Reaching a positive environmental tipping point
We’ve made crucial advancements with electric vehicles, but are we there yet?
Very few terms strike fear into the hearts of the environmentally conscious like “tipping point.” The phrase first became commonplace in the late 1950s to describe “the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.”
But the expression hit it big linguistically in 2000 with writer Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.” That book’s rise coincided with an increasing awareness of global warming, and, since then, scientists, journalists and activists have all used the term to describe, as The Guardian puts it, “thresholds that, if passed, could send the Earth into a spiral of runaway climate change.”
Rising seas, a greater number of wildfires and increasingly severe weather all appear to point toward us being on the verge of that climate crisis. But not all environmental tipping points are bad. Actually, some may help us sidestep the global warming one we fear most.
Take the proliferation of electric vehicles (EVs). Fossil-fuel-powered transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. If we can replace enough gas-powered vehicles with electric cars, buses and trucks, it will go a long way toward mitigating the worst effects of climate change.
In fact, the EV revolution — wherein electric cars supplant gas guzzlers — is a tipping point that may be just on the horizon.
Consumers are flocking to EVs in ever-increasing numbers. In 2018, 361,307 EVs were sold in the United States, which represents a nearly 86 percent jump over sales in 2017, according to a new study from Environment America Research & Policy Center.
Moreover, in California, during the first half of 2019, Tesla’s Model 3 was a bestseller — even compared to cars fueled by gasoline. The all-electric sedan placed third in sales statewide, trailing just the Honda Civic and the Toyota Camry.
“Traditional [carmakers] … argue that there is not enough demand. If Tesla can sell 33,000 [in six months], it means that there is demand,” Gil Tal, research director of the University of California, Davis, Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center, told the trade publication E&E News after hearing the sales numbers. “You just need to make the cars that people like to buy.”
Automakers appear to be getting the hint. Big brands have either already produced or are developing scores of different EV models that are both versatile and appealing. For example, Ford has committed $11 billion to developing 40 new hybrid and fully electric vehicles by 2022, and General Motors plans for 20 new electric vehicles by 2023. Styles vary greatly, including sports cars (like the Porsche Taycan), family-sized choices (Volkswagen ID Buzz), luxury vehicles (Jaguar I-Pace) or hipster options (Mini Cooper SE). Of course, it’s essential that the market for inexpensive EVs continues to expand. (Overall, prices are dropping and, with rebates, a handful of somewhat affordable models are currently available. But more are necessary.)
In a further sign that some in this industry see the tides of change, four of the world’s biggest automakers, Honda, Ford, Volkswagen and BMW agreed in July to self-imposed emissions cutting standards. While this doesn’t put more electric vehicles on the road, per se, it does show that these large corporations are moving in the right direction.
Other companies are pressing even harder on this issue. Notably, Toyota has an initiative called “Environmental Challenge 2050,” which, among other plans, aims to eliminate 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from all its new vehicles by 2050.
While the federal government clearly needs to do more, states are driving ahead with new laws to facilitate the use of EVs. On Aug. 16, Colorado became the eleventh state to adopt the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standard. It joins California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont in this plan, which is a key to “growing the number of plug-in models available on sale,” according to the publication InsideEVs.
Cities and counties across the United States are also leading by example. In July, a coalition of officials from 127 cities and 15 counties in 38 states announced that it would buy more than 2,100 electric vehicles.
All this begs a paraphrase to the popular road trip question: Are we there yet when it comes to an EV tipping point? While it would be really useful to answer that definitively, it’s difficult to pinpoint this phenomenon in real time.
“A tipping point is perhaps when you recognize that change has occurred,” said Oxford University global policy expert Margaret MacMillan in 2017. “You usually recognize it afterwards, but when you’re in the middle of a tipping point you don’t always recognize it.”
While there is no doubt that we are experiencing considerable progress with EVs, the unknown about when we will reach our destination can make people afraid and impatient. The best way to deal with that uncertainty: Spend your time thinking about best practices when it comes to instigating the type of tipping points you want.
“Tipping Point” author Gladwell offers a bit of a roadmap. Most notably, he cites the “80/20 principle” as a common theme in tipping points. This is “the idea that in any situation roughly 80 percent of the ‘work’ will be done by 20 percent of the participants,” he wrote.
This means that the immediate reaction to the are-we-there-yet question should be a shrug and a pivot to making sure you’re among the 20 percent working on this issue. That way, you can look back some day in the (hopefully near) future and say that you were instrumental in pushing the right types of tipping points — such as the EV revolution — over the edge.