This blog post is the second piece in a periodic series by FAS on systems thinking. The first is on systems thinking in entrepreneurial ecosystems.
News was abuzz two weeks ago with a flurry of celebratory articles showcasing the first-year accomplishments of the Administration’s signature clean energy law, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), on its August 16-anniversary. The stats are impressive. Since the bill’s passage, some 270 new clean energy projects have been announced, with investments totaling some $132 billion, according to a Bank of America analyst report. President Biden, speaking at a White House anniversary event, reported that the legislation has already created 170,000 clean energy jobs and will create some 1.5 million jobs over the next decade, while significantly cutting the nation’s carbon emissions.
The New York Times also headlined an article last week: “The Clean Energy Future Is Arriving Faster Than You Think,” citing that “globally, change is happening at a pace that is surprising even the experts who track it closely.” In addition, the International Energy Agency, which provides analysis to support energy security and the clean energy transition, made its largest ever upward revision to its forecast on renewable capacity expansion. But should this accelerated pace of change that we are seeing really be such a surprise? Or, can rapid acceleration of transformation be predicted, sought after, and planned for?
FAS Senior Associate Alice Wu published a provocative policy memo last week entitled, “Leveraging Positive Tipping Points To Accelerate Decarbonization.” Wu asserts that we can anticipate and drive toward thresholds in decarbonization transitions. A new generation of economic models can enable the analysis of these tipping points and the evaluation of effective policy interventions. But to put this approach front and center will require an active research agenda and a commitment to use this framework to inform policy decisions. If done successfully, a tipping points framework can help forecast multiple different aspects of the decarbonization transition, such as food systems transformation and for ensuring that accelerated transitions happen in a just and equitable manner.
Over the past year, FAS has centralized the concept of positive tipping points as an organizing principle in how we think about systems change in climate and beyond. We are part of a global community of scholars, policymakers, and nonprofit organizations that recognize the potential power in harnessing a positive tipping points framework for policy change. The Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, Systemiq, and the Food and Land Use Coalition are a few of the leading organizations working to apply this framework in a global context. FAS is diving deep into the U.S. policy landscape, unpacking opportunities with current policy levers (like the IRA) to identify positive tipping points in progress and, hopefully, to build capacity to anticipate and drive toward positive tipping points in the future.
Through a partnership between FAS and Metaculus, a crowd-forecasting platform, a Climate Tipping Points Tournament has provided an opportunity for experienced and novice forecasters alike to dive deep into climate policy questions related to Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs). The goal is to anticipate some of these nonlinear transformation thresholds before they occur and explore the potential impacts of current and future policy levers.
While the tournament is still ongoing, it is already yielding keen insights on when accelerations in systems behavior is likely to occur, on topics that range from the growth of ZEV workforce to the supply chain dynamics for critical minerals needed for ZEV batteries. FAS is planning to publish a series of memos that will seek to turn insights from the tournament into actionable policy recommendations. Future topics planned include: 1) ZEV subsidies; 2) public vs. private charging stations; sodium ion battery research and development; and 4) ZEV battery recycling and the circular economy.
Going forward, FAS will continue to elevate the concept of positive tipping points in the climate space and beyond. We believe that if scientists and policymakers work together toward operationalizing this framework, positive tipping points can move quickly from the realm of the theoretical to become an instrument of policy design that enables decision makers to craft laws and executive action that promotes systems change toward the beneficial transformations we are seeking.
Ecosystems aren’t just for biologists anymore. Here is how and why entrepreneurs and policymakers should look at innovation communities as ecosystems.