Global tipping points: threats and opportunities for our planet

December 8, 2023

The newly released Global Tipping Points Report, presented at the 28th UN climate summit in Dubai, emphasises a crucial moment for our planet. Threats from environmental tipping points grow, but there are also opportunities to create positive tipping points in society. The authors present six key recommendations to change course fast. These include coordinated action to trigger positive tipping points.

The speed of fossil fuel phase-out and growth of zero-carbon solutions will determine the future of many people. 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 (‘Earth system 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. The newly released Global Tipping Points Report is the most comprehensive assessment of tipping points ever conducted. It was produced by an international team of more than 200 researchers, including Wageningen University & Research. The authors emphasise the inadequacy of current global governance, and advocate for coordinated efforts to trigger positive tipping points.

Bregje van der Bolt, Assistant Professor at Wageningen University & Research and one of the contributors: “The report provides a comprehensive guide to the current state of knowledge on Earth system tipping points and the opportunities for using positive tipping points to create much needed transformations. Together with others I contributed to the research on early warning signs for Earth system tipping points. These signals are an indication of a tipping point approaching and can be used to prevent the tipping point from happening.”

Based on an assessment of 26 negative Earth system tipping points, the authors conclude that “business as usual” is no longer possible. Rapid changes to nature and societies already are happening. With global warming now on course to breach 1.5°C, at least five negative Earth system tipping points are likely to be triggered. Among those are the collapse of major ice sheets and widespread mortality of warm-water coral reefs.

Towards a sustainable future

Alternatively, global action – accelerated by leaders meeting at COP28 – can harness positive tipping points and steer us towards a thriving, sustainable future. The report lays out a blueprint for doing this. It says that bold, coordinated policies could trigger positive tipping points across multiple sectors, including energy, transport, and food.

Van der Bolt: “For example, when electric vehicles become the dominant form of road transport, battery technology will continue to become better and cheaper. This could set in motion other positive tipping points, such as the use of batteries for storing renewable energy.”

Key recommendations

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.
The Global Tipping Points Report was produced by an international team of more than 200 researchers. It was coordinated by the University of Exeter in partnership with Bezos Earth Fund. Parts of the report will also be published in a special issue of the journal Earth System Dynamics.