The Breakthrough Effect

We’ve heard a lot about the frightening consequences of global temperatures rising more than around 1.5C. These include thawing of the arctic permafrost, which would release huge quantities of methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas.

As the global temperature rise is already around 1.2C, these are very real and frightening possibilities. It’s crucial to do more than we’re currently doing, in order to reduce the risk of triggering these climatic tipping points. Otherwise, by the time today’s students are mid-career, they could be battling with runaway climate change.

However, as recent report by the think tank Systemiq pointed out, there are also some much more encouraging “positive” socio-economic tipping points, that may help us reach net zero faster than we might think.

These happen when, for example, a new technology starts to outcompete the existing technology. The increasing sales then allow further improvements and efficiencies, so the product becomes even cheaper and more attractive, and can rapidly take over with widespread impacts.  The classic example is the rise of the mobile phone, which in just a few decades has transformed the way we communicate, make friends and understand the world.

In tackling climate change, the leading example is the plummeting price of renewable energy. Solar and wind are now the cheapest sources of new power in most major countries.  Renewable power is already free at times, for those that can make use of it.  What societal impacts will that have?

Electric vehicles (eVs) will probably be the next tipping point. Although they’re still more expensive to buy than a petrol or diesel vehicle, the lifetime cost of ownership is already often similar.  Prices are falling, and ‘range anxiety’ is reducing as batteries get better and charging facilities more frequent. As a result, we’re seeing a very dramatic increase in the numbers of eV’s, which in turn enables wider cascading effects. 

For example, active Car Club membership has doubled within a year, widening access to eV’s, reducing people’s motoring costs and changing driving habits. And as each eV is basically a battery on wheels, they could become a really important part of our energy system, storing excess power from renewables to be used later.

Encouragingly other tipping points are about our habits and preferences, rather than new technology. 

For example, In the last few years it’s become much easier to find tasty vegan and plant-based food in supermarkets and restaurants. This encourages people to try it, which in turn encourages businesses to provide it. As eating less meat could dramatically cut deforestation and global carbon emissions, this is very encouraging news. 

Even better: we can all help with this shift, simply through what we choose to buy, eat, serve or talk about.

First Published Cambridge Independent 1 March 2023