Search Menu
Member Login
Our Insights 25 Nov 2015

Carbon Tipping Points. And Climate Movements. Signals of Hope for Future Generations?

By Geoff Lye

This is the second in a series of blogs Geoff Lye will produce in the run up toCOP 21 and through the conference itself. His blogs from most COPs since the Bali conference in 2007 can be found here.

As I wrote this, my latest grandchild arrived in this world. [Thanks. Leo. 9.1 pounds. And both well!]. Statistically, he should still be alive in 2100 – and will, along with the rest of his generation, be wondering why it took us so long to avert the huge impacts climate change will have had on his life and his world. But, as we near COP 21, I am seeing ever more references to tipping points – both good and bad – which will have transformed the climate transition within Leo’s lifetime.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. In my first blog, I reported that we are now half way to the 2°C threshold. In reality, however, we have already committed to a further 0.5°C as historic emissions continue to warm the atmosphere. And, if we rely on the UN and governments to find solutions, we are almost certain to breach the 2°C ‘limit’.

Furthermore, the widely used references to a ‘2°C limit’ (let alone ‘safe limit’) are misleading. Imagine the captain on a flight announcing just before take-off that the amount of fuel on board had been calculated to give a 50:50 chance of not running out during the flight…And then think about the IPCC’s calculation that if the emissions reductions at the heart of the COP 21 negotiations are agreed upon, there is a 50% chance that we will not breach the 2°C threshold and tip into ‘dangerous’ climate change (see the Synthesis Report for Policymakers). In other words, there is a 50% chance that we will!

As a leading NASA scientist, James Hansen, put it: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” So 2°C must not be seen as the target; nor as a safe limit; but rather as a cliff edge to avoid at all costs. Hence the growing calls to target 1.5°C in line with the Precautionary Principle – and common sense.

But, for the moment, let’s assume success in Paris; and that all countries deliver on their ‘Intended Nationally Declared Commitments’1; and that, in time, they set themselves even more ambitious targets. Even then, the bottom line would be adverse, unpredictable and with potentially catastrophic impacts.

At this point, we might reasonably ask: if our governments are falling so woefully short of what we need to protect us from avoidable acceleration of global warming, what hope is there? Well, the news is not all bad. Regardless of the outcome in Paris, I see many current, real world developments tipping the balance in favour of decarbonisation of our energy systems, our economies and our lifestyles:

  1. One of most critical thresholds to cross is the point at which renewable energy is cheaper per kilowatt than fossil powered electricity. Even with the recent collapse in oil prices, this critical milestone has been achieved in the UK, Germany and Australia2; and in virtually all cases, the trend of costs in renewables is declining – in some cases sharply. The market has shifted investment from fossil fuels to renewables; indeed, from 2013, renewables investment has exceeded that spent finding and extracting oil and gas.
  2. The biggest hurdle facing dependence on renewables has been the unreliability of supply as sun and wind fluctuate. The key solution is to be able to store energy when it is abundant and to draw it down in periods of low generation. 2015 has seen remarkable breakthroughs on this front including Tesla’s batteries which deliver up to 300 miles per charge; Morocco’s opening next month of the world’s largest solar plant which uses solar heating to produce molten salt which then drives turbines during the night; and radical innovations such as aluminium and lithium air batteries which dramatically increase storage capacity while reducing weight.
  3. The fossil fuel industry has made a lot of noise about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as one of the keys to a gradual shift away from fossil fuels, but has failed to deliver a convincing case for its economic viability while facing public concern about how and where the carbon is to be stored. This year, for the first time, I have been reading about CCC – or Carbon Capture and Conversion. The simple aim is to take CO2 (from power stations or directly from the atmosphere) and convert it into products that are otherwise carbon intensive such as plastics. Players in this field include the material sciences company Covestro3, who is working to transform CO2 into a useful raw material; Novomer, whose ‘net carbon negative’ polymers ‘contain up to 50% CO2 by mass, sequestering this harmful greenhouse gas permanently from the environment; and Newlight’s AirCarbon plastics, which use methane (84 times more potent than carbon dioxide) as a key input material4.

Separately from these economic and technological tipping points, we are witnessing new trends and movements which are becoming powerful drivers of decarbonisation and climate risk avoidance. Civil society’s activism on climate change saw the world’s biggest march on any environmental issue in 2014; and even with the planned marches in Paris for COP 21 banned, it looks likely that record numbers will take to the streets around the world on 29 November. The online campaigning groups Avaaz (from zero to over 40 million members in 8 years!) and (see their rationale in 90 seconds here) are planning over 2,000 events in at least 150 countries around the world for the weekend of November 29 – the day before COP 21 begins.

Climate is spurring unprecedented mobilisation not just in the streets, but also on campuses and in investment committees and shareholder meetings — putting pressure on boards, pension and other funds to act on climate change. To date, institutions and individuals with funds worth almost $3 trillion (equal to the UK’s annual global GDP) have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies. Investor pressure and shareholder activism have combined to prompt much higher levels of climate risk disclosure; in 2015, the directors of BP, Shell and Statoil broke with the past and actively called for support for climate-related resolutions, obtaining almost 100% of the votes.

Economists, lawyers, bankers and insurers are also more deeply engaged than ever by the risks and opportunities of climate change. I have followed this space closely since I wrote a report entitled The Changing Landscape of Liability which foresaw precisely these sorts of developments. Admittedly, this accelerating interest could not yet be described as a ‘movement’, but when the Governor of the Bank of England links climate change to financial (in)stability, something significant is in the air. He used a recent speech to highlight, in his words, “three broad channels through which climate change can affect financial stability:

First, physical risks: the impacts today on insurance liabilities and the value of financial assets that arise from climate- and weather-related events, such as floods and storms that damage property or disrupt trade.

Second, liability risks: the impacts that could arise tomorrow if parties who have suffered loss or damage from the effects of climate change seek compensation from those they hold responsible. Such claims could come decades in the future, but have the potential to hit carbon extractors and emitters – and, if they have liability cover, their insurers – the hardest.

Finally, transition risks: the financial risks which could result from the process of adjustment towards a lower-carbon economy. Changes in policy, technology and physical risks could prompt a reassessment of the value of a large range of assets as costs and opportunities become apparent.”

Governor Carney very clearly articulates that climate change is not simply an environmental issue but directly linked to economic security. This is a theme I will develop further in my next blog: it will consider COP 21 and its implications for the private sector.

In summary, whilst we need – and hope for – a global ‘Paris Treaty’ which will set a new direction towards a lower carbon future, we should not see this – under even the most optimistic outcome – as anything other than a helpful support to other actors who are already choosing to act unilaterally. Many of these actors, whether in cities, corporations or universities, are driven by societal and business imperatives and should be applauded. Furthermore, they – and we – should be encouraged by the convergence of a range of irreversible carbon tipping points and climate movements. They will disrupt and decarbonise existing business models and markets in ways we cannot imagine but which our children and grandchildren will take for granted. They will just wonder why it took us so long. Apologies, Leo, but welcome to our world!



About the author


All In

The Future ofBusiness Leadership

Read more

Stay informed

Our latest news and updates, in your inbox every month.

See how we use your personal data by reading our terms of use and privacy policy.