The world faces 6 tipping points

A new United Nations University report warns that the world is on course to cross 6 tipping points, beyond which our global systems will fundamentally change.

The Interconnected Disaster Risks Report 2023 by the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) has identified the 6 risk tipping points:

  • Accelerating extinctions
  • Groundwater depletion
  • Mountain glaciers melting
  • Space debris
  • Unbearable heat
  • Uninsurable future

“As we approach these tipping points, we will already begin to experience the impacts. Once crossed, it will be difficult to go back,” warns Dr Jack O’Connor, co-lead author and Senior Expert at UNU-EHS, in Germany.

“Our report can help us see risks ahead of us, the causes and the urgent changes required to avoid them.”

Also published this week The 2023 state of the climate report: Entering uncharted territory warns that life on planet Earth is under siege, and highlights that damaging tipping points are approaching sooner than expected.

What are risk tipping points?

The report defines a risk tipping point as: “the moment at which a given socioecological system is no longer able to buffer risks and provide its expected functions, after which the risk of catastrophic impacts to these systems increases substantially.”

The risk tipping points identified in this report share similar root causes and drivers that increasingly put pressure on our systems – for example ecosystems, water systems, transport systems – until they are pushed to the brink of collapse. Reaching these points means new risks will be introduced, and the ways that we currently manage risk may no longer apply.

Accelerating extinctions

The rate of species extinction is at least 10 to 100 times Earth’s natural rate due to intense human activities. The risk tipping point is when an ecosystem loses key species that are strongly connected which triggers cascading extinctions of dependent species, which can eventually lead to the collapse of an entire ecosystem.

Groundwater depletion

Freshwater resources in aquifers supply drinking water to over 2 billion people and are used for agriculture. However, more than half of the world’s major aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be naturally replenished. The risk tipping point is when the water table falls below a level that existing wells can access, putting entire food production systems at risk of failure.

A photograph of machinery used to drill borewells
A borewell drilling machine. Credit:© UNU-EHS/Polina Schapova

Mountain glaciers melting

Glaciers store large amounts of freshwater, and their meltwater is used for drinking, irrigation, hydropower, and ecosystems. But glaciers are now melting faster than the ice can be replaced by snow. The risk tipping point is “peak water” – the point when a glacier produces the maximum volume of water run-off due to melting. After this point, freshwater availability will steadily decline.

Space debris

Space debris travels at more than 25,000 km per hour and can cause significant damage if it collides with something, creating even more debris. The risk tipping point is when the Earth’s orbit becomes so crowded with debris that a collision sets off a chain reaction, which would threaten our ability to operate satellites.

Unbearable heat

Human-induced climate change is causing a global rise in temperatures. The tipping point is a “wet-bulb temperature” – a measurement which combines temperature and humidity – above 35°C. High humidity worsens the effects of heat as it impedes the evaporation of sweat, which is needed to maintain a stable core body temperature and avoid organ failure and brain damage.

A man holds a block of ice on his shoulder in sweltering heat
On Shaikh Bhirkio Road, Fateh Chowk, Hyderabad, Sindh, Shahid holds a piece of ice to combat the intense heat of the day. The scorching weather demands a constant effort to stay hydrated, and the cold water provide some relief in the sweltering heat. Credit: © UNICEF/Fahad Ahmed

Uninsurable future

Climate change is increasing the damage as a result of weather-related disasters and the number and size of at risk areas are expected to expand. The tipping point is reached when insurance becomes unavailable or unaffordable, leaving people without an economic safety net when disasters strike, which opens the door to increasing socioeconomic consequences.

How do we avoid these tipping points?

The report proposes a new framework for avoiding or mitigating the consequences of risk tipping points.

It proposes two categories for solutions: Avoid solutions, and Adapt solutions.

For both Avoid and Adapt solutions there are then two kinds of actions that can be taken. Delay actions work within the existing system and aim to slow down the progression towards risk tipping points or their worst impacts. The ideal, Transform action, involves fundamentally changing a system to be stronger and more sustainable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report finds that solutions tend to focus on Delay actions, rather than Transform actions – although transformative change is increasingly becoming the focus.

“Because risks are interconnected, so are most potential solutions. Therefore, the report highlights overall changes we can make to our behaviours and values that would transform the way we use our systems and reduce overall risk,” the authors write.

“These include a shift towards zero waste, a closer connection to nature, global cooperation and trust, consideration for future generations and shifting to an economic model that is less focused on growth and more on human well-being within planetary boundaries.”

Listen to the debunks podcast

Do electric car batteries explode? Will an electric car ruin my weekend? Get the facts on electric cars. Listen now.

Please login to favourite this article.