Tesla And Volvo Create ‘Positive Tipping Points,’ Author Says

Ice and glaciers on water in Greenland

(Credit: Unsplash)

by | Dec 12, 2023

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To avoid a climate tipping point, “business as usual” is intolerable. In other words, if we continue, the damages will only escalate — increased droughts, floods, and heat waves.

That’s Tim Lenton, a professor of climate change at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, speaking. Small changes in the system can cause massive changes — a self-propelling event. And it’s “tough to stop” and will be irreversible.

We spoke at COP28 in Dubai. He illustrated his point by taking a chair and, ever so slightly, tipping it backward. It reached a point at which the weight caused it to fall over.

To that end, he identified 25 “tipping points,” and five are already at risk. One of them is that we are losing two ice sheets: Greenland and West Antarctica. And then there’s the loss of coral reefs; a half million people depend on them for their livelihoods, not to mention the millions who enjoy their presence when they snorkel in the sea. There’s also the permafrost or the frozen soil in the Arctic. It is thawing, releasing methane into the atmosphere. Also, sea levels in Boston and New York are rising by 20 centimeters.

But don’t lose heart; the corporate world is responding.

“Businesses know they can engage to influence change,” Lenton said. “They may produce new products, technologies, or services. They may be capital investors.

Business doesn’t just want a message that we are going to hell and you are part of the problem. They want to be part of the solution. We can show them how they can propel solutions.” And more often, they can show us.

The Inherent Conflict

He points to Tesla, which had open-sourced its technology for advanced batteries used in electric vehicles — a positive tipping point accelerating the drive to clean transportation.

He also likes Volvo, which he said has committed to phasing out the internal combustion engine and making only alternatively fueled cars. Mainstream automakers are leading the path.

“In every sector, you have the natural leaders,” Lenton said. “And you have the ones resisting change. But you don’t need everyone to change upfront. We need to reach the tipping point of a particular group, and everyone else will follow. The early adopters and leaders make all the difference.”

With that, he delves deeper into the “positive tipping points” — the things that can help us divert a climate catastrophe. For example, the rainforests are already up and running. They are natural carbon sinks, which absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.

The risk, of course, is deforestation. The land’s owners could allow farmers more space for agriculture. Or give lumberers more access to trees for such things as furniture. If that happens, the goal should be to reforest or plant new trees. But that takes time. So, the first goal is to prevent deforestation altogether.

But there’s also a conflict. Sometimes, the raw materials necessary to promote the transition to green energy are in Africa, Asia, and South America and the heart of the rainforests. Solar panels and electric vehicles use minerals such as copper, cobalt, and lithium.

Consider the case of Panama, where 250,000 of the country’s 4 million citizens protested the expansion of a copper mine owned by First Quantum of Canada. The protest lasted six weeks, shutting down the copper mine and getting violent. (Recall that a senior citizen shot two of the protesters and killed them.)

The country’s Supreme Court just ruled that the government should not have agreed to give the copper mine company access to the people’s lands. It called the deal “unconstitutional,” and now the Panamanian government has ordered First Quantum to stop doing business.

The Bigger Picture

The rare minerals are concentrated in a few countries, putting the rest of the world at risk, from political unrest to export restrictions to market manipulation. For example, Australia supplies lithium, China has graphite, Chile possesses copper, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has cobalt. Indonesia is rich in nickel, while South Africa sits atop platinum and iridium.

A well-planned energy transition can rehabilitate the extractive industry — activities that carry risks for local communities, such as labor and human rights abuses, land degradation, water resource depletion and contamination, and air pollution. Indeed, stronger international cooperation is necessary to enforce higher corporate standards, which gives foreign investors a broader social license, said the International Renewable Energy Agency.

“We aim to reduce the environmental and social impact,” Francesco La Camera, head of the agency, said. “Many raw material reserves are in protected areas — sometimes close to indigenous lands. The rare earths are evenly distributed worldwide. The problem is how to mine them respectfully.”

“We need to keep the big picture in mind: The number of people at risk because of global warming is in the billions. We must weigh the benefits of renewable energy and electric vehicles against the cost of these extractive industries. We don’t want to have an unjust tipping point by not switching to renewable energy,” added Lenton. “So we must ensure the accelerating uptake of solar panels and batteries doesn’t cause unnecessary harm to the environment.”

The annual Global Carbon Budget projects fossil carbon emissions of 36.8 billion tonnes in 2023, up 1.1% from 2022. If this trend continues, the lead author said we will hit the 1.5-degree Celsius benchmark in 2030. That means more intense weather events and the possibility of mass migration.

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