Tipping point defined
A tipping point is defined as a critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place. To illustrate the irreversible nature of tipping points within the context of the climate crisis, Robert McSweeny of the Carbon Brief has referenced the popular game, Jenga;
“The gradual increase in global temperature sees block after block removed from the tower and placed on top. As time goes on, the tower becomes more and more misshapen and unstable. At some point, the tower can no longer support itself and it tips over.”
During COP26, we heard from Professor Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter who is an expert on all things tipping points. He was clear that in our climate system, once we reach a tipping point, we cannot stop whatever has been tipped from occurring, even if it takes years. That is why the decade we are living in is so important. If we exceed 1.5 degrees, multiple tipping points will occur, resulting in unavoidable and catastrophic consequences.
Tipping points in action
Coal production in the UK dropped from 56.4 million tonnes in 1990, to 11.4 million tonnes in 2010 to 1.5 million tonnes in 2019. Rising coal prices were a significant contributor to this behaviour change, making gas and renewables the go-to choice and once utility companies started to decommission coal plants this trend became irreversible, creating a tipping point.
Norway’s efforts to make electric vehicles mainstream is another example of a tipping point in action. With just under 60% of cars in Norway now electric, a policy change that has regulated manufacturing costs is allowing consumers to make the responsible choice on a vast and rapid scale.
Globally responsible tipping point
We asked Lenton what was required to create the cultural change needed in engineering, to create a tipping point that sees global responsibility become mainstream. He said:
“The quick answer is – obviously you want to make sure the standards are changing within the application of engineering, building and so on. It needs to come at the top level and the leading academies are demanding that to be a top engineer you reach a certain standard of awareness and innovation to tackle the climate problem, that would make a big difference, so it’s really about all of those human incentives.
Shifting the incentives structure so that a discipline [engineering] that is profoundly important here, focuses its attention on innovation. Because the backstory is, why have we let ourselves get into a ridiculous situation where we haven’t been innovating with societies for decades. We desperately need to turn that around and need a new flow of innovation to do this great transformation in the next generation, and we definitely need engineering for that.”
It is clear that innovation and divergent thinking through the lens of systems thinking is key to encouraging a globally responsible tipping point. We are seeing evidence of this thinking trickling through the sector, but we do not have time to wait for sector-wide adoption. Individually, we must not only engage with the concept but actively embed it into our practice.
Global responsibility in practice
To achieve the tipping point for positive change, we need those working in and around engineering to commit to global responsibility, alongside other major industries.
Our 2021-30 strategy sets out four key principles for globally responsible engineering that we want to see adopted across the engineering community and embedded in the culture of how all engineering is taught and practised.
- Responsible; to meet the needs of all people within the limits of our planet. This should be at the heart of engineering.
- Purposeful; to consider all the impacts of engineering, from a project or product’s inception to the end of its life. This should be at a global and local scale, for people and planet.
- Inclusive; to ensure that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected in the engineering process.
- Regenerative; to actively restore and regenerate ecological systems, rather than just reducing impact.
To support you to deliver on the four principles in practice, we have provided core competencies that are evolving in line with the global challenges we continue to face. It will not be easy, but one by one, company by company, sector by sector we must commit to globally responsible practices if we are to have any chance of reaching the positive tipping point of a safe and just future for all.