According to a study, social “tipping points” could trigger rapid and profound changes in processes of social and technological change within the next few years – which could help mitigate climate change and slow down global warming.

When discussing climate change, the phrase “tipping points” is usually used to address physical phenomena. In climate research, the term refers to changes that trigger irreversible developments. These include, for example, the thawing of Arctic permafrost or mutually reinforcing feedbacks that could lead to an increase in temperature. Researchers warn that these tipping points will become more frequent as global warming continues and that they will further accelerate climate change.

A new study has now examined this concept in regards to human societies and developed so-called “social tipping elements” (STEs), which could counteract climate change on a global level. The international team, led by Ilona Otto from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), suggest that what physical and social tipping points have in common is that even minor external influences can cause them to suddenly and irreversibly disrupt the status quo. According to the authors of the study: 

“STEs are subdomains of the planetary socioeconomic system where the required disruptive change may take place and lead to a sufficiently fast reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Social tipping points for meeting the 2050 climate targets

The starting point for the study, published in PNAS, the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences, was the search for practical interventions that have the potential to accelerate the spread of green technologies and incentivise climate-friendly behaviour or social attitudes. For their analysis, the authors of the study asked scientists around the world to identify important social tipping points.

A total of 207 social tipping points were suggested overall. From these, the researchers drew up a selection of six that they believe to have particularly significant potential. One prerequisite for the selection was that the selected social tipping points should be effective within the next 15 years – because only then we will be able to meet the climate targets set for 2050.

Promotion of renewable energies, carbon-neutral cities and education

The researchers conclude that, for example, state subsidies for renewable energies (STE1, energy production and storage systems), instead of energy production from fossil fuels, are a key means of curbing climate change. According to the study, electricity generation by photovoltaic systems or wind turbines could prove to be a cheaper option in the long term. In general, according to the study, the introduction of subsidies are important social tipping elements. One example is the European Investment Bank (EIB). Only recently, the EIB announced that it would stop investing in fossil fuels such as coal and oil from the end of 2021. The EU is also focusing on the promotion of renewable energies as part of its “Green Deal”.

The second STE is the creation of climate-neutral cities (STE2, settlements) and the third is the phasing out of fossil fuel-related financial assets (STE3, financial markets) and incentives for decentralised energy. Other important social tipping points for sustainable global decarbonisation include increased awareness about climate change and the moral implications of fossil fuel use (STE4, standards and value systems), strengthening climate education and mitigation (STE5, education system) and disclosure of information on greenhouse gas emissions (STE6, information feedback).

Study leaves out political and economic factors

Claudia Kemfert, energy and environmental expert at the German Economic Research Institute (DIW), has already praised the study. In an interview with (in German), she called the study an “innovative” approach. The researchers had “named and recognised key elements that are absolutely essential to achieve the climate targets. The scientists confirmed that future approaches “must include not only scientific, but above all social and economic tipping points in equal measure in order to be able to successfully tackle climate change at all levels”. 

German environmental psychologist Andreas Ernst, however, criticised the fact that the interventions presented still completely ignore political and economic power structures that can slow down and block these kind of changes. And the study does not provide any answers to the question of how existing structures can be broken down in order to prepare the ground for these kind of profound transformations. However, global protest movements such as Fridays for Future, and others, are raising awareness about climate change around the world and what we as a society can do to tackle the climate crisis. Maybe this social movement can also lead to changes in the rigid politial and economic structures that, as yet, still make up the status quo.

This is a translation by Mark Newton of an original article that first appeared on RESET’s German-language site.

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