Sensitive Intervention Points

WHAT ARE SENSITIVE INTERVENTION POINTS?

Sensitive intervention points (SIPs) are strategic actions designed to enable transformative change to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions or increase carbon sequestration. Identifying SIPs first requires identifying areas of the system that are at or near a state of “criticality”, where positive feedback loops or amplification dynamics imply that a modest intervention can lead to disproportionate effects (Hepburn et al., 2020).

HOW CAN SENSITIVE INTERVENTIONS BE DEPLOYED?

Focused interventions within ‘complex’ systems which use positive feedback loops to amplify effects and exceed a system’s ‘tipping point’ can irreversibly force it into a new state/phase/regime. The hope is that these sensitive intervention points will be used to power social, political, and economic reform, and therefore accelerate climate mitigation efforts to reach climate neutrality.

For example, if the cost of renewable energy generation continues to decline predictably with increasing deployment, investment in renewable technologies (such as solar PV) can use positive feedback mechanisms to push them past a tipping point and make them economically competitive with non-renewables such as fossil coal and oil. This small intervention (investment in renewable energy) lowers the cost of the green energy transition and therefore accelerates decarbonisation.

At a global scale, SIPs can be used to pursue the 2015 Paris Agreement’s target to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.”

“The hope is that these sensitive intervention points will be used to power social, political, and economic reform, acceleratING climate mitigation.”

harnessing positive feedback loops

“Many areas of policy and practice could be transformed by taking the SIP perspective” (Farmer et al., 2019)

Runaway change is a major concern for climate scientists in a warming world. Positive feedback loops are resulting in irreversibly bleached coral reefs, warming oceans, and melting permafrost. However, sensitive intervention points provide a means of harnessing these positive feedback loops to create fundamental and transformative shifts toward an equitable net-zero future.

Watch Professor Cameron Hepburn, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and co-investigator of Oxford Net Zero, explains the SIPs concept in his TedX talk:

System trajectories

There are two types of intervention which produce outsized effects in human systems: kicks and shifts. In practice, a combination of both ‘kicks’ and ‘shifts’ is necessary to drive global emissions reductions.

Kicks

  • A ‘kick’ is a change that exceeds a tipping point and moves the state of the system along a new trajectory without changing the underlying system dynamics.
  • For example, divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels leading to a reduction in the value of fossil fuel assets and allowing for the reinvestment in socially and environmentally responsible schemes.

shifts

  • A ‘shift’ alters the system’s trajectory by changing the underlying system dynamics, such as fundamentally changing the institutions which govern society.
  • For example, making the disclosure of climate risks mandatory for all companies to allow for the repricing of fossil assets, thereby levelling the playing field for renewable energy and potentially transforming the energy sector.

examples of sensitive intervention points

climate aligned debt restructuring

Summary

Climate-aligned debt restructuring mechanisms present a key Sensitive Intervention Point for an equitable and global ‘green-recovery’ post-Covid (Steel & Patel, 2020). This can be achieved through ‘debt-for-nature’ swaps which divert resources from debt service payments towards domestic investment in conservation for recipient countries. 

A new wave of debt restructuring proposals have also been proposed in recent years which could overcome some of the challenges of traditional ‘debt-for-nature’ swaps through a more international scope which encourages multi-stakeholder collaboration and coordination.

Impact and scale

There is a vicious cycle of debt experienced by many low- and middle- income countries. Developing countries spent an average of 10.3% of government revenues on debt repayment in 2018. As such, debt restructuring which diverts these funds to climate conservation, adaption, and mitigation strategies provides scope for significant international co-benefits.

Timing
Practicality of climate aligned debt restructuring is improving as climate finance and the need to halt deforestation emissions are receiving increased attention and awareness. The increasing involvement of international organisations in conversations around debt restructuring further bolsters this practicality. Negotiations may be complex, but they are not infeasible.
Practicality

Fossil fuel companies present a significant barrier to implementation, as they stand to make significant losses (from sunk costs in current reserves). They have strong lobbying power and could block this kind of switch.

Risks

The main risk of climate aligned debt restructuring is that they result in no benefit for development nor climate goals. This could occur for many reasons, such as weak monitoring and oversight of projects, or high transaction costs. There is significant potential risk associated with this sensitive intervention point. However, there are clear mechanisms available to mitigate these risks (such as strengthening the institutions involved in implementation). If adopted, climate aligned debt restructuring provides a feasible approach for equitable ‘green-recovery’ post-Covid.

policies for clean energy technology investment

Summary
Existing policy support for clean energy technologies has already propagated declining costs. For example, subsidising measures for solar PV in Germany have led to a 10-fold reduction in costs since policy implementation in 2009. With 88% of global emissions now covered by net zero pledges, global policy instruments to incentivise investment in clean energy technology and further drive costs down present a key sensitive intervention point.
Impact and scale

Current trends in clean energy costs suggest that 8-10Gt CO2e could be mitigated by 2030. The impact will be global as cost and efficiency improvements are shared.

Timing

A number of large and powerful countries (including India, China, and the US) are very close to the ‘tipping point’ for sensitive intervention. The right policy instruments could therefore result in widespread investment and declining costs of clean energy technology very rapidly.

Practicality

Fossil fuel companies present a significant barrier to implementation, as they stand to make significant losses (from sunk costs in current reserves). They have strong lobbying power and could block this kind of switch.

Risks

Some regions may be unprepared for such rapid change and suffer disproportionately. This risk is particularly high for regions which are most vulnerable to begin with. Additionally, if shares in fossil fuel companies decline suddenly, this could present systemic risk to global finance. However, the market is largely anticipating this transition. There are also co-benefits such as falling electricity costs and job creation.

FEEDBACK IN THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC SYSTEM

“You know this as the butterfly effect (Ives, 2022)

‘Kicks’ and ‘shifts’ snowball through the socio-economic system to create transformative change for all actors, from businesses and governments to consumers and citizens.

what sensitive intervention points are not

An end-goal

A Sensitive Intervention Point is not a solution but a clearly-defined, agent-based mechanism which facilitates a breakthrough or tipping point in the socio-economic system.

For example, the restoration of nature and biodiversity both represent valuable goals, but in and of themselves are not sensitive intervention points. However, a national, regulated, bio-diversity net gain target could represent a sensitive intervention point which shifts the system towards the restoration of nature of biodiversity. 

reforms with minimal impact

Many important reforms or changes in behaviour across society are needed to achieve climate neutrality, but each on their own would not be considered a sensitive intervention point for doing so at the global or regional scale. A Sensitive Intervention Point must offer either a kick to the current state of a system which is primed for change, or a shift, which changes the underlying system dynamic (Farmer et al, 2019).

There are many valuable reforms that fail to do either.

For example, the US EPA’s increase in regulation of methane leaks is needed to rapidly reducing emissions. However, this reform alone is unlikely to fundamentally shift the underlying dynamics of the fossil fuel economy or kick the energy system towards a tipping point.

There’s an important place in the Climate Neutral Policy landscape for quickwin interventions, and indeed a programme which aggregates and advocates many such reforms may add up to a Sensitive Intervention Point. On their own, however, such reforms would not be considered a Sensitive Intervention Point for achieving Climate Neutrality.

policies which can be easily reversed

Many climate interventions rely on cost-benefit analysis, or lowest-resistance options with a high degree of risk of reversal.

For example, a carbon market driven by traditional market forces, such as a buyers’ market of lowest cost offsets, is likely to lead to the lowest quality offsets dominating the market. This results in the rapid reversal of the intended benefits of the offset through the expiry of sinks.

Unregulated investment to scale carbon removal would not provide a Sensitive Intervention Point on its own, but the development and application of widely agreed standards for climate neutral sinks / credits, could be accompanied with an influx in investment to create a point for a sensitive intervention.

sensitive intervention points for achieving carbon neutrality: report for the climate neutrality forum

On 8 and 9 September 2021, the first Climate Neutrality Forum (CNF) brought together over 1,000 academics and climate policy experts in a multi-hub hybrid meeting held in Berlin, Oxford and Milan. This was followed by six weekly webinars held in the lead up to COP26.  

The forum explored challenges and key policy interventions for achieving climate neutrality. The CNF was informed by the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during its 6th Assessment Cycle, in particular the IPCC Special Report on Warming of 1.5 C (SR1.5) and the IPCC Working Group I report on Scientific Understanding of Climate Change, published in August 2021.  

Climate neutrality is considered to mean a cessation of further warming of the Earth’s climate system by atmospheric greenhouse gases. It is aligned with, and informed by, the Paris Agreement temperature goal to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.”  

The forum sought Sensitive Intervention Points for achieving climate neutrality, which were evaluated on:  

TIMING

To halve emissions by 2030, and again by 2040, or accelerate removals in time for 2050

IMPACT

To reduce GHG emissions by 1Gt by 2030 or 2040, or scale GGR for 2050 

PRACTICALITY

Politically, technologically and economically

RISK

The unintended consequences and trade-offs

climate neturality forum: recommendations for policymakers

For equity and a just transition

Interventions must explicitly consider their impacts on stakeholders across all sectors to deal with each form of equity outlined in the 2021 Climate Neutrality Forum Report. Climate and Nature Aligned debt restructuring is needed to ensure an equitable post-Covid ‘green recovery’ and address the increasing financial stress in developing countries adapting to climate catastrophes. New revenue streams are needed to close the gaps in international climate finance and address intergenerational Climate Equity.

For rapid emissions reductions

In line with the Breakthrough Agreement announced at COP26, attention must be directed towards incentivising direct investment in clean energy technologies with consistently declining costs, primarily solar PV, wind, batteries, and hydrogen electrolysis. Combining this with Border Carbon Adjustment Mechanisms, used to address carbon leakage associated with stricter climate regulations, introduced policy instruments can be used to accelerate emissions reductions.

For final 20% hard to abate sectors

15-20% of the economy, including aviation and the steel manufacturing industry, is challenging to decarbonise as it requires either high energy density fuels or intense heating. This makes renewable electricity generation and low-carbon road transport solutions ineffective at driving decarbonisation. Interventions in these hard-to-abate sectors should instead include the use of green hydrogen, green ammonia, and a decarbonised energy mix to address decarbonisation concerns. Contracts of Difference (which address the difference between the current value of an asset and its value at the time of contract) could encourage investment in clean energy by closing the gap between an existing and a new technology system.

For nature land use and agriculture

Dramatic changes are needed to decarbonise land use and management, with the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use sector contributing to between 23-27% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. These include radical agricultural subsidy reforms and investment in large-scale monitoring, reporting and verification of soil carbon sequestration, both of which require cooperation between local and government agencies to ensure the success of policies.

For greenhouse gas removal

Greenhouse gas (GHG) removal can be used to counteract remaining emissions in the atmosphere and establish a future emissions pathway to achieve the 1.5oC Paris Agreement target. Urgent investment and scaling up of GHG removal policies is needed to remove the 100-1,000 billion tonnes of CO2 needed over this century. Necessary interventions include public incentives, standardised removal accounting, and a Carbon Takeback Obligation mandating heavy industries to either capture carbon emissions or stop emitting entirely.

For climate finance and policy

Climate finance is currently insufficient to maintain a 1.5oC future emissions pathway, with 588% increase in annual climate finance required to meet 2030 climate objectives. To both achieve climate neutrality, schemes such as the Green Loan Guarantee Program should be used to scale up decarbonisation solutions, while the obligatory disclosure of climate risks requires companies to account for their transitional and physical climate risks, leading to a considerable repricing of fossil assets.

We are grateful for support from JPI-Climate and the ClimateWorks Foundation which has made these meetings and report possible.

  

Contact us at: netzero@ouce.ox.ac.uk

FAQs

What are sensitive intervention points and how to do they help achieve net zero?

Focused interventions within our socio-technical system which utilise positive feedback mechanisms to create a disproportionate cascade of impacts which will drive human systems past ‘tipping points’. Once these tipping points have been exceeded, social systems will function in a completely new state which will trigger transformative societal change directed towards reducing global emissions through the adoption of climate solutions.

What are tipping points?

Where a system (either human or physical) is sitting at a critical threshold, which when exceeded, leads to disproportionately large changes to the state of the system. For example, solar PV and wind technologies are approaching a ‘tipping point’, as they near a point in which they are economically competitive with fossil fuels. 

What are positive feedback mechanisms / amplification dynamics?

Feedback loops amplify the impacts of an initial change in a repetitive cycle. Sea ice melting is an example of positive feedback in the physical world. Sea ice reflects solar radiation much more than the surrounding ocean. As the sea ice melts it leads to an increase in heat energy absorbed by the ocean, thereby accelerating warming and more sea ice loss. Within the human world, subsidising clean energy technologies can produce a positive feedback mechanism. Subsidies reduce associated costs, leading to increased deployment, which then further reduces the cost. 

What is climate neutrality?

An actor’s activities result in no net effect on the climate system. Any GHG emissions or other activities with warming effects are fully compensated by GHG reductions or removals, or other activities with cooling effects — irrespective of the time period or the relative magnitude of emissions and removals involved. A near synonym for GHG neutral, but climate neutral also includes non-GHG radiative forcing effects, such as land use changes with albedo effects. Not a valid end-state target, as it does not require “like for like” balancing, but a possible intermediate step.

What is the difference between a ‘kick’ and a ‘shift’ intervention? What are some examples?

A ‘kick’ intervention pushes something at the verge of tipping in the system at just the right moment such as a subsidy for green products. A ‘shift’ intervention changes the underlying dynamics of the system, for example, the establishment of an independent body to hold the government accountable to its climate targets such as the UK Climate Change Committee.

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