Our key takeaway: You can’t put a genie back into the bottle. A ‘tipping point’ is when a small change abruptly pushes a system into a completely new system, and there’s no way back. There are 25 Earth system tipping points. In the cryosphere (the frozen parts of the planet), there are six tipping points (including large-scale tipping points for the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets). In the biosphere (the region on, above, and below the Earth's surface where life exists), there are sixteen tipping points, including forest dieback (e.g. in the Amazon), savanna and dryland degradation, lake eutrophication, die-off of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass meadows, and fishery collapse. In the ocean and atmosphere circulations, there are four tipping points. A number of drivers are destabilising tipping systems: climate change, habitat loss (e.g. deforestation), nutrient pollution and air pollution. A recent report launched at COP28 and led by the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, shines the spotlight on the urgent need to better understand, be prepared for, and seek to minimise these tipping points. The report finds that harmful “tipping points in the natural world pose some of the gravest threats faced by humanity. Their triggering will severely damage our planet’s life-support systems and threaten the stability of our societies.” Five major tipping points are already at risk of being crossed due to global warming happening now, and three more are threatened in the 2030s as the world exceeds 1.5°C global warming. The report warns that crossing one harmful tipping point could trigger others, “causing a domino effect of accelerating and unmanageable change to our life-support systems.”The report says it best: “The existence of tipping points means that ‘business as usual’ is now over. Rapid changes to nature and society are occurring, and more are coming. If we don’t revise our governance approach, these changes could overwhelm societies as the natural world rapidly comes apart. Alternatively, with emergency global action and appropriate governance, collective interventions could harness the power of positive tipping point opportunities, helping navigate toward a thriving sustainable future.” What can companies do? Companies should build knowledge of these tipping points and how their activities may be contributing to them - while participating in coalitions of state and non-state actors to coordinate policy efforts to trigger positive tipping points.
The Global Tipping Points Report was launched during COP28 (December 2023) and led by the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute with the support of more than 200 researchers from over 90 organisations in 26 countries. The report provides ten key messages that we re-produce here - we have added the bold:
1. Irreversible change: Climate change and nature loss could soon cause ‘tipping points’ in the natural world: “Environmental stresses could become so severe that large parts of the natural world are unable to maintain their current state, leading to abrupt and/or irreversible changes. These moments are called Earth system ‘tipping points’. Five major tipping systems are already at risk of crossing tipping points at the present level of global warming: the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, warm-water coral reefs, North Atlantic Subpolar Gyre circulation, and permafrost regions.”
2. Posing threats: These tipping points pose threats of a magnitude never before faced by humanity: “These threats could materialise in the coming decades, and at lower levels of global warming than previously thought. They could be catastrophic, including global-scale loss of capacity to grow major staple crops. Triggering one Earth system tipping point could trigger another, causing a domino effect of accelerating and unmanageable damage. Tipping points show that the overall threat posed by the climate and ecological crisis is far more severe than is commonly understood.”
3. Triggering destruction: the effects of tipping points will be transmitted and amplified throughout our globalised world: “This will multiply crises in the same way that the COVID-19 pandemic caused cascading stress to societies and economic systems globally, with unequal and unjust consequences. These impacts could escalate to threaten the breakdown of economic, social and political systems, triggering destructive tipping points in societies experiencing stresses beyond their ability to cope.”
4. Urgent action: Stopping these threats is possible but requires urgent global action: “Global governance is currently inadequate to minimise tipping point threats and to do so equitably. Governance is needed across multiple scales to address the different drivers, potentially rapid changes, and diverse, often irreversible, impacts of tipping points. An immediate priority for governance actors is to set an agenda for developing this framework. Governance must also guard against counterproductive reactions to tipping point threats, such as the misguided reliance on speculative solar geoengineering approaches.
5. Vicious cycles: Even with urgent global systems, some earth system tipping points may be unavoidable: “Some Earth system tipping points may still be triggered in the time it takes us to undertake global emergency action. Mitigating risk is still possible by reducing vulnerability, and becomes ever more urgent, because each manifestation of a tipping point threat diverts attention and resources to disaster response, eroding away some of our agency to tackle the underlying drivers. This increases the risk of triggering more Earth system tipping points, creating a vicious cycle.”
6. Accelerating transformations: ‘Positive tipping points’ can accelerate a transformation towards sustainability: “A scale and pace of action necessary to mitigate tipping point threats can be achieved, partly because similar tipping dynamics exist in societies, and can work in our favour. These positive tipping point opportunities can be exploited, whereby coordinated strategic interventions can lead to disproportionately large and rapid benefits that accelerate the transition of societies toward sustainability. This is already happening in some cases. For example, targeted actions by innovators, governments, investors and companies have created economies of scale that are now propelling the exponential uptake of renewable energy worldwide, which has reached or exceeded cost parity with fossil fuel power generation.”
7. Positive change: One positive tipping point can trigger others, creating a domino effect of change: “For example, as electric vehicles pass a positive tipping point towards becoming a dominant form of transport, this reduces the costs of battery technology. Lower-cost batteries in turn provide essential storage capacity to reinforce the positive tipping point to renewable power, which can trigger another tipping point in producing green ammonia for fertilisers, shipping, and so on.”
8. Coordinated action: Triggering positive tipping points requires coordinated action that considers equity and justice: “Many areas of society have the potential to be ‘tipped’, including politics, social norms and mindsets. But these opportunities are not realised on their own. Concerted and coordinated action is usually needed to create the enabling conditions for triggering positive tipping points. Once near a tipping point, it may even be triggered by relatively small groups with targeted action. Appropriate governance can enable this process and is required to equitably manage its knock- on effects, so that all parts of society can engage with and benefit from tipping point opportunities.”
9. A deeper understanding: We need a deeper understanding of tipping points - but without delaying action: “Improving understanding of tipping point threats and opportunities in both nature and societies is an urgent priority to support governance and decision making, with the aim to limit harm and support transformations to sustainability. But this quest for knowledge must not delay or slow action. We know enough to identify that the threat of Earth system tipping points demands an urgent response. Indeed, our best models likely underestimate tipping point risks. The world is largely flying blind into this vast threat.”
10. A powerful counter effect: Positive tipping points can create a powerful counter effect to the risk of earth system tipping points cascading out of control: “The ultimate risk presented by Earth system tipping points is that they cascade, creating a growing momentum that undermines our collective ability to deal with the vicious cycle of escalating consequences. But both protecting and enhancing our collective ability to realise positive tipping point opportunities – even as damaging events escalate – can create a powerful counter effect, avoiding spiralling disaster. Doing so means urgently making our societies more resilient to this new era of rapid change and implementing equitable global governance.”
The report then delves into six recommendations as follows:
1. Phase out fossil fuels and land use emissions now. “The scale of threat posed by Earth system tipping points underlines the critical importance of the 1.5 ̊C temperature goal and means that global mitigation should now assume an emergency footing. Fossil fuel emissions should be phased out worldwide before 2050. A rapid end to land use change emissions and shift to worldwide ecological restoration are also needed. Countries should reassess their highest possible ambitions accordingly, particularly wealthy, high-emitting nations.
2. Strengthen adaptation and loss-and-damage governance. “Some Earth system tipping points are now likely to be triggered, causing severe and spatially uneven impacts on societies and interconnected ecological, social and economic systems. Tipping point impacts will be felt worst by the most vulnerable communities within and between nations, with knock-on impacts for global inequality, the stability of the world economy, and geopolitics. This provides an urgent impetus to strengthen adaptation and lossand-damage governance in the UNFCCC, adjusting existing frameworks and increasing resources to account for tipping point threats.”
3. Include tipping points in NDCs and the global stocktake: “Considerations of Earth system tipping point risks, corresponding action, and positive tipping point opportunities should be included in the Global Stocktake (GST), future revisions of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and in associated national and sub-national policy measures. Future GSTs should assess collective progress towards preventing Earth system tipping points, addressing potential impacts and fostering positive tipping points. All future NDCs should include national-scale systemic assessments of exposure to tipping point risks, measures that contribute to the prevention of tipping points, plans for managing potential impacts and strategies for fostering positive tipping points.”
4. Coordinate policy efforts to trigger positive tipping points: “Coordinated action by coalitions of state and non-state actors across governance, business and civil society can bring forward positive tipping points in politics, economies, technology, culture, and behaviour. A focus on ‘super-leverage points’ – for example policy mandates in high-emitting sectors such as power, road transport, green hydrogen/ ammonia and food – could create a cascade of positive changes.”
5. Convene a global summit on tipping points: The UN Secretary General should convene a global summit on the governance agenda for managing Earth system tipping point risks and maximising coordination on triggering positive tipping point opportunities to speed up mitigation and resilience. It should provide a forum for government, industry and civil society. As a matter of urgency, tipping point threats should also feature on the agenda of key international fora, including the 2024 meeting of the G20 in Brazil.”
6. Deepen knowledge of tipping points and its translation into action: “The above efforts should be supported by investment in improved scientific knowledge and monitoring of negative and positive tipping points, and a much improved science-policy engagement process to more effectively and rapidly convert knowledge into action. To help stimulate this process, we support calls for an IPCC Special Report on Tipping Points in the current assessment cycle.”