Could just three policy levers trigger a cascade of climate action?
It would be laughable to suggest there was an easy fix for the climate crisis. As many commentators have noted, there is no silver bullet for tackling carbon emissions.
Yet it is also true that everywhere you look, from national policy right the way down to individual everyday behaviors, there are scores of relatively simple tweaks and changes that, if all totted up together, could amount to a significant and permanent dent in global emissions.
And it is also the case that certain sectors of the economy have a far greater adverse impact on our planet’s biosphere than others. So it stands to reason that, focusing decarbonization efforts on just a handful of these carbon-intensive sectors could make an outsized impact to the global transition to net zero. That basic idea hardly amounts to an easy fix, of course, but it does at least offer an effective framework through which to approach the existential risks the global economy faces.
That, in broad terms, is the hypothesis underpinning a major new collaborative study published by a coterie of experts at the University of Exeter, engineering consultancy Systemiq, the World Resources Institute, and the Bezos Earth Fund. Its eye-catching contention is that concerted action targeted at just three “super-leverage points” could trigger a cascade of decarbonization in sectors of the economy that generate 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, exploiting these three super-leverage points could prove surprisingly simple. The report argues that just three policies — mandates for electric vehicle sales; mandates requiring green ammonia to be used to manufacture agricultural fertilizers; and public procurement of plant-based proteins — could have a remarkable catalyzing impact on the global net zero transition.
The could drive decarbonization not just within road transport, agriculture and food, but accelerate the shift to net-zero emissions in 10 of the world’s highest-emitting sectors.
These three interventions, it argues, could result in huge, wider impacts on the economy, driving decarbonization not just within road transport, agriculture and food, but accelerating the shift to net zero emissions in 10 of the world’s highest-emitting sectors.
“With time running out, there is a need to be targeted,” said Mark Meldrum, Systemiq partner and a lead author of the report. “Our report spotlights key opportunities to effect change that can produce huge returns in terms of decarbonization. It identifies positive tipping points in the highest-emitting sectors of the global economy, and analyses the conditions required to trigger them. Each super-leverage point crossed raises the chance of crossing others, and could set off a cascade of positive tipping points to steer us away from a climate catastrophe.”
The report’s rationale is hugely compelling. Accelerating the development and rollout of EVs would not only decarbonize road transport, but also drive down costs for batteries which could help boost renewable energy deployment worldwide. A greater abundance of cheaper, reliable renewable energy could in turn help cut costs and increase capacity for producing green hydrogen, an increasingly attractive solution for decarbonizing steelmaking, shipping and — another identified leverage point — green ammonia in agriculture.
Advances in EV technology should also help deliver electric boats, ferries, construction machinery and even aircraft, driving decarbonization across the transport sector as a whole.
The tipping point for EVs becoming the most attractive, affordable and accessible option is exceedingly close in many advanced economies.
Moreover, the tipping point for EVs becoming the most attractive, affordable and accessible option is exceedingly close in many advanced economies. In China, EV sales and exports are soaring, while in Norway they already dominate the auto market. In the U.K., and other parts of Europe, EVs are the fastest-growing segment of the car market, with numerous countries committed to phasing out fossil fuel vehicle sales altogether within the next decade.
Similarly, the report argues that mandating the use of green ammonia — produced using green hydrogen made with renewable electricity — as a replacement for the fossil fuels used to make agricultural fertilizers could be a highly effective way to kick-start the broader growth of the hydrogen market, the report argues. Low-carbon hydrogen has increasingly been touted as a potential solution for decarbonizing a raft of industries and processes, yet production capacity is far from scaling up to meet demand at present. As such, the report suggests agricultural fertilizer may hold the key to unlocking a wider green ammonia market, bringing down costs for its use in shipping, steelmaking, energy storage, and other industrial applications.
Finally, the report highlights the huge potential of plant-based proteins as alternatives to meat products, arguing that if these veggie products can beat animal proteins on cost, while at least matching them on taste and texture, it could transform land-use — and therefore slash greenhouse gas emissions — worldwide.
Governments have been reluctant to date to encourage people to eat less meat or introduce policies such as meat taxes. But the report argues that by simply harnessing public procurement to buy more plant-based “meat” alternatives for schools, hospitals, councils and government departments, policymakers could help increase consumer uptake of these products while driving down their costs. If governments and councils switched to plant-based proteins worldwide, it could potentially free up 988 million to 1.9 billion acres of land, the equivalent of 7 to 15 percent of global agricultural land today, the report estimates. That in turn could help massively reduce the incentive for farmers to clear forests to make way for animal agriculture, leaving far more land for wildlife and natural carbon sinks.
If these veggie products can beat animal proteins on cost, while at least matching them on taste and texture, it could transform land-use — and therefore slash greenhouse gas emissions — worldwide.
The report’s central contention is that the net zero transition is less like a domino effect that heads in a single direction and more like the way a handful of pebbles create multiple ripple effects that can cross the expanse of an entire lake.
“High-emitting sectors of the economy do not exist in isolation — they are deeply interconnected, and zero-emission solutions can influence transitions in multiple sectors simultaneously,” explained another of the report’s authors, Simon Sharpe, director of the economics at the Climate Champions Team and former deputy director for policy campaigns in the U.K. government’s COP26 unit.
There is some recent historical precedent to back this up. The report argues the “tipping point” for wind and solar power has already been reached, with these technologies accounting for more than 75 percent of new global power capacity last year — the result of a journey over the past decade or so that has helped accelerate the decline of the coal industry in the U.S. and the U.K. The maturity of the renewables industry is catalyzing progress on electric vehicles, hydrogen, green buildings, smart technologies and other areas as governments and businesses prepare for an era of clean energy abundance. The report argues that reaching similar tipping points in the adoption of EVs, plant-based proteins and green ammonia could lead to a rapid acceleration in decarbonization efforts right across the economy.
Researchers at the University of Exeter behind the report have long been engaging with the idea of “positive tipping points” for climate action, highlighting in particular the rapid march of renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles (EVs), and the ability of these shifts to trigger further “upward scaling tipping cascades” that would then accelerate global adoption.
“For me, this is probably the only way now that we can get the kind of rate of change we think we need in order to hit the target of limiting global warming to well below 2 C[elsius] and somewhere near 1.5 C,” climate scientist Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter — and lead author of the report — told us last year. “And I think the same argument would hold for other goals like reversing the decline of biodiversity and trying to become so-called ‘nature positive’ by 2030. It requires tipping points — self-accelerating change. That’s exactly why I put my focus on this, because it can happen and it does indeed happen that way.”
The aim is to push the development and deployment of these technologies towards ‘tipping points’ where they become ‘the most affordable, accessible and attractive choice’ by 2030.
It is a concept that is gaining significant traction among policymakers and business leaders. At COP26, 45 nations covering 70 percent of global GDP launched the “Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda” initiative, with the aim to crowd together markets, investors and businesses to accelerate the adoption of low-carbon steel, hydrogen, power, agriculture and road transport technologies. The aim is to push the development and deployment of these technologies towards “tipping points” where they become “the most affordable, accessible and attractive choice” by 2030. The hope is that by doing so the net zero transition can create 20 million new jobs and deliver a $16 trillion boost to both emerging and advanced economies. The initiative has continued to build momentum, with dozens of governments worldwide setting out a host of sector-specific priority actions at the COP27 Climate Summit in Egypt last year in a bid to drive the agenda forward.
Similarly, just this month nine leading industrial clusters in China, Indonesia, Japan, Spain and the U.S. joined an initiative led by Accenture, EPRI and the World Economic Forum aimed at sharing best practices and knowledge to slash emissions in these heavy industrial zones.
The report is designed to support such efforts and other initiatives working to make low-carbon solutions the no-brainer option in every sector, according to Lenton.
He and his team are focused on leading a community of researchers working on a full “state of tipping points” report, which will look at both positive socioeconomic tipping points and negative climate tipping points in time for this year’s COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai.
“We need to find and trigger positive socioeconomic tipping points if we are to limit the risk from damaging climate tipping points,” said Lenton. “This non-linear way of thinking about the climate problem gives plausible grounds for hope: The more that gets invested in socioeconomic transformation, the faster it will unfold — getting the world to ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions sooner.”
The three levers identified by the report are not the longed-for silver bullets for solving climate change, nor is pulling on them entirely straightforward. Mandates for EVs, green ammonia and plant-based foods sound relatively simple, but such policies still face considerable opposition from vested interests and would require significant investment. But the report highlights how tantalizingly close the world could be to a net zero emissions economy once the tipping points in the transition are reached. The world isn’t there yet, but pulling a few levers in the right policy areas could do a lot of the heavy lifting.