GSI Seminar Series Workshop Special – Tim Lenton: Positive Tipping

Taken from Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

On 5th May we kicked off our summer seminar series. This seminar was a special hosted by our GSI Director Professor Tim Lenton. Tim hosted a workshop on Positive Tipping Points; sources of hope within our societal and economic structures, leading on from a brief introduction he gave outlining the progress and research on these tipping points and their potential. Tim’s talk triggered it’s own tipping point of engaged discussions and enthusiasm for the research and projects. These discussions continued in short break-out room sessions which was a great opportunity to share the diversity in ideas and experiences of the topics raised. The event ignited an enthusiasm for Positive Tipping Points, which we hope has wet the apatite for more sessions on these themes.


Professor Tim Lenton has been a leader in researching the Earth System and the feedbacks and tipping points that have influence on climate changes, past and present. Now as Director of the GSI at the University of Exeter, Tim is channeling new visions to invest research energy to systems-thinking solutions. To find out more about Tims leading direction of the GSI, see this blog post.


Tim introduced Positive Tipping Points with a concise but incredibly informative 30 minute talk, covering an array of hot topics of climate change solution transformations. The talk started with an examination of familiar Earth System Tipping Points that have been identified through deep time, and predicted to occur in the future. But, as important as this research is – what good is coming from prioritisation of understanding of the problems without giving equal/more attention to the solutions.

Tim argued that there is a desperate need to now understand how social tipping points can be triggered. It is clear that to get to Net-Zero and out an of ecological emergency, the changes required need to happen as rapid transformations. So to meet this rate and magnitude, tipping points are needed.

Similar to natural tipping points, this would allow our current system state to tip into a new stable state. This will come once we cross thresholds of elements in the system, that will override the resistance of opposing forces and negative feedbacks that work to maintain the current system state. To demonstrate this, Tim showed an animation created by Chris Boulton to show the classic ball tipping out of a dip (business as usual), over a hill into a new dip (stable state). We therefore need to identify what are the self-propelling feedbacks, how strong they are, and how we can make them stronger.


But are positive feedbacks just a theory? Tim proved they are very much real and already have had impact, with several historical examples of social and technological tipping changes. One example, an image comparison of 5th Avenue, New York City, showing a single car immersed in horse-drawn carriages, to 13 years later, a single horse-draw carriage amongst a road full or cars. Image below.

Image source: http://www.icis.com. Picture comparisons of Easter Day parade in NYC and the transition to motor vehicles.

Other examples were also highlighted: Technology Adaption revealing trends from 1860-2019 showing a signature ‘S’ curve, a result of Economies of Scale (the more things being made = the cheaper they are to make), a reinforcing feedback (see Comin and Hobin, 2014). Social Contagion being an intrinsic reinforcing feedback in society, by imitation of each other to spread through society. The threshold of society to adopt new norms is said to be ~20%, this has been evidenced with the example of introduction and neighborhood adoption of roof solar panels.

Also shown was Tims recent work looking at trends, early warnings and tipping points in the car industry – specifically with Electronic Vehicles (EVs). Norway have exemplified a tipping point, now the difference in price of petrol has resulting in EV’s breaching a new share in the market, now at ~50%. Economies of scale have also played a part, with battery prices decreasing over time with the increase in sales, with a trend that suggests a EV’s will be the same price to manufacture than fuel combustion cars in 3 years, globally! Price of batteries has been a key reinforcing feedback to bring about this positive tipping point.


Who needs to come together to help things spread globally? Tim discussed this in the context of his work with Simon Sharpe (2021), and the importance of upward scaling tipping cascades – how reaching one tipping point can create opportunities for further tipping points. Tim used the example of the UK coal industry to highlight some of the triggers and tipping points that create transformative change. A combination of increased renewable power capacity, price of carbon production and policies putting pressure of coal use helped reduce the UK usage. From these changes came investor expectation changes, which then alters distribution of resource leading to irreversible events, such as the demolition of Didcot coal station. The rest of the world are increasingly becoming reliant on renewable sources of power, through interactions of economical, industry, social and political tipping points.


Tim then introduced the work with SystemIQ, to identify and understand positive tipping points in the Food and Land Systems. Again, reinforcing feedbacks are key to push towards a tipping point. Such reinforcing feedbacks can range from:

  • Economies of scale
  • Learning by Doing
  • Social Contagion
  • Positive Experience
  • Information Flow

A transition to positive tipping can exist as: Performance –> Price Convenience –> Cultural Norm –> Tipping Point. Transitions and tipping points can also be explored at smaller spatial scales – with research in collaboration with Pivot Project and City Future to use Exeter as a system to identify tipping points for sustainable futures, with work on the Exeter Living Lab.


Do we have power to predict and influence these tipping points? Using Early Warning Signals such as Ar-1 and Variance in a system could help us understand when we might be approaching a Positive Tipping Point, and what we need to focus on to nudge the system closer to threshold. Hence, change is to be deliberate and nudge the various elements of a system to reinforce feedbacks and create in momentum in the right direction.

Tim highlighted, this may help empower the public to feel part of the hope and power to change the course of climate change, just through actions they make within the complex system they exist in. Awareness that we do live in a complex system that is not and cannot be managed, but instead is a product of a full agency of feedbacks. This will involve a shift from the compartmentalized way of solution thinking and to trust in the things we cannot control. With this, we can move away from incremental change, but to the transformative change that is needed for the scale of problem.


Discussions around all these topics lead to some interesting conversations in the chat and short group sessions. The time to act was yesterday, but learning what is the best action, how we trigger it and when to apply pressure, will allow deliberative positive tipping. Local to global, social to political – all nudges and feedbacks that interact and cascade will allow a faster rate of transition.

To hear Tim’s talk in full, you watch it via YouTube here. Please note, discussions from breakout rooms is not included in the recording.


Given the success of the seminar and workshop, the GSI hopes to continue the conversations and momentum with more events and collaborations. Please keep up to date with GSI events via the websiteTwitterLinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk

Earth Day Blog

History of Earth Day 

The first Earth Day was observed on April 22nd 1970 in the USA, providing a voice for emerging concerns around environmental degradation. Senator Gaylord Nelson, inspired by the energy of student anti-war protesters, and the emerging public consciousness around air and water pollution, began to form an idea for a day of activism and education across the USA. With the aid of Denis Hayes, a then young activist, they mobilised the student community, community organisations and faith groups to organise ‘Teach-In’ events and rallies. Earth Day inspired 20 million Americans to take to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate, making their voice heard around the deterioration of the environment.

In 1990 Denis Hayes was approached again to organise the first international Earth Day. Earth Day 1990 mobilised 200 million people in 141 countries and helped to pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit. Today Earth Day is recognised by millions of people, governments and organisations globally. As awareness of the climate crisis, and disillusionment with the low-level climate commitments made my governments grows, people are beginning to rise and demand change and greater action to protect our planet. As with the 1970s, young people, students, activists and others are taking to the streets and utilising their digital presence to demand change. Let Earth Day 2021 become a day of focus, bringing people together, empowering, supporting, listening and learning from each other. #EarthDay2021

(Source of content: The History of Earth Day | Earth Day, Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels)

GSI Earth Day Focus: Tipping Positive Change

Recently the University of Exeter launched a set of four short films under the heading ‘Our Tipping Points are bringing change to the climate crisis.’ These films showcase the work of Professor Tim Lenton (Director of the GSI), Professor Zhongdong Wang (Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean for College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences), Professor Richard Cochrane, Professor Frank van Veen, Professor Toby Pennington, Professor Angela Gallego-Sala, Dr Tom Powell, Dr Jean-Francois Mercure and Dr Mi Tian. The following provides short insight to the information presented in this project. To view the full resource, follow this link:

Our Positive Tipping Points are bringing change to the climate crisis 

What are Positive Tipping Points?

In a time of climate and ecological emergency a lot has been made of ‘tipping points’, moments when a small change can trigger a large and often irreversible response. For example, the loss of the Amazon rainforest or West Antarctic ice sheet. ‘Positive tipping points’ identify sources of hope where humans can come together to identify and trigger transformative change towards sustainability.

“If we’re going to avoid the worst risks from climate Tipping Points, we need to identify and trigger positive social tipping points

(Professor Tim Lenton)

Potential Positive Tipping points

Power Generation

Within the UK the introduction of a carbon tax, EU emission scheme and increased power generation from renewables have combined to create a Positive Tipping Point. Within the last five years coal power has become unprofitable and dropped to almost zero. At the University of Exeter there is a lot of work going on in this area which the GSI can bring together through a multi-disciplinary approach. Reducing the cost of offshore wind and solar and improving energy storage to produce clean and affordable energy options will work towards further Positive Tipping Points. A major challenge the University of Exeter is currently working on is upgrading power networks to support renewables through decentralisation, decarbonisation, and digitalisation to achieve net-zero carbon emission by 2050.

“We need to control the network in such a way that we can take more and more renewable energy, and when generation is higher than demand we can store that energy or convert to support low-carbon transport.

(Professor Zhongdong Wang)

Switching to Electric Vehicles

Electric Vehicles are better for the environment than petrol or diesel but are more expensive (except in Norway where their progressive tax system has made them cheaper than comparable models). The more people buying electric vehicles the cheaper they will become, and more investment can be made into improving battery storage, the key contributor to the cost of such vehicles. This would lead to a Positive Tipping Point and reinforce positive feedback for clean energy production through the investment in improvements to battery storage of renewable energy, leading to an increase in renewable power generation, positively impacting the electrification of transport systems.

“Assuming the cost of EVs continues to fall, we expect the Positive Tipping Point quite soon – in the 2020s.

(Dr Jean-Francois Mercure)

Regenerate Ecosystems

Ecosystems are being degraded or destroyed globally with negative consequences for people, biodiversity and the climate. Positive Tipping Points in human society could transform our relationship with the natural system and sustain life on earth. University of Exeter Researchers are currently working on collaborative projects globally investigating the causes of ecosystem destruction and searching for solutions to make the future more sustainable. These include projects focused on the wildfires in Indonesia’s peatland, The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and India, and the Inga Systems Tree-based tropical agriculture solutions focused on the ecosystems of Latin America. These projects all involve restoration work and rely on local people, organisations and governments for their success, recognising the influence humans have over the ecology of the land surface.

“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.”

(Prof Tim Lenton)

Earth Day Resourses 

Respecting the ethos of the first Earth Day’s focus on ‘teach in’ the GSI Community has provided some interesting and exciting resources for you to access:

  • The Earth as a Healing Site – Podcast ‘Medicines of Uncertainty’ (slow radio of wellbeing)

Sarah Scaife is a PhD candidate in Performance Practice. In Sarah’s research the earth is often seen as a site of healing. In her recent podcast series ‘Medicines of Uncertainty (slow radio for wellbeing)’ she leads you on a conversation in the space between her, you and the so-called natural world. The programmes are created and recorded in South Devon, combining her own field recordings with samples from BBC Soundscapes for Wellbeing. 
Medic
ines of Uncertainty (slow radio for wellbeing)

  • IngaSystems: Tree-based tropical agriculture solutions

IngaSystems brings together three projects focused on agroforestry and silvopastoral systems in Latin America led from the University of Exeter. Scientists from Exeter, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and University of Edinburgh have teamed up with the Instituto Ouro Verde (IOV) to create a social approach to sustainable tropical agriculture. The projects support and encourage local communities to adopt sustainable farming methods that provide food security and income whilst simultaneously improving tree cover and soil conditions in one of the most degraded areas of Amazonia.

Project aims to apply state-of-the-art genetic approaches to identify the closest relatives of Inga edulis and other species already used in AF. These related species are the most likely to have characteristics suitable for AF. In consultation with stakeholders and smallholders, we have established growth trials of some of these species to ensure subsequent uptake and use.

This project focuses on solving the issue of Inga seed availability, which cannot be stored, by planting community seed orchards as a basis of scaling up Agroforestry (AF) and Silvopastoral (SPS) systems across Mato Grosso State, Brazil.  In addition, it will develop 20 family-farm, Inga-based SPS systems as demonstration projects, encouraging 250 families to adopt them as a means
of improving livestock feed productivity and to capitalise on rises in milk productivity. Working with our partner institution Instituto Ouro Verde (IOV), our ‘grass roots’ approach (involving smallholders in tree species selection and monitoring) can be scaled up regionally.

The research aims to better understand the current roles, strengths, and barriers to developing women’s social and economic autonomy and to increase the socio-economic impact of the agroforestry income-generating initiatives. It will investigate whether and how building on the strengths and overcoming the barriers / constraints can foster greater empowerment of women, and by association their families through developing sustainable incomes. It will also investigate to what extent these activities are enabling them to gain a stronger negotiating position and more influence in intra-household decision-making and income distribution.

  • Webinar: International Union for the Scientific Study of Population: Population, Food and the Environment: 09th April 2021 

A Summary of the Webinar by Dr Stewart Britten (External GSI community member) 

Predictions on whether the Earth will be able to feed a greatly expanded population have swung over time. The demographer John Bongaarts of the Population Council speaks of a period of pessimism, followed by one of optimism, which has more recently turned again to pessimism. The initial period of pessimism was no doubt influenced by the famine in China from 1959 to 1961, the biggest famine in history, and reached its climax after the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb in 1968. From about 1980, however, with the provision of family planning, the rate of growth of world population declined, and with it there was also a decline in poverty and malnutrition in much of the developing world, especially China and India. Concern about population then fell off the global agenda. (The webinar did not mention the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, which kicked family planning into the long grass and so contributed to population falling off the global agenda.) The mood of optimism was, however, not to last. There was a return to pessimism from about 2000 to do with a number of factors. Global heating had turned out to be close to the most pessimistic predictions of the climatologists and rivers were running dry. Funding for family planning was reduced. With AIDS under better control, the population of Africa is projected to rise from one to four billion.

But debate is not just about facts. Optimists hold with some confidence to the view that until the end of this century there will be enough for all. They consider that some destruction of nature is acceptable and some increase of inequality is inevitable, though benefits will, they expect, trickle down. The pessimists pay more attention to the question of who benefits and who loses. Environmental degradation most affects the poorest and they forecast that many will starve. The optimists say we don’t need to calculate for rare events, the so called “black swans”, while the pessimists see interactions of, for example, climate change, disease and violent conflict, increasing the likelihood of catastrophic events. Predictions are largely a matter of what the forecasters choose to focus on and what they exclude. Some say, for example, that traditional economists exclude many factors as externalities, take natural resources for granted and fail to take account of the earth being finite.

Joint webinar in association with PAA. Population, Food and the Environment | International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (iussp.org)

  • Holistic Restoration – Introductory video and workbook 

Holistic Restoration offers a practical way to merge wildlife conservation and rewilding with the production of food, timber, fuel and fibre in a way that heals us and restores our world. Miriam McDonald and Rob Owen have provided a short introductory video and workbook to explain more:

Holistic Restoration – Home

  • Articles: Modern threats to environmental sustainability in the Arctic: Kyriaki Noussia

‘On Modern Threats to Environmental Sustainability in the Arctic: The Climate Change Factor‘

Dr Kyriaki Noussia On Modern Threats to Environmental Sustainability in the Arctic – The Centre for Science, Culture and the Law (ex.ac.uk)

The Cybersecurity Factor and the Provisions of Insurance Against Environmental and Cyber Risks in Oil.’

Dr Kyriaki Noussia On Modern Threats to Environmental Sustainability in the Arctic – The Centre for Science, Culture and the Law (ex.ac.uk)

  • Book: Of Earth for Earth: The meaning of a Mine: Kathryn Moore, Dana Finch, Bridget Storrie

This book provides a dialogue between artists, community representatives, industrialist and educators. It aims to inspire debates on human interactions with the Earth, while our consumption of resources grows and while the environments on which we depend face an uncertain future https://www.waterstones.com/book/of-earth-for-earth/kathryn-moore/dana-finch/9781527276628

  • Article: Atmospheric carbon dioxide at record high levels despite reduced emissions in 2020: Richard Betts

Atmospheric carbon dioxide at record high levels despite reduced emissions in 2020 – Met Office

  • Article: The natural capital framework for sustainably efficient and equitable decision making: Ian Bateman and Georgina Mace

The natural capital framework for sustainably efficient and equitable decision making | Nature Sustainability

  • Article: ‘Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap’: The Conversation: James DykeRobert WatsonWolfgang Knorr

Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap (theconversation.com)

 

 

GSI Policy Network and EEIST Project Lecture – Simon Sharpe: Deciding how to decide, to accelerate low carbon transitions

Taken from Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

March 4th GSI hosted a special joint seminar between the GSI Policy Network and the Economics and Energy Innovation and Systems Transition Group. Simon Sharpe gave an insightful and important talk on context and consequence of how governments make decision around policy, and how this shapes our effectiveness of addressing climate change. Given the speed required to act and the challenges that surround the need to globally decarbonise, a different approach of decision making is required. Simon Sharpe discusses the changes required.


Simon Sharpe is Deputy Director at the UK Government’s Cabinet Office COP26 Unit, where he leads on international campaigns to accelerate low carbon transition. He has had an extensive career collaborating internationally leading on climate change strategy and how governments can assess climate risk. Simon is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, a Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University, member of the UCL Policy Commission on the Communication of Climate Science, and on the advisory board of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.


Simon introduced how decisions are shaped in government, laying out that a changing global economy that needs to change 5x faster to satisfy the Paris agreement, relies on the policy decisions. This amounts to 3 questions for decisions making:

  • Whether to act at all?
  • How much effort to make
  • Where to direct effort

These questions have been asked for most policy decisions, but responding to the requirements of climate change action is creating new assumptions and principles around these questions with new evidence contrasting to what was previously practiced.


Whether to act at all

Whether to act was previously asked in terms of whether the economy is changing and/or whether it can be optimised. Simon explained how the industrial strategy was to not act, with the assumption that unless there is market failure the economy is at an optimal state. Evidence opposes this, showing that constraints can actually accelerate innovation. For example; energy efficiency standards pushed prices down from the innovations that addressed new requirements. Simon highlighted that this not only shows the economy is therefore not in a optimum state, but also that tougher standards can achieve higher investment into innovation.

We can also see that economies change through their allocation (how quantities and prices defined) and formation (how economy emerges and grows). Through human history has witnessed an economy transition from stones to spaceships, as well as a secular increase in goods and services diversity. Simon then presented the idea that economy could be viewed as an evolving ecosystem. With a dynamic evolutionary view, constraints can shift resources from ecploitation to exploration – instead of creation distortion and inefficiency as argued in the static view. This creates the following:

New Assumptions

  • Economy has no optimal state
  • Always changing
  • Policy can influence the rate and direction of its evolution

New Principles

  • Act to prepare for change that is likely
  • Act to bring about change that is desirable
  • Act to avoid change that is undesirable

How much effort to make

Simon then explained how traditionally the decision of how much effort to make was devised, on the basis of a ‘machine’ economy that was predictable and made up of parts with one purpose. This was set on the principles to maximise the ratio of cost and benefit, and assess as single dimensions. With assumptions that future costs and benefits were predictable and quantifiable, and that value can be objectively converted. The realities of climate change contrast these ideas, especially as climate change impacts and solutions and technological advancements are uncertain. Further, value is contingent on the user, use and context. As a result, Simon puts forwards new assumptions and principles that adhere to this policy decision:

New Assumptions

  • Important future costs and benefits are uncertain
  • Value is contingent not intrinsic

New Principles

  • Assess risks and opportunities as well as costs and benefits
  • Assess outcomes in multiple dimensions

Where to direct the effort

Simon then discussed the final decision making question. Traditional principles and assumptions assessed options individually with minimal focus in effort application, as environments and relationships were unchanged by policy and economy was in equilibrium. In reality, the economy is a complex system of different component parts that are influenced by interactions and feedbacks. ‘Systems thinking’ helps understand this in a better way, to identify leverage and tipping points. Hence, a targeted carbon price approach is needed to reach tipping points in different industries. This creates new sets of principles and assumptions:

New Assumptions

  • Behaviour systems emerge from interactions between components
  • The economy is in disequilibrium

New Principles

  • Assess policies in combination
  • Assess effect of policy on process of change
  • Act on points of greatest leverage

A subset of where to direct effort is concerned with what technological advancement to choose – which traditionally was done in a way to apply effort to be ‘technology-neutral’, and that the market will discover best available technologies and so policies can be neutral. Once again Simon exposed a different reality, that the economy is path dependent and emerges from it’s technologies, which as a result means no action is neutral. All actions have capacity to influence future pathways and possibilit8ies of the economy, therefore it’s important to choose deliberately, and not unconsciously.


Simon has made clear that the way we approach and undertake decisions concerning the economy require new thought and consideration, especially in the context of climate change. Old assumptions do not stand up to the realities we are having to address. Decision makers must understand the nature of the problems, which may not fit their previous practices. Urgency to do this right is clear, becoming more clear with how impactful policy change can be. There seems to still be hope yet!

To watch the seminar given by Simon as well as the Q&A session followed, you can view it here.

More information about Deciding how to Decide can be found in the working paper.

Keep up to date with the EEIST Project on their website.

GSI Seminar Series – Dr Femke Nijsse and Dr Kirsten Lees: ECR Special

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

For the final seminar of the term we hosted an Early Career Researcher special event. We were excited to host a pair of impressive researchers within the GSI; Dr Femke Nijsse and Dr Kirsten Lees.


Dr Femke Nijsse: Emergent constraints on climate sensitivity from historical warming and models

Dr Nijsse gave a talk on her the work of her PhD exploring the climate model uncertainties on both transient timescales and long-term projections. Dr Nijsse introduced the difficulty around predicting climate change: bottom-up methods which use climate models and are limited by feedback and aerosol uncertainty. While top-down methods which use accurate historical temperature rise and radiative forcing and ocean heat uptake. Emergent contraints modelling permits the use of both of these methods which can provide climate sensitivity.

Dr Nijsse explored ways to address uncertainty – specifically with aerosols, whereby for periods of lesser aerosol influence can be used. How well models are able to constrain estimates, can be explained by grouping their sensitivity. To then apply an Emergent Constraints Model, Dr Nijsse laid out the following methods:

  1. Use historical warming since 1975 (for relative aerosol stability)
  2. Compute model ECS and TCR
  3. Model historical warming
  4. Determine function form of emergent constraint

Dr Nijsse also exposed how the ratio relationship between ECS and TCR can increase with climate sensitivity, as some models with a moderate TCR values can exhibit a higher range of ECS values. From her research, Dr Nijsse concluded it would be unlikely for an ECS > 4.5 K and TCR > 2.5 K. ECS may also be restricted using ocean heat uptake.

To end her seminar, Dr Nijsse also introduced her current work on her postdoc with the Economics of Energy Innovation and System Transition Project. The project is an international effort to enhance energy-environment-economy models, and integrate non-equilibrium ideas into equilibrium models. Dr Nijsse is modelling the challenges of renewable energy – from variability in wind and sun production to diffusion and learning of cost and storage.


Dr Kirsten Lees: Peatland Resilience

Dr Lees talk was on her Peatland Resilience research. Introduced with what Peatlands are and the suite of ecosystem services they offer – ranging from Carbon storage, flood management and biodiversity. Dr Lees then explained how to assess the resilience of these systems, using indicators from remotely sensed data. To measure resilience, the following steps can be applied to a site:

  1. Choose a resilience metric
  2. Detect a disturbance event
  3. Measure recovery time

Dr Lees has applied these steps to water levels and vegetation burn recovery to understand peatland resilience. From her analysis, Dr Lees suggests a complex interaction of factors influencing peatland resilience. Restoration and wildfire are factors with the most potential to alter peatland resilience, and so will be important to observe in the future.


This seminar was a great opportunity to hear about the impressive work being done by researchers at the start of their career, as well as a fresh insight into the diverse research of the GSI.

To watch these two talks and the questions from the audience, click this link.

If you would like to give a talk at a future seminar, please contact event organisers Daneen Cowling (dc456@exeter.ac.uk) and Guy Lomax (g.lomax@exeter.ac.uk)

Stay on These Roads

A Note from Tim (Global Systems Institute Director)

I have been hunting high and low for examples of positive tipping points towards sustainability. Collaborating with Simon Sharpe in the UK Cabinet Office COP26 team we recently showed  a clear tipping point in the uptake of electric vehicles in Norway – where they cost the same to buy as a petrol or diesel car thanks to policy incentives. But it turns out there is more to this story than enlightened top-down governance. My train of thought was happily disrupted on discovering Robbie Andrew’s twitter thread  showing how pop band A-ha played a decisive role in introducing electric car incentives in Norway. It beautifully illustrates how apparently small actions can lead to transformative social and technological change. We all need to stay on these roads, or rather join A-ha and Norway on them.

Posted 18/03/2021

GSI Seminar Series – Dr Kimberley Simpson: Whodunnit? The Case of the Vanishing Savannas

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

The delicate balance between C3 trees and C4 grasses that has characterised the global Savannahs for millennia is now being compromised, threatening the existence of this biome. In this seminar, Dr Simpson assesses the potential ‘culprits’ behind the case of the vanishing Savannas,


Dr Simpson is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield, in the department of Animal and Plant Science within the Osbourne Lab. Dr Simpson is broadly occupied in how processes create and maintain phenotypic diversity and how traits influence such processes. She is currently involved in a project investigating abiotic and biotic factors in woody encroachment in Savannas. She collaborates on field work with Rhodes University in South Africa, and is expanding on her PhD which investigated fire influence on grass functional traits.


To layout her investigation of what is causing a reduced Savanna, Dr Simpson first explained the context of the ‘victim’ in the case – the characteristics and geographic distribution of Savannah ecosystems. Then the ‘crime’ – the encroachment of trees and diminishing Savannah grasslands. Although the increased tree cover could have benefits in the form of increased fuel wood and Carbon sequestration, negative implications in the form of reduced foraging, groundwater, visibility and ecotourism also occur. But most detrimental, the shift threatens the many species reliant on these open landscapes.


Dr Simpson took the audience through a storyboard of potential ‘suspects’:

  1. Reduced Fire Frequency: Intensive grazing and fragmentation is contributing to a reducing in fire frequency. This is detrimental for grasses that are able to thrive and out-compete trees in systems of high fire frequency due to faster regeneration and shorter life-cycles of grasses relative to trees. Changes in fire frequency also drive phenotypic divergence in Savanna grasses, with a reduction coinciding with a reduction in ‘seeder’ species. This creates a feedback whereby fire frequency changes alter community composition, which as a result changes flammability. Current observations show a reduced fire frequency = more trees can reach maturity = grass biomass reduces = reduced flammability contributing to the reduced fire frequency trend.
  2. Elevated CO2: C3 trees have a high growth response to elevated CO”, whereas C4 grasses do not. But – elevated CO2 cannot explain the spatial variability in savanna change.
  3. Rainfall: Encorachment also correlates with rainfall and likely interacts with CO2 via stromata – C4 grasses have an improved photosynthetic rate during drought, whereas C3 trees respond well to high CO2 and H2O.

Dr Simpson concluded her investigation with the verdict: more evidence is needed!

In her upcoming projects, Dr Simpson hopes to unpick the various interactions, as well as the role of plant functional traits, as the case of the Savanna encroachment continues. Dr Simpson also hopes to investigate new influences in the case – such as the role of elephants able to bulldoze trees to maintian the ecosystem, and the controls of species that allows some to proper better than others.


To watch the recording of Dr Simpsons talk and the Q&A, click this link.

GSI Seminar Series – Dr Federico Demaria: The Case for Degrowth

Image

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s Blog

Can we live simply so others can simply live?

In this seminar, Dr Demaria explores the controversial thinking of a systems shift to degrowth, as a solution to many of the economical, societal and environmental challenges our capitalist society has produced.


Dr Demaria is an interdisciplinary socio-environmental scientist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (Autonomous University of Barcelona). He works on economics of ecology, ecology of politics and human geography. Dr Demaria is the deputy coordinator of EnvJustice project that studies and contributes to the global environmental justice movement. He is also an influential critique of  ecological and cultural critique of (sustainable) development. Through his critiques he has proposed transformative alternatives to current ways of living – degrowth. Dr Demaria has explored this alternative in the book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (with Giorgos Kallis and Giacomo D’Alisa), as well as his most recent bookThe Case for Degrowth (with Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa).


Dr Demaria structured his seminar to the key chapters of his book. Making very clear the from the start that this proposal is meant to be controversial, Dr Demaria set the context for the current systems we operate and how they support the obsession with growth. He also outlines how growth cannot be compatible with sustainability, evidenced by the current environmental crisis we are faced with. Hence, we cannot solve everything with economic growth, and a different society is needed to prosper without growth.

Dr Demaria argued to satisfy degrowth it would be crucial to reduce the Global North consumption. Acceleration of growth has amounted to an accelerated environmental sacrifice. Adoption of western lifestyle and want to be ‘rich’ has fuelled this, driven by belief this is the only route for living.


But is degrowth even feasible? Dr Demaria addressed this by explaining how as a society, we are cooperative. The history of our society and it’s success exemplifies that. Dr Demaria elaborated on how there is a wealth of the commons, that by being in the commons, you are part of the change you want to see. This is important – because there will not be positive change unless people actually want it, and to want it we must have spaces to see the alternatives. Supporting and operating in cooperative commons would allow such a space.

Looking to the future, Dr Demaria also highlighted how, unlike proposals of circular economy and other ‘sustainable’ shifts that still prioritise growth, degrowth is the only path that stays within the 2C warmer future. Furthermore, degrowth in the global North will reduce pressure of exploitation in the global South. Important especially in the context that the most powerful limit of resources, is their use.


Dr Demaria gave an incredibly interesting talk, followed by many questions. To see the full talk and the QA, view the recording here.

Link to Book:  The Case for Degrowth

Link to recent article: The case for degrowth in a time of pandemic

 

GSI Seminar Blog: Ayesha Tandon (Science Journalist at Carbon Brief)

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s blog post 

Ayesha shared her insights and reflections from experience with climate change communication from a range of lenses. Her talk was interactive, thought provoking and was a great reflection exercise for academics to assess how we conduct our own communication.

As well as climate communication at Carbon Brief, Ayesha has also had science communication experience at governmental bodies (The Met Office), and in academia during her MSci Natural Science student at Exeter.

As lead science editor for the undergraduate STEM journal at Exeter University, Ayesha describe practices in academic models of communication, familiar to her academic audience. Highlighting how the audiences of scientific papers are confined to the same academic circles the authors are within. The specialist and technical language used in these papers to communicate ideas and arguments with accuracy, make them inaccessible to those without this knowledge – even if they have the want to be engaged.

Ayesha then went on to explain how the style, format and emphasis of science communication shifts outside of academia, in the cases of the Met Office and Carbon Brief. Both parallel in assumptions their readers do not get further than the first couple paragraphs of a piece. Ayesha explained the importance of “frontloading” – ensuring all key bits you want the reader to take in and go away with – are at the very start.

Also important to these communication outlets were use of graphics to explain the statistical results. In academia there is a responsibility to communicate results precisely, but as told by Ayesha’s experience at the Met Office and Carbon Brief; numbers are not well received by government and general public audiences. Instead, infographics are more engaging and accessible.

Ayesha shared some great examples of infographics, highlighting how informative they can be without the need for the full context. One example used were the ‘Climate Stripes’ by Ed Hawkins. This visualisation has been so impactful because it’s accessible – redundant of any text or numbers, the colours are universally understood.

 

Example of infographics used to communicate climate science. From l Met Office State of the UK climate 2019

Ayesha concluded her talk with key takeaways she’s gained from her climate communication experiences:

  • The pace and expectation of what’s achievable of these three institutes are different – media is rapid
  • Frontloading – pushing important information to the front with assumption reader will not get to the end of your piece
  • Social media can be useful for an accessible range of people – from academic to lay

“[Social media] will always be useful to invest in … to gain new audiences or inform your existing audience. It’s important as scientists we communicate our research .. if you don’t take any effort to try to communicate it to a lay audience you’ve missed out on the vast majority on the population.”

Ayesha Tandon, the importance of social media for science communication


This interesting talk was followed with an array of questions – keen to learn more from Ayeshas experiences to become better science communicators to non-academic audiences.

Questions from the audience:

  • How much interaction do you have with the scientist(s) who wrote the paper you’re doing a piece on?
  • It’s easier to get a lot of coverage on the bad news stories than the good news stories – we know what the problem is but we need to come together on the solutions, how can we push the positiveness?
  • What kind of papers were you covering for the government/what were they interested in for Met Office government briefing?
  • How do you communicate uncertainty in science to the public?
  • Do we really have to use emojis when communicating on twitter, if so which ones should we be using?
  • Is the increased speed of communication of climate the most effective way to communicate?

You can watch Ayesha’s Seminar and get her answers to the questions on the University of Exeter GSI YouTube playlist, here

If you would like to speak at a GSI seminar, please contact 

Date: 22/02/2021

GSI Seminar Series – Dr Will Seviour: Stratospheric Ozone Depletion and its Impact on Climate

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

Today (03/02/2021) saw the second seminar in the GSI Spring Seminar Series of 2021. We hosted speaker Dr Will Seviour, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Department of Mathematics, and the GSI.

Dr Saviour is a relatively new academic at Exeter, but brings with him a wealth of experience and specialism in Ozone and large-scale Earth System dynamics from the University of Oxford, John Hopkins University and University of Bristol. Dr Seviour’s work now looks into climate and extreme weather consequences of Arctic warming, and coupled dynamics of Southern Ocean dynamics – the topic of his talk.


Dr Seviour introduced the importance of ozone and it’s role as a planetary boundary – central to a habitable Earth. Ozone was also shown to have practical importance to the success of the sustainable development goals.

However, Dr Seviour soon delved into the consequences of the current state of ozone attention, it’s depletion. Ozone Depletion Substances (ODS) e.g. CFC’s, were shown to have had a strong control on Ozone, trending with their emission and eventual regulation. They were also shown to be powerful greenhouse gases.

Dr Seviour invited the audience to an interactive quiz, to rank where ODS sit amongst other common greenhouse gases (CO2, N2O and CH4) in radiative forcing. This produced the surprising result that ODS were only second to CO2 in their forcing, accounting for a 1/3 of warming effects of CO2 since the mid 20th Century. This strength was also identifiable in warming impacts – even by simulating models with only the forcing of ODS (and not other greenhouse gases), trends in Arctic melting were still observable. The focus then shifted to the south pole; why there is more ozone depletion over Antarctica and how it’s variable with atmospheric dynamics.


The ozone situation definitely wasn’t doom and gloom, as Dr Seviour then discussed the long term ‘healing’ trends being observed and modelled. Since a reduction in CFCs from the Montreal Agreement, and an assessment every 4 years on ODS, ozone depletion has started showing signs of recovery. But when would ozone return back to 1960 levels? Dr Seviour again invited the audience to an interactive quiz, to give their best estimates of the return for global and Antarctic levels of ozone. Majority of the guesses were around the current predictions of 2060 and 2090 respectively.

Thanks to a warming climate, the recovery may be even faster due to changes in stratospheric circulation. But, true to the Earth system, these changes will not be linear. Dr Seviour explained that this would lead to a cooling Southern Ocean, which would expand sea ice around Antarctica, then shift polar jets. Yet, there would still likely be a long term warming trend – driven by upwelling.


Dr Seviour’s talk left us with a new appreciation with the importance of ozone, and it’s climate control – whether that be through it’s greenhouse gas equivalent forcing, or the atmospheric dynamics it influences.

Several interesting questions followed, which Dr Seviour answered in detail as well as directing to follow-up resources.

You can watch Dr Seviours full talk here

To learn more about Dr Seviours work, you can view his publications and research projects on his personal website

Business Green – Positive tipping points to net zero and how to finance them

Professor Tim Lenton, GSI & Eoin Murray, Federated Hermes
Published in Business Green 1st December 2020

The finance sector has the means, and the scientists have the data, to
model interventions with much greater impact than we see today, explain
Federated Hermes’ Eoin Murray, and Tim Lenton from the Global Systems
Institute.

Of President-elect Joe Biden’s many campaign commitments to address
the climate crisis, the most significant is the United States re-joining the
Paris climate agreement. Climate change is a global issue and requires
an international response, and American leadership is critical to success.
Biden’s win may therefore come to be seen as a tipping point in the
history of action on climate change.

Tipping points are normally used in climate science to describe small
changes in the earth system that result in much broader, often damaging
impacts that accelerate climate change. Well-known examples including
sea level rise resulting from the disintegration of the Greenland and West
Antarctica ice sheets, or the release into the atmosphere of
climatewarming methane deposits from thawing Siberian permafrost.

For many years, researching and understanding these tipping points
underlined the urgency of climate action. Today it is widely understood
that we need to decarbonise the economy, and to do this rapidly. Right
now, we need tipping points in the other direction – small interventions
that accelerate large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

We have already witnessed many of these positive tipping points and
have learned much about how they function. So far, it is the
governments who have produced the most effective ones. Section 172
of the UK’s updated Company Act, for example, requires businesses to
disclose material risks from the long-term impacts of their activities on
the environment. An escalating tax on carbon emissions has brought
about a collapse in coal’s share of the UK power mix, from 40 per cent
to just three per cent in six years. These policy interventions are
important, but we cannot regulate our way out of the climate emergency.
Unregulated positive tipping points are also necessary.

The transformation of the power sector is taking place due to the
economics of technological innovation. The first tipping point arrived
when renewable energy started producing electricity more cheaply in
some places than fossil fuel-burning power plants. The next will come
when the costs of building new wind or solar capacity become cheaper
than a new coal or gas plant. The entire power sector will have tipped
towards full decarbonisation when the cost of new renewable power
becomes cheaper than maintaining existing hydrocarbon power plants.

Tipping points can also occur with changes in people’s behaviours. The
trend towards plant-based diets in the food sector is one example, or the
collapse in demand for air travel that could potentially outlast coronavirus
travel restrictions. Changes in public opinion however can be much more
difficult to orchestrate than policy or economic interventions.

This is why the finance sector is critical to action on climate change.
Since capital touches every facet of economic decision-making, from
project finance to portfolio allocation, the quickest route to success is the
greening of money.

More and more shareholders recognise their role in shaping these public
goals. They actively engage with management on corporate climate
strategies. Institutional investors, who have a responsibility to mitigate
systemic climate risk, increasingly back climate-related shareholder
resolutions. One pension fund was mandated by the courts to consider
climate risks in its investment strategy. It responded by setting a net-zero
target for financed emissions by 2050.

But are these really tipping points? Could the finance sector deliver more
for climate action? If bankers and fund managers knew where and when
to invest to tip the low-carbon disruptors businesses towards exponential
growth, then finance could have a key role in accelerating climate action.

Understanding these tipping points, and engaging with companies to
capitalise on them, would bring outsized returns to both shareholders
and citizens.

The reality of day-to-day business may prove more challenging to predict
than the future of the climate. But the finance sector has the means, and
the scientists have the data, to model interventions with much greater
impact than we see today. Given the limited time available to stop
climate change, we must all work together to prioritise these new
models.

Eoin Murray is Head of Investment at Federated Hermes International,
and Professor Tim Lenton is Director of the Global Systems Institute at
the University of Exeter