Section 4: Positive tipping points in technology, economy and society

4: Positive tipping points in technology, economy and society

Section lead coordinating authors: Tom Powell, Steven R. Smith, Caroline Zimm, Emma Bailey
External Reviewers: Magnus Bengtsson, Luca Coscieme, Margot Hurlbert, Lisa Jacobson, Massimo Tavoni

Section lead coordinating authors: Tom Powell, Steven R. Smith, Caroline Zimm, Emma Bailey
External Reviewers: Magnus Bengtsson, Luca Coscieme, Margot Hurlbert, Lisa Jacobson, Massimo Tavoni

Key messages

  • Transformative and just positive tipping points can emerge with the right enabling conditions, feedbacks and triggers. 
  • Climate solutions focusing on fundamental shifts in behaviours, values and institutions are as important as those that focus on technologies, materials and markets.
  • An avoid-shift-improve logic which rethinks our activities – whether they can be omitted, changed or undertaken more efficiently – can be used in many sectors to design interventions to manage holistic structural change.


  • Positive tipping points theory, methods and applications will require a comprehensive, systematic and transdisciplinary programme of research and development.
  • Decision makers need a systems-thinking approach and a coordinated strategy that encompasses all economic sectors, all departments of government, civil society (including public consultation), and both supply-side and demand-side interventions.
  • A systems-thinking approach understands that the most effective way to catalyse global action may be via small-group coalitions. For example, a positive tipping point in green hydrogen could be achieved if the US, EU and India implemented blending mandates for green ammonia in fertiliser manufacturing.


‘Negative’ tipping points are now so close that urgent action needs to be taken to prevent them. Beneficial, ‘positive’ tipping points (PTPs) offer hope for accelerating responses to match this urgency. A key task will be to learn how to intervene in socio-behavioural, technological, economic and political systems in ways that enable PTPs to emerge while minimising harms and injustices. Enabling PTPs means, for example, making the desired change the most affordable, attractive, convenient, accessible or morally acceptable option. PTPs occur when the balance of system feedbacks – reinforcing/amplifying versus dampening feedbacks – shifts in favour of reinforcing ones, such as economies of scale, or social contagion. A PTP in one system can trigger one or more PTPs in other systems in a domino or cascade effect, generating widespread societal change.

PTPs are already well underway in wind and solar power generation and in leading battery electric vehicle (BEV) markets. But the supply of technological solutions on its own is unlikely to be sufficient to meet decarbonisation targets. It is also important to trigger PTPs in the demand for energy and transport services and food – for example, by making public transport the cheapest, most convenient option. Coordinated action between supply and demand amplifies the impact of each. Accelerating change in food systems also has important ‘positive cascading’ implications for natural ecosystems, accelerating nature recovery and restoring natural carbon sinks. Other changes – in behavioural norms, values and practices; in political institutions, policy priorities, and public pressure; in global financial systems and international funding mechanisms; and in digital and information systems – are also vitally important for delivering the necessary speed and scale of systemic change.

In certain systems we can detect the signals, or ‘early opportunity indicators’ (EOIs), of approaching tipping points. Further development of EOI research could help decision makers – from politicians to investors – harness the power of the PTP approach.

Table 4.1.1: Summary table
Sector-systemPTP opportunityEmissions
Key enabling conditionsKey reinforcing feedbacks
Energy & PowerShift: Solar PV/wind + storage26%• Levelised cost of electricity of new solar/wind + battery storage is less than that of new coal/gas power
• Sufficient transmission and distribution infrastructure
• Economies of scale
• Learning effects
• Social contagion for domestic installation
• Technological reinforcement for domestic battery installation (with flexi-tariffs)
Shift: Domestic heat pumps6%• Well insulated housing stock
• Competitive on installation cost and time with gas or equivalent boiler (including subsidy)
• Running costs competitive with gas
• Economies of scale
• Learning effects
• Social contagion for domestic installation
• Technological reinforcement i.e. when integrated with home solar and battery system
Shift: Steel production: green hydrogen DRI7%• Cost per ton of production lower than steel from fossil-based production
• Institutional commitment by large manufacturers
• Enabling policy and market demand for low carbon steel
• Economies of scale
• Learning by doing
• Technological reinforcement
• Path-dependency of investment decision-making
Transport & mobilityShift: Battery electric vehicles9%• BEVs cheaper at point of purchase than ICE vehicles (including policy support)
• Sufficient charging infrastructure
• BEV performance seen as competitive with ICEV’s by consumers
• Policies that increase BEV desirability including waved parking fees, access to fast lanes, and entry to air quality zones)
• Economies of scale
• Learning by doing
• Social contagion and network effects
Avoid: Enhanced active mobilityUp to 9% (or more)• Enabling infrastructure (e.g. safe streets, compact city development, hire/rental schemes) and policy design (e.g. carbon pricing, subsidy, vehicle restriction schemes)
• Norm change
• Social contagion and network effects
Shift: Enhanced heavy capacity public transport networks Emissions, air quality and economic (SDG) benefits (unquantified)• Investment
• Enabling policy
• Demonstration effect
• Economic development feedbacks of infrastructure access 
Shift: Heavy duty freight – Battery electric trucks3%• Total cost of ownership lower than ICE trucks
• Sufficient high-speed charging infrastructure
• Performance equivalent or better than ICE trucks
• Economies of scale in battery production
• Charging infrastructure network effects
• Asset sharing via digital platforms to drive efficiency improvements
Shift: Shipping: green ammonia3%• Green ammonia fuel cost less than fossil-based shipping fuel
• Effective regulation and incentives for shipping sector
• Economies of scale
• Learning by doing in green ammonia sector
Shift: Aviation: power-to-liquid fuels2%• Power-to-liquid fuel costs less than fossil-based jet fuel for long-haul flights• Learning by doing
• Economies of scale in PtL fuel production
Food & AgricultureAvoid: food loss and waste8%• Effective policy and regulation
• Buy-in from supermarkets
• Shifting norms and behaviours
• Learning by doing
• Social contagion
• Technological reinforcement via digital platform evolution
Shift: more plant-based dietsUp to 12%• Shifting norms and behaviours, e.g. via public procurement, information
• Improved alternatives to animal products, which are competitive on cost with animal products
• Social contagion, demonstration effects, network effects
• Economies of scale and learning by doing in production of alternatives to animal products
Shift: to regenerative agricultureUp to 4% via CDR, plus additional emission reductions and ecological benefits• Subsidy or other incentives that support farmers to transition and diversify business models, including carbon markets
• Regenerative practices have lower input costs or higher productivity than conventional
• Information and education on regenerative practices is accessible
• Information cascades
• Network effects
• Social-ecological feedbacks
Shift: Fertilizer2%• Green ammonia costs less per ton than grey ammonia for N-based fertilizers• Economies of scale and learning by doing in electrolyser development
Social & behavioural systemsShift: Anti fossil fuel norms;
Avoid: sufficiency norms
n/a• Free social spaces for social innovation
• Supportive networks legitimising new norms
• Policy intervention (e.g., remove fossil fuel subsidies) and public investment
• Philanthropic funders as incubators, connectors and mobilisers of new norms
• Increasing acceptability of new social norms
• Complex contagion seeded by climate activism
• Facilitated routes for new information to flow
• De-escalation of polarising narratives
• Opportunities to experience positive exemplars
Political systemsAvoid: Ecocide Lawn/a• Political coalition-building and public engagement
• Policy coalition-building and international diplomacy
• Increasing awareness and support for  policy
• International social contagion 
• Ostracism of non-cooperators
International climate clubsn/a• Establishment of new climate negotiation norms
• New international institutions
• Involvement of business, finance and civil society
• Increasing adoption
• Increasing success in catalysing global action
• Coordination and network effects
Legal systemsClimate change litigationn/a• Public perception/acceptability
• Supportive media coverage
• Supportive changes in climate-relevant laws
• New legal institutions., eg., commission for future generations
• Successful litigations, network effects
• Increasing international standing of human rights-based grounds for legal action
• International standing of adaptation- and financial compensation-based grounds for legal action
Financial systemsShift: Accelerating the green transitionPotential to interact with multiple high-emitting sectors• Expectation alignment between policy and investment communities (e.g. through public finance initiatives, policy certainty)
• Low-carbon investment is seen as a strategic asset rather than a diversification asset (e.g. less risky than carbon emitting investment options)
• Strategic policy intervention (e.g. signaling focus on a specific solution)
• Feedbacks between public and private finance
• Network effects among financial institutions
• Learning by doing (e.g. increasing experience of returns from low-carbon investment)
• Investment → technological development → stimulating employment and technological growth
Shift: Accelerating renewables investment in the Global South• Investments in Global South seen as no more risky than equivalent in the Global North (e.g. via credit guarantee schemes)
• Capacity base of around 1GW wind or solar installation
• Demonstration effect → countries with track record of renewable investments are more successful at attracting new investment due to investor confidence
• Network effects – crowding in investment
• Mobilising domestic capital initiates economic development feedbacks
Shift: De-financing fossil fuels• Stringent capital requirement rules
• Risk of exposure to stranded assets
• Network effects
• Financial feedbacks 
CascadesMulti-sector tipping points harnessing Avoid-Shift-Improve• Cross-government and cross-sector coordination of climate policy
• Super-leverage interventions to ensure favourable costs, accessibility, desirability and performance across target systems/sectors
• Co-evolution of coupled systems
• Social contagion
• Learning by doing
• Economies of scale
• Network effects
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