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Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050

Ilona M. Otto, Jonathan F. Donges, Roger Cremades, Avit Bhowmik, Richard J. Hewitt, Wolfgang Lucht, Johan Rockström, Franziska Allerberger, Mark McCaffrey, Sylvanus S. P. Doe, Alex Lenferna, Nerea Morán, Detlef P. van Vuuren, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (2020)

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The article examines potential sub-domains of the social-economic system or “social tipping elements” (‘STEs’). A small change in STEs can trigger large changes at the macroscopic level. The article assesses the potential of “social tipping interventions” (‘STIs’) that trigger tipping STEs towards decarbonisation.  

The article uses online expert surveys, workshops and literature reviews to identify STEs and propose specific STIs within those areas to induce tipping dynamics for rapid decarbonisation. Based on the article’s criteria of STEs, the article identifies six STEs: energy production system; human settlements; financial markets; systems of norms and values; education systems; and systems of information feedback. 

In the energy production system, technological development will play a key role to better utilise energy from existing carbon-free technology. STIs include removing fossil fuel subsidies and incentivising decentralisation of energy generation to make renewable energy production yield better financial returns than fossil fuel production. 

In the system of human settlements, planning and infrastructure methods and investments can greatly affect climate mitigation. STIs would involve building cities that are carbon-neutral (e.g. using low-emissions materials). 


In the financial markets system, the article describes a financial carbon bubble that could burst when investors perceive carbon risk at a certain level. The STI in the financial markets system could be divesting from fossil fuel assets, as the movement reduces the value of fossil fuel assets. The article suggests an avalanche effect could be triggered if banks and insurance companies cautioned against the risk of stranded assets from fossil fuel projects. 

In the system of norms and values, the article identifies how fossil fuel extraction and use inconsistent with the Paris Agreement could be viewed as immoral, and disproportionately adversely affects vulnerable groups and future generations. An STI in this system could reveal the moral implications of burning fossil fuels led by a range of actors (committed minorities).   

In the education system, the coverage of climate change issues in schools and universities can be important, as lack of knowledge about the causes of, impacts of, and solutions to climate change has been found to be the most easily identifiable barrier to individual engagement with climate action in the UK. An STI would be improving quality education on climate change. 

In the systems of information feedback, the flow of information and creation of positive information feedbacks is important, aided by transparency and disclosure of information. STIs include labelling programmes and corporate disclosures. 

The article notes that social tipping dynamics are likely to spread through a network of interactions rather than through linear cause-effect systems and interactions between STEs mean they can reinforce one another, mobilising decarbonisation where several STIs are triggered together.  

The article demonstrates the potential for one intervention in one system to trigger change in that system and outside it towards decarbonisation. The article can be used to support an argument that rejecting fossil fuel projects have numerous benefits beyond influencing immediate supply and demand factors through the price mechanism (i.e. through triggering the transformation of systems by affecting investor perceptions in capital markets and by reinforcing anti-fossil fuel norms). The article further supports interventions in planning and infrastructure to move away from fossil fuels, supporting rejections of fossil fuel infrastructure.  

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