Current warming risks triggering at least five tipping points: Study
Tipping points are markers beyond which any changes in climate system become self-perpetuating and can lead to abrupt and irreversible impacts.
At the current level of warming, the world risks triggering at least five tipping points “posing threats of a magnitude never faced by humanity”, new research has found, which experts warned may cause “devastating domino effects” for the world.
Tipping points are a set of conditions or thresholds identified by scientists which are considered markers beyond which any changes in the climate system become self-perpetuating and can lead to abrupt and irreversible impacts for the planet’s ecology.
Based on an assessment of 26 Earth system tipping points, The Global Tipping Points Report by an international team 200 scientists and coordinated by the University of Exeter, said that current global governance is “inadequate for the scale of the challenge”.
The report, set to be published on Wednesday as the UN Climate Conference (COP28) underway in Dubai enters the second week, further suggested coordinated action to trigger positive tipping points.
“Five major tipping points are already at risk of being crossed due to warming right now and three more are threatened in the 2030s as the world exceeds 1.5°C global warming,” the report said. According to latest estimates, the world is around 1.15°C warmer than pre-industrial levels.
It identified the five systems already at risk: The Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets, warm-water coral reefs, North Atlantic subpolar gyre circulation, and permafrost regions.
Among these, the report adds that tipping points for ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica may already have been breached at current level of greenhouse gas emissions.
The “Decadal State of the Climate 2011-2020” report by the World Meteorological Organisation on Tuesday said that there was a 75% rise in loss of Antarctic continental ice sheet between 2011-2020 compared to the decade before it (2001-2010).
The world is on a “disastrous trajectory” and “the effects will cascade through globalised social and economic systems, and could exceed the ability of some countries to adapt”, it said.
The report warned that the threats could materialise at lower levels of warming than previously thought.
Tipping points can trigger devastating domino effects, said lead author Tim Lenton, professor at 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,” he said.
To better understand the domino effect, sample this: A collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets could trigger long-term global sea level rise of up to 10 meters, submerging many cities. And as tipping points multiply, “societies will be overwhelmed as the natural world comes apart”, the report said.
But tipping points also offer the best hope for survival, Lenton said. “We need to prioritise and trigger positive tipping points in our societies and economies.”
Laying out a blueprint for this, the report called for bold, coordinated policies across multiple sectors including energy, transport and food sectors.
“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,” Dr Steve Smith, at the University of Exeter, said.
Among key recommendation, the report said a phase out of fossil fuels and land-use emissions must happen before 2050. It also called for strengthening adaptation and loss and damage governance as it highlighted the inequality of impacts across the globe.
More importantly, it said that tipping points must be included in the Global Stocktake at the ongoing COP28 summit.
“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,” said Dr Manjana Milkoreit, from the University of Oslo.