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Pivotal moment for humanity as tipping point threats accelerate

- Wits University

Wits professor at COP28 says that business as usual is no longer possible

Global Tipping Points

The world has reached a pivotal moment as threats from Earth system tipping points  and progress towards positive tipping points accelerate, a new report shows.

The Global Tipping Points Report, the most comprehensive assessment of tipping points ever conducted, reflects that humanity is currently on a disastrous trajectory. The speed of fossil fuel phase out and growth of zero-carbon solutions will now determine the future of billions of people.

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, recognising 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.

“A tipping point occurs when a small change sparks an often rapid and irreversible transformation, and the effects can be positive or negative,” explains Professor Laura Pereira from the Global Change Institute at Wits University, who was part of the panel that presented the study at COP28. “Based on an assessment of 26 negative Earth system tipping points, 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,” adds Pereira.

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.

“Whilst the framing of positive tipping points (PTPs) is useful, we need to think through the dynamics of what positive is, for whom, and where, much more carefully within a strong justice and equity framing,” says Pereira. “PTPs should address the drivers of colonial modernity that have led to our current poly-crisis. I think that we need to think through what ‘development’ is sufficient and necessary, and more importantly, what is equitable, if we are to live within safe and just earth system boundaries.”

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.

“Tipping points in the Earth’s system poses threats of a magnitude never faced by humanity,” says Professor 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. But tipping points also offer our best hope: we need to prioritise 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

Kelly Levin, Chief of Science, Data and Systems Change for the Bezos Earth Fund, adds: “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, and 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 most 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.”

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

The report that was produced by an international team of more than 200 researchers, including from Wits University, and coordinated by the University of Exeter, in partnership with the Bezos Earth Fund, says current global governance is inadequate for the scale of the challenge and makes six key recommendations to change course fast, including coordinated action to trigger positive tipping points.