Tipping Points Report shows humanity on ‘disastrous trajectory’

Humanity is on the verge of triggering at least five major tipping points which could see the collapse of ice sheets, ecosystems and food production, according to a new report.

Humanity faces drought and crop failure as tipping points are passed
Humanity faces drought and crop failure as tipping points are passed - Adobe Stock

Led by Exeter University and featuring the work of over 200 researchers, the Global Tipping Points Report claims that humanity is currently on a ‘disastrous trajectory’ and that existing global governance is not equipped for the scale of the challenge. The report is based on an assessment of 26 negative Earth system tipping points, where incremental changes build to eventually trigger transformative events in nature and society.

According to the report, five of these tipping points are likely to be breached, including the collapse of major ice sheets, the widespread thawing of permafrost, the death of warm-water coral reefs, and the collapse of a North Atlantic current. As more tipping points in the natural world are triggered, there is an increasing likelihood of mass displacement of people and global crop failure.

“Tipping points in the Earth system pose threats of a magnitude never faced by humanity,” said research lead Professor Tim Lenton, from 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.”

However, the report also highlights how positive social tipping points in areas such as energy, electric vehicles and diet can help mitigate some of the dangers humanity faces. According to Prof Lenton, these positive tipping points ‘offer our best hope’ of averting disaster.

“We need to prioritise and trigger positive tipping points in our societies and economies,” he said. “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.”

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.

Commenting on the report, Prof Mike Berners-Lee from the Lancaster Environment Centre, said: “We are now in a flat out race between tipping points. Will global society wake up and act before our impacts on the climate trigger devastating changes beyond our control? This report is not just a robust piece of science; anyone reading it should be prepared to be filled with adrenaline for the urgency of the challenge we face.”

Published as global leaders meet in Dubai for COP28, the report is highly critical of existing political and governance systems. According to co-author Dr Manjana Milkoreit, from the University of Oslo, a sea change in international cooperation to trigger positive tipping points should be the key aim of the climate talks.   

“Currently, our global governance system is inadequate to deal with the coming threats and implement the solutions urgently required,” she said. “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.”

Parts of the Global Tipping Points Report will be published in a special issue of the journal Earth System Dynamics. The report was produced in partnership with the Bezos Earth Fund.