New study identifies ‘positive tipping points’ that can be leveraged to prevent the collapse of the Earth system

A major new report, with leading contributions from multiple Earth Commissioners, highlights the risks and opportunities of both negative and positive tipping points in the Earth system and was launched at COP28. The report, which is the most comprehensive review of tipping points to date, includes an analysis of ‘super leverage points’ that can be used to create a cascade of positive change.

The Global Tipping Points Report was led by Earth Commissioner Prof. Tim Lenton from the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, with the support of more than 200 researchers from over 90 organisations in 26 countries. The collaborative research shines a light on harmful tipping points in the natural world that pose a great threat to humanity, and it also provides a framework for understanding and acting on positive tipping points. An Earth system tipping point is the moment when part of the natural world has been so thoroughly damaged that it is no longer able to maintain its current state.

The study explains there are already several major tipping point risks at the current level of global warming, including Amazon dieback, ice sheet collapse, melting permafrost and the collapse of the overturning circulation of the Atlantic Ocean. Due to the interconnectedness of the Earth system , a tipping point could cause a domino effect across scales, resulting in even greater disaster.

This dismal fate is not necessarily sealed. The report finds that it is still possible to stop at least some of these threats, but it requires urgent global action. Coordinated, multi-level interventions can be implemented to address the drivers of tipping points and to embrace positive tipping points, drastically accelerating societies towards sustainability and ecological health.

There are in fact many opportunities for global actors to leverage and accelerate positive tipping points. Some of these are already well under way; for instance, targeted actions by governments and companies to economise renewable energies have led to an enormous increase in their usage across the world and to renewable energies exceeding or reaching cost parity with fossil fuels. However, many other positive tipping points still need to be triggered, such as making public transport the cheapest available option, large-scale shifts to regenerative agriculture and plant-based diets, and transitioning the aviation industry from power-to-liquid fuel rather than fossil fuel.

Just as negative tipping points can have domino effects, so too can positive tipping points. For example, electric vehicles are set to become the dominant form of transport, which will result in lower-cost batteries, which will in turn provide essential storage capacity that facilitates the shift to renewable energy, which will trigger another tipping point in producing green ammonia for fertilisers, and so on. These domino effect opportunities are called ‘super-leverage points’ and, if harnessed correctly, they can create cascades of positive change.

The report provides six key recommendations for realising this positive change :

1) phase out fossil fuels and land-use emissions now;

2) strengthen adaptation and loss-and-damage governance;

3) include tipping points in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and the global stocktake;

4) coordinate policy efforts to trigger positive tipping points;

5) convene a global summit on tipping points;

6) deepen knowledge of tipping points and translate this knowledge into action.

Multiple Earth Commissioners and experts played leading roles as section leads or contributing authors of the report: Tim Lenton, Ricarda Winkelmann, David Obura, David Armstrong McKay, Johan Rockström, Laura Pereira, Caroline Zimm, Steven J. Lade, Jesse F. Abrams, Sina Loriani, Boris Sakschewski, Juan Rocha, Lauren Gifford and Thejna Tharammal.

Access the full report here.

Watch a two-minute animated summary of the report here.

Watch the full COP launch event here.