Tipping Points Part 2: Positive Tipping Points

by Patrick Cook

Positive tipping points

Negative tipping points are a well-documented impact of climate change [1], but many positive changes have and will reach the point of no return, where they develop and accelerate rapidly, in some cases even outperforming our most ambitious targets. Positive tipping points often refer to technological developments, but they can also be societal or cultural in nature. To build a sustainable future, we will need to achieve rapid technological and political change, we can only do this by unlocking positive tipping points.

Luckily for us, we are already experiencing positive tipping points in technologies that will help us to achieve a more sustainable way of life. Solar and wind energy are now consistently beating projections and forecasts from recent history. In 2015 the IEA’s World Energy Outlook projected that global solar capacity by 2023 would be 500 GW. The most recent report showed that global solar capacity in 2023 was already above 1500 GW – a full three-times higher than expected [2]. In 2019, the IEA predicted that electric vehicles would comprise 15% of all new vehicle sales by 2030, but this milestone was reached in 2022, 8 years ahead of schedule and only 3 years after the original forecast. This means that we may have already reached peak global oil demand for cars, far earlier than expected [3].

These are genuine good news stories that we should celebrate and learn from, we deserve to be confident that we can outperform our own expectations again by reaching technological tipping points like this.

There are still limitations when new technologies burst onto the scene, improved battery technology and prices may have made electric vehicles a viable choice for new car buyers – but adoption could be held back by the charging network and the capacity of the grid, which move much slower. Any adoption of new technologies like this can be held back by the weakest link in the chain – but that makes the importance and impact of technological progress greater, not smaller.

Tipping points also apply to every day behavioural habits. It is perfectly acceptable to throw everything in the bin without recycling, and then it isn’t. Cycling in your local area is dangerous and unreliable, until it isn’t. It is considered cool to gloat about how many flights you’ve taken, and then it’s not. With the right understanding and cultural changes, we can dramatically increase the uptake of sustainable behaviours [4].

The concept of critical mass refers to the level of adoption of a new idea or innovation necessary for the rate of adoption to reach a tipping point and become self-sustaining [5]. In a democratic country it might be that a certain proportion of voters need to be concerned about the climate before all political parties take it seriously and start to compete on their level of environmental ambition to win votes. In global diplomacy, critical mass makes improbable global agreements, like the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, possible. Activists should be aiming to build broad coalitions, rather than exciting their existing supporters, in order to galvanise the most ambitious changes.

Sometimes the roadblocks to sustainability will be systemic and involve complicated trade-offs, but the concept of positive tipping points still applies, and is vital. It can sometimes be hard to imagine how we will transition to a sustainable world in the little time we have – but an understanding of tipping points can be a source of hope. With the right ingredients we can achieve self-reinforcing transformations across technology, infrastructure, politics, and culture.

In Europe, the Green New Deal, and in the USA, the Inflation Reduction Act, are promising to accelerate the green transition by developing new positive tipping points in many industries. We need to commit to existing proven technologies, hard to build infrastructure like transmission networks, and fully explore newer technologies and their potential. We need to keep pushing for cultural change, and to celebrate and learn from our successes. 

It is always possible that the climate crisis will spiral out of our control before we have a chance to tame it. But if we can control it, if we do create a brighter future for life on this planet, it will be because of unexpected positive tipping points and unforeseen breakthroughs. That is a reason for both hope and urgency.


[1] ClimaTalk, ‘Negative Tipping Points’, 2024
[2] IEA (2024), Renewables 2023, IEA, https://www.iea.org/reports/renewables-2023
[3] Kingsmill Bond et al., 2023, X-Change: Cars, RMI (2023), https://rmi.org/insight/x-change-cars/
[4] Roope Oskari Kaaronen, Nikita Strelkovskii, Cultural Evolution of Sustainable Behaviors: Pro-environmental Tipping Points in an Agent-Based Model, One Earth, Volume 2, Issue 1, 2020, Pages 85-97, ISSN 2590-3322, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.01.003
[5] Critical Mass, Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/critical-mass, accessed on 27/01/2024
Categories Climate Science/Energy, Technology & Transport

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