The report, to which RIFS researchers contributed, states that 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. 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 makes the case that 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 report was produced by an international team of more than 200 researchers, coordinated by the University of Exeter, in partnership with Bezos Earth Fund.
Dr Steve Smith, at the University of Exeter, said: “Just as with Earth system tipping points, positive tipping points can combine to reinforce and accelerate each other. For example, as we cross the tipping point that sees electric vehicles become the dominant form of road transport, battery technology continues to get better and cheaper. This could trigger another positive tipping point in the use of batteries for storing renewable energy, reinforcing another in the use of heat pumps in our homes, and so on. Many areas of society have the potential to be ‘tipped’ in this way, including politics, social norms and mindsets. Human history is full of examples of abrupt social and technological change. Learning from these examples, we must switch our focus from incremental change to transformative action – tipping the odds in our favour.”
Researchers from the RIFS contributed as co-authors insights from their case study research as part of the Tipping Plus project (EU Horizon 2020 Project GA no. 884565). Their research has focussed on social tipping points, specifically in transitions in coal- and carbon-intensive regions. These regions are under pressure due to the decline and closure of coal mines, power stations, and carbon-intensive industries as well as the associated socio-economic, political and cultural lock-in effects and dependencies. A number of regions in Germany have made considerable progress in transitioning away from coal, with the structural transformation of the Ruhr Region standing out in particular. The research team found that, historically, regional transformations have been driven by incremental changes. Political power was a core variable in this transformation and substantially slowed the pace of change in the Ruhr Region as political actors sought to mitigate social hardship and pursue a just transition.
“The transition in the Ruhr Region was very slow and took about 50 years – but we don’t have this time anymore! Positive tipping points are needed in many transition regions. We found that social tipping points are frequently linked to policy interventions, which can be a cause of policy stasis or change – triggering positive feedbacks either reinforcing self-sustaining cycles or triggering new opportunities accelerating dynamics of change”, says RIFS researcher Franziska Mey.
“Our research shows that it will take a strong political will and interventions to phase-out fossil fuels and dependencies on these industries. In addition, local social tipping points can be triggered in cooperation with communities to instigate changes and develop new visions and narratives for a sustainable future.”
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.
Kelly Levin, Chief of Science, Data and Systems Change for the Bezos Earth Fund, said: “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.
COP28 events (all timings in local Dubai time):
- Press Conference: Global Tipping Points Report 2023: Press Conference Room 2, Zone B6, Building 77, Press 2, Blue Zone, Expo City Dubai. Wednesday 6 December 10.00-10.30
- Later is too late, UN Action Area event: Al Hur Stage, Action Arena 1, Global Climate Action Area, COP28 Blue Zone, Dubai. Wednesday 6 December, 17:00-18:30 https://rmi.org/event/later-is-too-late/
- Tipping points presentation as part of the World Climate Summit – The Investment COP2023: The Conrad, Dubai. Thursday 7 December 15:50 to 16:00 https://greenfutures.exeter.ac.uk/event/the-world-climate-summit-the-in…