New Study: Electric cars can make a big difference fighting climate change

New Study: Electric cars can make a big difference fighting climate change

The climate crisis may seem like such a vast and complex problem that mankind is simply incapable of addressing it. However, a new study offers hope that transformational change in just a couple of key sectors could bring about “tipping points” that have outsize effects. 

Above: Tesla's Model 3 (Source: EVANNEX; Photo by Casey Murphy)

The study, published in Climate Policy, was co-authored by Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter and Simon Sharpe, a Deputy Director in the UK Cabinet Office.

“In complex systems—including human societies—tipping points can occur, in which a small perturbation transforms a system,” write Lenton and Sharpe. “Crucially, activating one tipping point can increase the likelihood of triggering another at a larger scale, and so on. Here, we show how such upward-scaling tipping cascades could accelerate progress in tackling climate change. We focus on two sectors—light road transport and power.”

As Lenton tells Inverse, a tipping point is simply a small change that leads to a big difference for a system. Lenton’s study frames climate tipping points as upward-scaling cascades—inverted waterfalls, if you will. Each cascade triggers an action that triggers a bigger action, and so on up the scale until an entire system is transformed.

Above: Electric vehicle tipping cascade (Source: Climate Policy)

Once a tipping point is reached in one system, it can help push a linked system towards a tipping point as well. Electric vehicles and renewable energy represent two closely related sectors (as Tesla, among others, has long understood). “An EV revolution means batteries get much more abundant and much cheaper—and that helps with the renewable electricity revolution—to balance out uneven supply and demand for renewables,” Lenton told Fast Company.

Well-targeted government policies can trigger tipping points, as Science Alert reports. Australia provides an example: the government subsidized rooftop solar installations, consumers started installing them by the thousands, and they’re now widespread enough to make a serious dent in emissions. On the other hand, electric vehicles, which have received no government incentives, are rare birds in Australia. Meanwhile, in Norway, where the state provides generous tax exemptions and other incentives for EVs, they now make up over half of the overall auto market.

In the case of EVs, there are several tipping points in play, says Lenton. “A key one is that the more batteries we make, the cheaper they get to make—an economy of scale—and this is a crucial determinant of the cost of the electric vehicle. There is also a strong social tipping point referred to as social contagion—people start following other people’s acquisitions of new technology and the uptake (here of EVs) accelerates.”

“Any policy intervention that encourages [the] purchase of EVs can then be reinforced by these feedbacks,” says Lenton. “That’s what’s happened in Norway, and we describe how it could spread worldwide.”


Written by: Charles Morris