Social Tipping Interventions can Help Meet Climate Agreement Targets

Reducing global warming to much less than 2 °C will, at the least, need a decarbonized world by 2050 and an equivalent universal transformation of the land use and energy systems of different communities in the world.

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To reach this objective of net-zero carbon by 2050, emissions have to be reduced by 50% every 10 years from now onwards.

An interdisciplinary research team has investigated tipping mechanisms that can possibly trigger fast yet constructive societal changes toward the stabilization of climate and overall sustainability. Tipping mechanisms and elements like these can lead to a transition that is sufficiently quick to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Six Elements Emerge from an Experts’ Survey and Workshop

The researchers have discovered six socio-economic tipping elements and associated interventions that can potentially bring about such changes to a rapid and deep global decarbonization. The study has been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

From the energy sector to financial markets to our cities—we were able to pin down social tipping elements and identify concrete interventions that might activate contagious processes of rapidly spreading technologies, behavioral pattern, and social norms.

Ilona M. Otto, Study Lead Author, Sociologist, and Economist, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Building on a comprehensive literature review, an expert workshop, and expert survey, the social tipping interventions that were investigated and suggested involve the elimination of fossil-fuel subsidies and, at the same time, incentivizing the distributed energy generation.

The interventions also involve the exposure of the moral implications of fossil fuels, the building of carbon-neutral cities, relatively better climate education and engagement, divestments from assets associated with fossil fuels, and information disclosure on greenhouse gas emissions.

Otto added, “While this is neither a comprehensive nor a complete list, these results could help develop rapid socio-economic transformation pathways and explore narratives for a decarbonized future in 2050.”

Divestment and Climate-Neutral Power Generation are the Main Short-Term Drivers

The strongest short-term transformation potential was seen in divestment decisions relating to financial markets and also in storage systems and energy production, where the focus must be on utilizing previously existing greenhouse gas-neutral technologies.

As long as financial flows are diverted away from companies involved in fossil industries and redirected toward sustainable investments, a tipping point in the financial markets can perhaps be achieved—for instance, if insurance firms and national banks warn about the global consequences of what is known as “stranded assets.”

According to Jonathan Donges, the study’s second lead author and physicist from PIK’s FutureLab on Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene, “This could trigger a positive avalanche effect.”

In the same way, the application and use of the prevalent greenhouse gas-neutral technologies in energy efficiency and power generation can potentially tip society toward sustainability.

Donges added, “The decisive factor for this adjustment process is the financial return. Our expert group believes that the critical mass that needs to be reached is the moment when climate-neutral power generation generates higher financial returns than fossil-based power generation.”

Climate Protection as a Socially Recognized Norm Stabilizes the Road to Decarbonization

Such comparatively short-term tipping interventions like divestment decisions should be eternally backed and supported by changes in values and norms in society.

Awareness of global warming is high but social norms to fundamentally shift behavior are not. This is a mismatch that science alone cannot fix. For individuals to live a carbon-free lifestyle must be made easy to succeed fast, but on the longer term a new social equilibrium is needed in which climate protection is recognized as a social norm, otherwise shocks on the financial markets or economic crises could destroy progress in decarbonisation.

Johan Rockström, Study Co-Author and Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

You can only beat nonlinearity with nonlinearity,” stated Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, Director Emeritus of the PIK. “We can only contain the dynamic tipping processes in the Earth system that we have already initiated, such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, if we set social tipping processes in motion.

Schellnhuber continued, “This is all about the instigation of contagious dynamics within society, politics, and the economy, in which a new climate-friendly and sustainable stance spreads exponentially.”

An important current example of the potential of social dynamics is the Fridays for Future movement, which has provoked irritations in people's personal worldviews and may thus contribute to changing values and norms, opening political pathways for decarbonisation while developing the way we collectively think and act with regard to climate change.

Wolfgang Lucht, Study Co-Author, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Such dynamics may lead to changes in politics and legislative measures, to climate-friendly transformations of infrastructure and to a reorientation of individual consumer decisions and lifestyles,” concluded Lucht.


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