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Operationalising positive tipping points towards global sustainability

Timothy M. Lenton, Scarlett Benson, Talia Smith, Theodora Ewer, Victor Lanel, Elizabeth Petykowski, Thomas W. R. Powell, Jesse F. Abrams, Fenna Blomsma, and Simon Sharpe (2022)

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The paper explores theories on positive (in the sense of ‘self-reinforcing’) tipping points in social and technological systems, offering key conditions that may control positive tipping and key interventions to trigger positive tipping to catalyse climate action. Tipping points in this article refers to a case where a relatively small intervention triggers large and long-term consequences for existing systems.  

Regarding the theories of positive tipping points, the article explores three different categories of models. The first category concerns notions of ‘critical mass’, ‘diffusion of innovations’ and ‘social contagion’. Theories about a ‘critical mass’ of adopters show that when the number of adopters of a new idea/technology/innovation reach a critical number, those adopters can trigger wider adoption, resulting in the rate of adoption becoming self-sustaining. New ideas/technologies/innovations begin with innovators, then early adopters, then early majority, late majority then laggards. The social contagion element of these theories occurs where adopting a norm/behaviour makes it easier for others to adopt that norm/behaviour.  

Another set of theories is based on ‘increasing returns’, ‘coordination’, and ‘herding’. Action based on increasing returns occurs where technology becomes more attractive as more people use those technologies (e.g. economies of scale). Positive change can also occur where members of a population coordinate on a new technology to get better payoff from it. Herding also reflects changes where informational cascades lead to herding behaviour i.e. where each potential adopter of a norm/behaviour expects payoff because of other adopters.  

Thirdly, ‘percolation’, ‘co-evolution’, theories suggest change occurs where norms/behaviours are adopted due to information distributed through social networks. Co-evolution has a history in the ecological realm, where ‘ecological and socio-ecological' tipping points interact with the diverse positive feedbacks in ecosystems (and also in society with respect to socio-ecological tipping points).   

The article identifies some conditions that may enable positive tipping in a system, from population size to accessibility and convenience. Of relevance, competitive price signals can enable or prevent tipping points. The article offers numerous interventions to trigger positive tipping such as social innovation and behavioural nudges. Of relevance, it notes how interventions from national governments to reconfigure markets and institutions may help mobilise sustainable innovations.  

The article can be used to justify rejecting a proposal for a new fossil fuel project on the basis that doing so may constitute an intervention that triggers wider change towards decarbonisation, through one of the theories presented in the article. It prompts consideration of the wider reinforcing effects of rejecting proposals and recognises the potentially significant impact of doing so.  

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