Politicians, business leaders, climate scientists, interest groups and journalists from across the world have been meeting in Dubai at the COP28 climate summit (the 28th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)). The meeting comes at a time when various climate tipping points are being reached or approached – some bad, but some good. Understanding these tipping points and their implications for society and policy requires understanding not only the science, but also the various economic incentives affecting individuals, businesses, politicians and societies.
A recent report (see first reference in articles section below) identified various climate tipping points. These are when global temperatures rise to a point where various domino effects occur. These are adverse changes to the environment that gather pace and have major effects on ecosystems and the ability to grow food and support populations. These, in turn, will have large effects on economies, migration and political stability.
According to the report, five tipping points are imminent with the current degree of global warming (1.2oC). These are:
- Melting of the Greenland ice sheet;
- Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet;
- Death of warm-water coral reefs;
- Collapse of the North Atlantic Subpolar Gyre circulation, which helps to drive the warm current that benefits Western Europe;
- Widespread rapid thawing of permafrost, where tundra without snow cover rapidly absorbs heat and releases methane (a much more powerful source of global warming than CO2).
With global warming of 1.5oC, three more tipping points are likely: the destruction of seagrass meadows, mangrove swamps and the southern part of the boreal forests that cover much of northern Eurasia. As the temperature warms further, other tipping points can interact in ways that drive one another, resulting in tipping ‘cascades’.
But the report also strikes an optimistic note, arguing that positive tipping points are also possible, which will help to slow global warming in the near future and possibly reverse it further in the future.
The most obvious one is in renewable energy. Renewable power generation in many countries is now cheaper than generation from fossil fuels. Indeed, in 2022, over 80% of new electricity generation was from solar and wind. And as it becomes cheaper, so this will drive investment in new renewable plants, including in small-scale production suitable for use in developing countries in parts not connected to a grid. In the vehicle sector, improved battery technology, the growth in charging infrastructure and cheaper renewable sources of electricity are creating a tipping point in EV take-up.
Positive tipping points can take place as a result of changing attitudes, such as moving away from a meat-intensive diet, avoiding food waste, greater use of recycling and a growth in second-hand markets.
But these positive tipping points are so far not strong enough or quick enough. Part of the problem is with economic incentives in market systems and part is with political systems.
Economic decisions around the world of both individuals and firms are made largely within a market environment. But the market fails to take into account the full climate costs and benefits of such decisions. There are various reasons why.
Externalities. Both the production and consumption of many goods, especially energy and transport, but also much of agriculture and manufacturing, involve the production of CO2. But the costs of the resulting global warming are not born directly by the producer or consumer. Instead they are external costs born by society worldwide – with some countries and individuals bearing a higher cost than others. The result is an overproduction or consumption of such goods from the point of view of the world.
The environment as a common resource. The air, the seas and many other parts of the environment are not privately owned. They are a global ‘commons’. As such, it is extremely difficult to exclude non-payers from consuming the benefits they provide. Because of this property of ‘non-excludability’, it is often possible to consume the benefits of the environment at a zero price. If the price of any good or service to the user is zero, there is no incentive to economise on its use. In the case of the atmosphere as a ‘dump’ for greenhouse gases, this results in its overuse. Many parts of the environment, however, including the atmosphere, are scarce: there is rivalry in their use. As people increase their use of the atmosphere as a dump for carbon, so the resulting global warming adversely affects the lives of others. This is an example of the tragedy of the commons – where a free resource (such as common land) is overused.
Inter-generational problems. The effect of the growth in carbon emissions is long term, whereas the benefits are immediate. Thus consumers and firms are frequently prepared to continue with various practices, such as driving, flying and using fossil fuels for production, and leave future generations to worry about their environmental consequences. The problem, then, is a reflection of the importance that people attach to the present relative to the future.
Ignorance. People may be contributing to global warming without realising it. They may be unaware of which of the goods they buy involve the release of carbon in their production or how much carbon they release when consumed.
Governments, whether democratic or dictatorships, face incentives not to reduce carbon emissions – or to minimise their reduction, especially if they are oil producing countries. Reducing carbon involves short-term costs to consumers and this can make them unpopular. It could cost them the next election or, in the case of dictatorships, make them vulnerable to overthrow. What is more, the oil, coal and gas industries have a vested interest in continuing the use of fossil fuels. Such industries wield considerable political power.
Even if governments want the world to reduce carbon emissions, they would rather that the cost of doing so is born less by their own country and more by other countries. This creates a prisoner’s dilemma, where the optimum may be for a large global reduction in carbon emissions, but the optimum is not achieved because countries individually are only prepared to reduce a little, expecting other countries to reduce more. Getting a deal that is deemed ‘fair’ by all countries is very difficult. An example is where developing countries, may feel that it is fair that the bulk of any cuts, if not all of them, should be made by developed countries, while developed countries feel that fixed percentage cuts should be made by all countries.
If the goal is to tackle climate change, then the means is to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere (or at the least to stop its increase – the net zero target). There are two possibilities here. The first is to reduce the amount of carbon emissions. The second is to use carbon capture and storage or carbon sequestration (e.g. through increased forestation).
In terms of reducing carbon emissions, the key is reducing the consumption of carbon-producing activities and products that involve emissions in their production. This can be achieved through taxes on such products and/or subsidies on green alternatives (see the blog ‘Are carbon taxes a solution to the climate emergency?‘). Alternatively carbon-intensive consumption can be banned or phased out by law. For example, the purchase of new petrol or diesel cars cold be banned beyond a certain date. Or some combination of taxation and regulation can be used, such as in a cap-and-trade system – for example, the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) (see the blog ‘Carbon pricing in the UK‘). Then there is government investment in zero carbon technologies and infrastructure (e.g. electrifying railways). In practice, a range of policy instruments are needed (see the blog ‘Tackling climate change: “Everything, everywhere, all at once”‘).
With carbon capture, again, solutions can involve a mixture of market mechanisms and regulation. Market mechanisms include subsidies for using carbon capture systems or for afforestation. Regulation includes policies such as requiring filters to be installed on chimneys or banning the felling of forests for grazing land.
The main issue with such policies is persuading governments to adopt them. As we saw above, governments may be unwilling to bear the short-term costs to consumers and the resulting loss in popularity. Winning the next election or simple political survival may be their number-one priority.
The COP28 summit concluded with a draft agreement which called for the:
transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.
This was the first COP summit that called on all nations to transition away from fossil fuels for energy generation. It was thus hailed as the biggest step forward on tackling climate change since the 2015 Paris agreement. However, there was no explicit commitment to phase out or even ‘phase down’ fossil fuels. Many scientists, climate interest groups and even governments had called for such a commitment. What is more, there was no agreement to transition away from fossil fuels for transport, agriculture or the production of plastics.
If the agreement is to be anything more than words, the commitment must now be translated into specific policy actions by governments. This is where the real test will come. It’s easy to make commitments; it’s much harder to put them into practice with policy measures that are bound to impose costs on various groups of people. What is more, there are powerful lobbies, such as the oil, coal and steel industries, which want to slow any transition away from fossil fuels – and many governments of oil producing countries which gain substantial revenues from oil production.
One test will come in two years’ time at the COP30 summit in the Amazonian city of Belém, Brazil. At that summit, countries must present new nationally determined commitments that are economy-wide, cover all greenhouse gases and are fully aligned with the 1.5°C temperature limit. This will require specific targets to be announced and the measures required to achieve them. Also, it is hoped that by then there will be an agreement to phase out fossil fuels and not just to ‘transition away’ from them.
Reasons for hope
Despite the unwillingness of many countries, especially the oil and coal producing countries, to phase out fossil fuels, there are reasons for hope that global warming may be halted and eventually even reversed. Damage will have been done and some tipping points may have been reached, but further tipping points may be averted.
The first reason is technological advance. Research, development and investment in zero carbon technologies is advancing rapidly. As we have seen, power generation from wind and solar is now cheaper than from fossil fuels. And this cost difference is likely to grow as technology advances further. This positive tipping point is becoming more rapid. Other technological advances in transport and industry will further the shift towards renewables and other advances will economise on the use of power.
The second is changing attitudes. With the environment being increasingly included in educational syllabuses around the world and with greater stress on the problems of climate change in the media, with frequent items in the news and with programmes such as the three series of Planet Earth, people are becoming more aware of the implications of climate change and how their actions contribute towards the problem. People are likely to put increasing pressure on businesses and governments to take action. Growing awareness of the environmental impact of their actions is also affecting people’s choices. The negative externalities are thus being reduced and may even become positive ones.
- Global Tipping Points
- Report: Pivotal moment for humanity as tipping point threats and opportunities accelerate
- Earth is closing in on catastrophic climate ‘tipping points’, over 200 scientists warn
- Earth on verge of five catastrophic climate tipping points, scientists warn
- Cop28: King Charles warns of ‘vast, frightening experiment’ on natural world
- UK likely to miss Paris climate targets by wide margin, analysis shows
- Water and the High Price of Bad Economics
- Fossil fuels: Can humanity really kick its addiction?
- Five climate change solutions under the spotlight at COP28
- COP28: Five reasons for optimism on climate
- COP28 Agreement Signals “Beginning of the End” of the Fossil Fuel Era
- COP28 climate summit ends with deal to transition away from fossil fuels
- Cop28 landmark deal agreed to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels
- COP28 draft agreement drops phaseout of fossil fuels
- Examining COP28’s potential impact on climate change
- Cop28 failed to halt fossil fuels’ deadly expansion plans – so what now?
- The momentum of the solar energy transition
- COP28: Bill Gates on climate optimism, wealth and the human condition
- From the Paris agreement to COP28, how oil and gas giants try to influence the global climate agenda
- COP28: Phasedown or Phaseout, Fossil Fuels Must be Addressed to Meet 1.5C Goal
University of Exeter, Global Systems Institute, Timothy M. Lenton et al. (6/12/23)
Independent, Vishwam Sankaran (6/12/23)
The Guardian, Ajit Niranjan (6/12/23)
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey, Nina Lakhani, Aletha Adu, Damian Carrington, Patrick Greenfield and Oliver Milman (1/12/23)
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (5/12/23)
Project Syndicate, Mariana Mazzucato , Partha Dasgupta, Nicholas Stern, and Johan Rockström (1/12/23)
BBC News, Justin Rowlatt (10/12/23)
BBC News, Mark Poynting (6/12/23)
BBC News, Matt McGrath (8/12/23)
UN Climate Press Release (13/12/23)
CNBC, Ruxandra Iordache and Sam Meredith (13/12/23)
The Guardian, Adam Morton, Fiona Harvey and Patrick Greenfield (13/12/23)
Financial Times, Attracta Mooney, Aime Williams and Alice Hancock (13/12/23)
BBC News, Matt McGrath (13/12/23)
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (14/12/23)
Nature Communications, Femke Nijsse, Jean-Francois Mercure, Nadia Ameli, Francesca Larosa, Sumit Kothari, Jamie Rickman, Pim Vercoulen and Hector Pollitt (17/10/23)
BBC News on YouTube, Bill Gates (2/12/23)
The Conversation, Alain Naef (8/12/23)
Forbes, Felicia Jackson (5/12/23)
- Use a diagram to demonstrate the effects of negative externalities in production on the level of output and how this differs from the optimum level.
- Use another diagram to demonstrate the effects of negative externalities in consumption on the level of consumption and how this differs from the optimum level.
- What was agreed at COP28?
- What incentives were included in the agreement to ensure countries stick to the agreement? Were they likely to be sufficient?
- What can governments do to encourage positive environmental tipping points?
- How may carbon taxes be used to tackle global warming? Are they an efficient policy instrument?
- What can be done to change people’s attitudes towards their own carbon emissions?