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Tipping points

Hope in the fight against climate change

1 March 2021
4 mins to read

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We have left it too late to tackle climate change incrementally. It now requires transformational change, and a dramatic acceleration of progress.

A growing threat is the approach of "Tipping Points" – thresholds which, once crossed, trigger irreversible changes such as the loss of the Amazon rainforest or the West Antarctic ice sheet. Some Tipping Point thresholds have already been reached, and others are coming closer as global warming continues.

Once tipped into a new state, many of these systems will cause further warming – and they may interact to form cascades that could threaten the existence of human civilisations.

Positive Tipping Points

"In the face of such vast problems, we feel disempowered," said Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.

"But – just as Tipping Points are part of the greatest threat we face – the same logic may also provide the solution.

"At the University of Exeter, we have identified a variety of Positive Tipping Points in human societies that can propel rapid decarbonisation.

"This concept could unlock the stalemate – the sense that there's nothing we can do about climate change.

"Like the negative tipping points in the Earth system, some Positive Tipping Points are already in motion – and we have the chance to accelerate this process."


"Like the negative Tipping Points in the Earth system, some Positive Tipping Points are already in motion – and we have the chance to accelerate this process."

Professor Tim Lenton
Director, Global Systems Institute


Electric switch

Switching to electric vehicles could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This Tipping Point has already happened in Norway, where progressive policies have made electric vehicles cheaper than petrol cars, and more than half of vehicles bought now are electric.

If the same happened in other key locations such as the EU, China and California, the global car market could be "tipped" in favour of the greener electric option.

Positive Tipping Points have also played a role in UK power generation – which has been decarbonised faster than the power sector in any other large country. 

A carbon tax and an EU emissions scheme made gas cheaper than coal. Combined with increasing renewable energy generation, this tipped coal into unprofitability and led to the destruction of coal plants.

Globally, renewables are now generating electricity cheaper than fossil fuels in many countries.

Tip of the iceberg

Like negative climate tipping points, Positive Tipping Points can interact to form self-reinforcing cascades.

University of Exeter researchers have identified potential Tipping Points in a range of areas – from agriculture and ecosystem regeneration to politics and public opinion.

Ecosystem degradation accelerates climate change, damages biodiversity and harms people who depend on the land for food and incomes.

Exeter scientists are working on inspiring projects that help both people and the planet.

These projects include the creation of tree-based farming systems in Africa and Amazonia, and conservation of peatland forests in Indonesia and dry tropical forests across Latin America.

Working with local farmers, NGOs, researchers and governments, these projects could help spark tipping points to make conservation and regeneration easier, more effective and more profitable.

Exeter researchers are also pioneering concepts like the circular economy (where "waste" products are reused, repaired or recycled) and natural capital – where the vast benefits that humans gain from the natural world are taken into account when making decisions.

Concrete hope

"If we're going to avoid the worst risks from climate Tipping Points, we need to identify and trigger positive social tipping points," Professor Lenton said.

"The principle of Tipping Points is common in both cases – it's the idea that complex systems sometimes reach a point where a small nudge can lead to a large change in outcome.

"A crucial ingredient of any Tipping Point is that there are reinforcing feedbacks within a system.

"At the University of Exeter, we are busy identifying opportunity areas for Positive Tipping Points.

"These include Tipping Points in personal transport, renewable energy, how we use the land – in particular changing our agricultural systems and diets so we have a much smaller footprint on the land.

"We're looking at regenerating degraded ecosystems, Tipping Points towards a circular economy – especially for plastics – and we're really interested in Positive Tipping Points behind new social movements.

"We believe that the message of Positive Tipping Points can bring concrete hope that we can accelerate decarbonisation and stop the climate and ecological crisis."


"We believe that the message of Positive Tipping Points can bring concrete hope that we can accelerate decarbonisation and stop the climate and ecological crisis."

Professor Tim Lenton
Director, Global Systems Institute


Meet our researchers

Professor Tim Lenton

Director, Global Systems Institute


  t.m.lenton@exeter.ac.uk

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Triggering Positive Tipping Points in power generation

In the UK, power generation from coal has dropped to almost nothing within the last five years.

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Triggering Positive Tipping Points to regenerate ecosystems

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Positive Tipping Points accelerate electric vehicle revolution

Electric vehicles (EVs) are better for the environment than petrol or diesel cars.

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