The world has reached a pivotal moment as threats from Earth system tipping points – and progress towards positive tipping points – accelerate. The just released Global Tipping Points Report – the most comprehensive assessment of tipping points ever conducted – highlights that humanity is currently on a disastrous trajectory.

According to the report, the speed of fossil fuel phase out and the growth of zero-carbon solutions will now determine the future of billions of people. The authors say that current global governance is inadequate for the scale of the challenge and make six key recommendations to change course fast, including coordinated action to trigger positive tipping points.

A tipping point occurs when a small change sparks an often rapid and irreversible transformation, and the effects can be positive or negative. Based on an assessment of 26 negative Earth system tipping points, the report concludes that “business as usual” is no longer possible with rapid changes to nature and societies already happening, and more coming.

With global warming now on course to breach 1.5°C, at least five Earth system tipping points are likely to be triggered – including the collapse of major ice sheets and widespread mortality of warm-water coral reefs. As Earth system tipping points multiply, there is a risk of catastrophic, global-scale loss of capacity to grow staple crops. Without urgent action to halt the climate and ecological crisis, societies will be overwhelmed as the natural world comes apart. Alternatively, emergency global action – accelerated by leaders meeting now at COP28 – can harness positive tipping points and steer us towards a thriving, sustainable future.

The report lays out a blueprint for doing this, and says bold, coordinated policies could trigger positive tipping points across multiple sectors including energy, transport, and food. A cascade of positive tipping points would save millions of lives, billions of people from hardship, trillions of dollars in climate-related damage, and begin restoring the natural world upon which we all depend.

The publication was produced by an international team of more than 200 researchers, including IIASA researchers Sibel Eker, Aneeque Javaid, Leila Niamir, Deepthi Swamy, Charlie Wilson, and Caroline Zimm. The report was coordinated by the University of Exeter in partnership with the Bezos Earth Fund.  

“Tipping points in the Earth system pose threats of a magnitude never faced by humanity,” says Tim Lenton of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute. “They can trigger devastating domino effects, including the loss of whole ecosystems and capacity to grow staple crops, with societal impacts including mass displacement, political instability, and financial collapse.

Tipping points, however, also offer our best hope, the authors say. We need to prioritize and trigger positive tipping points in our societies and economies. This is already happening in areas ranging from renewable energy and electric vehicles to social movements and plant-based diets. Now is the moment to unleash a cascade of positive tipping points to ensure a safe, just, and sustainable future for humanity.

Calling for reinforcements

“Currently, our global governance system is inadequate to deal with the coming threats and implement the solutions urgently required. Some Earth system tipping points are now likely to be triggered, causing severe and disproportionate impacts within and between nations. This provides an urgent impetus to strengthen adaptation and loss and damage governance, adjusting existing frameworks, and increasing resources to account for tipping point threats,” explains Manjana Milkoreit, from the University of Oslo.

Averting this crisis – and doing so equitably – must be the core goal of COP28 and ongoing global cooperation. Good global governance can make this happen, especially by triggering positive tipping points.

“Similar to tipping points in the Earth system, positive changes can build on one another. Think about it like this: if electric cars become the most popular kind of road transport, this can lead to advances in battery technologies leading to better and cheaper batteries. These improved batteries might then also open up opportunities that allow for storing energy from renewable sources. This type of positive trend could create a kind of chain reaction in various aspects of society including politics, social norms, and people's ways of thinking," notes Zimm, who co-led one of the four sections of the report.

Human history is full of examples of abrupt social and technological change. Learning from these examples, the authors point out, we must switch our focus from incremental change to transformative action – tipping the odds in our favor.

The report includes six key recommendations:

  • Phase out fossil fuels and land-use emissions now, stopping them well before 2050.
  • Strengthen adaptation and “loss and damage” governance, recognizing inequality between and within nations.
  • Include tipping points in the Global Stocktake (the world’s climate “inventory”) and Nationally Determined Contributions (each country’s efforts to tackle climate change).
  • Coordinate policy efforts to trigger positive tipping points.
  • Convene an urgent global summit on tipping points.
  • Deepen knowledge of tipping points. The research team supports calls for an IPCC Special Report on tipping points.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time; it is essential that we advance the science on global tipping points to address the threats and opportunities ahead. The path we choose now will determine the future of humanity. This extraordinary report sets out the Earth system tipping points we need to prevent, the governance we need to urgently implement, and critically, the positive tipping points we need to trigger to transform our society and world.

“Solving the climate and nature crises will require major transitions across multiple sectors – from shifting diets, to restoring forests, to phasing out the internal combustion engine. Given the required scale of action, we must target the most beneficial positive tipping points so that change takes off in a way that is unstoppable,” says Kelly Levin, Chief of Science, Data, and Systems Change for the Bezos Earth Fund. “At the Bezos Earth Fund, we are dedicated to identifying and triggering positive tipping points in this decisive decade. The Global Tipping Points Report paves the way.”

Parts of the Global Tipping Points Report will be published in a special issue of the journal Earth System Dynamics.

Further information:
Read the full report here: https://global-tipping-points.org/

Adapted from a press release by the University of Exeter.

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