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EXETER, UK: A new report warns the environmental stress of a warming planet could become so severe that large parts of the natural world will result in abrupt and irreversible change.

These moments are called Earth system ‘tipping points’.

In a 500-page ‘Global Tipping Points Report’ published at COP 28, over 200 scientists say five major systems are already at risk of crossing these points at the present level of 1.2˚C global warming: the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, warm-water coral reefs, North Atlantic Subpolar Gyre circulation (including the Gulf Stream), and permafrost regions.

"Our in-depth analysis confirms the consistency of previous research and clearly shows that current climate change and loss of nature could cause fundamental changes in key elements of the Earth system, with far-reaching impacts for billions of people around the world,” noted PIK co-author Jonathan Donges.

“These impacts include accelerated sea-level rise, changing weather patterns and reduced agricultural yields, with the potential to trigger negative social tipping points leading to violent conflict or the collapse of political institutions,” he continued. “Tipping elements are also not separate entities, they are closely linked: Triggering one tipping point in the Earth system or in human societies could in turn destabilise another tipping system, making tipping cascades possible."

In addition to the five systems, Boreal forests, mangroves and seagrass meadows are three additional systems that could be at risk of tipping with global warming now on course to breach 1.5°C.

To avoid an irreversible and cascading impact, the report calls on governance actors to set up an agenda for developing a framework while simultaneously guarding against “counterproductive reactions to tipping point threats, such as the misguided reliance on speculative solar geoengineering approaches”.

Acknowledging many areas of society have the potential to be tipped - including politics, social norms and mindsets - the report also outlines several options to accelerate transformational change by phasing out fossil fuels and reducing land-use emissions. Other possible measures include coordinated efforts to trigger positive societal tipping points across multiple sectors such as energy, transport or food.

However some Earth systems may still be triggered before governments react, the report adds, thereby distracting attention and diverting resources to the immediate issue and increasing the risk of triggering more tipping points - creating a vicious cycle.

The reports key recommendations to governments are:

• Phase-out fossil fuel and land use to cut emissions
• Strengthen adaptation and loss-and-damage governance
• Include tipping points in Nationally Determined Contributions and the Global Stocktake
• Coordinate policy efforts to trigger positive tipping points
• Convene a global summit on tipping points in 2024
• Deepen knowledge of tipping points and its translation into action

"The world is no longer in the realm of incremental and linear change," concluded PIK director Johan Rockström. "Instead, we need to trigger exponential change across sectors and geographies by phasing out fossil fuels while taking advantage of positive social and economic tipping points.

“The incentives, solutions or levers of change need to shift so fundamentally that societies move onto a new sustainable trajectory,” he added.
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