeply into the pressing interests of constituencies from households to farmers to businesses. The sense of urgency once firmly held is flagging under the politics of the present, where future generations have no voice and humanity as a whole carries little weight.

Take the case of the U.K., which had made such remarkable progress. Fearing loss of consent by the public over the burdens of reaching net-zero goals by 2050, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has backtracked, delaying the deadline for banning the sale of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles and phasing out gas boilers.

Bowing to the roaming cows and tractors driven by protesting farmers that clogged thoroughfares around the continent, the European Union last week scrapped plans to cut fossil fuel subsidies and policies aimed at reducing pesticide use while cutting methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

In Germany, the head of the country’s leading business association has come out swinging, declaring the government’s robust climate policies “absolutely toxic.”

Geopolitical Economics Of Climate

The cascade effect of positive tipping points is being further stalled by geoeconomic and geopolitical tensions. Last year, the EU introduced a massive “green deal industrial plan” meant to prevent cleantech manufacturers from fleeing to take advantage of U.S. domestic production subsidies while bolstering competition with China’s export of low-cost EVs and solar panels. With little so far to show for its efforts, the EU is now considering protectionist measures to keep Chinese tech exports from hollowing out its clean energy sectors before they can take root.

The U.S., too, has sought to limit the inroads of China’s cheap and advanced technology, setting rules last December making it harder for battery components made by “a foreign entity of concern” from qualifying for the $7,500 tax break granted to purchasers of electric vehicles. To slightly paraphrase U.S. climate chief John Kerry’s vexation as related privately to a mutual acquaintance, clean tech is piling up at Chinese ports while the world burns.

Now that the farmers’ revolt has curtailed active EU climate policy in agriculture, a new dimension has been added to the splintering of any possibility for a “super-leveraged tipping point” across borders.

Semafor’s Net Zero newsletter has rightly analyzed what’s in store next: Europe’s “reversal on agriculture offers a preview of the struggle that the U.S. and many other countries will face in the years ahead about how to cut the carbon footprint of farming, which is on track to be Europe’s largest source of emissions by 2040 but which has seen far slower progress in decarbonizing than sectors like electricity or transport.”

The clear and present danger is obvious: If the self-reinforcing momentum toward a positive tipping point is lost, the self-reinforcing dynamic of climate change will take over and cross the threshold in the other direction.