Building with balconies full of greenery

Photo: Ricardo Gomez-Angel on Unsplash

Post-carbon transition


The Oxford Martin Programme on the Post-Carbon Transition aims at developing a richer understanding of complex socioeconomic systems to help policymakers and business leaders identify “sensitive intervention points” or SIPs where modest targeted action can trigger an outsized response. The goal is to move sectors and the wider socioeconomic system past tipping points to where positive, self-reinforcing dynamics take over so that a return to a previous high emissions state becomes very difficult. 

Our approach

The core objectives of the programme are to identify, understand, model, and trigger these sensitive intervention points to rapidly transition to a post-carbon society. Each of these objectives is represented by a workstream within the research programme. Achieving these objectives is no small feat, and requires interdisciplinary insights from complex systems science, history, geography, social psychology, politics, philosophy, and economics. Our research is not focussed on producing certainties or single pathways. Rather, the aim is to provide a richer understanding of the possible routes to a post-carbon society, and to provide guidance on the sort of ‘bets’ that policymakers and business leaders could make in order to maximise the probability that we get there.

Defining Sensitive Intervention Points (SIPs)

The Sensitive Intervention Points (SIPs) framework is helpful in bringing together complex systems thinking which is a way of looking at the interconnected relationships within a whole system, rather than analysing a system as individual elements. Although the Post-Carbon Transition programme is utilising this framework to accelerate decarbonisation, SIPs are not limited to the environmental discipline and can be applied to many different topics. 


There are two core elements to how SIPs can be triggered:  

  • a ‘kick’ is when you alter a variable in an existing system that triggers a positive feedback dynamic, for example, a subsidy for green products alters the variable of price.
  • a ‘shift’, is where you fundamentally change the rules of the game to completely alter the system. This might include the establishment of an independent body to hold the government accountable to its climate targets or new laws to more stringently monitor the licensing of fossil fuel permits. 

If we imagine a socioeconomic system as a landscape of peaks and troughs, in which the system (visualised as ball) is attracted to troughs, a kick can be visualised as forcing the ball over a tipping point (i.e. peak), whereas the shift alters the entire landscape. Our researchers have also identified ‘characteristics’ which are aspects of a SIP that defines the concept and helps to make the framework more practical, all of which can be seen in the graphic below. 

This image attempts to visualise Sensitive Intervention Points (SIPs) and the issues that are important to consider when identifying or designing them. The image uses visual cues and metaphors to describe how kicks (i.e. a change to a key system variable) and shifts (i.e. changing how the system operates), two central SIPs ideas, might change a system. The system is visualised as a ball on a landscape, with a kick pushing the ball over a hump onto a downward slope, and a shift changing the landscape so the ball is already on a downward slope.   Other issues are introduced with simple visual cues, such as: key actors and institutions (i.e. who will we rely on to introduce the intervention) via icons of businesses, individuals, government, and civil society; windows of opportunity (i.e. is the time right for an intervention) via slots the ball must pass through; size of impact (i.e. how large an impact will an intervention have, relative to effort) via the size of the slope the ball rolls down; unintended consequences (i.e. does the intervention create change we did not anticipate) via a large exclamation mark; speed of impact (i.e. how fast the intervention creates change) via a stopwatch icon; path dependence (i.e. will the intervention create change that is hard to undo) via slopes with different shapes; trade-offs (i.e. impacts on objectives beyond our immediate scope) via an SDG icon; uncertainty of impacts (i.e. how sure are we that the intervention will work) via a large question mark; barriers and resistance to change (i.e. to the implementation or effect of the intervention) via barriers across the slots the ball needs to pass through; and finally, positive feedbacks (i.e. reinforcing feedback dynamics which ensure outsized results) via the steepness of the slope the ball runs down.
Figure.1 Depicts the SIPs framework which can be categorised into ‘kicks’, visualised by the orange arrow pushing the ball over the tipping point, and ‘shifts’, which can be visualised as altering gradient to eliminate resistance. There are an additional nine characteristics depicted which help to identify a SIP.

If you would like to further explore the SIPs framework, visit the website of our partner programme, Oxford Net Zero, to deep dive into these characteristics and explore potential SIPs.  

Our Research