Global ‘tipping points’ study finds humanity on disastrous trajectory

Speed at which we phase out fossil fuels and develop zero-carbon solutions will shape future of billions of people, comprehensive report finds

The world has reached a pivotal moment as threats from Earth system tipping points, especially related to climate, are accelerating, according to research by more than 200 leading scientists.

The Global Tipping Points Report – the most comprehensive assessment of tipping points ever conducted – warns overall “humanity is currently on a disastrous trajectory”. A tipping point occurs when a small change sparks an often rapid and irreversible transformation. The effects can be positive or negative.

“The speed of fossil fuel phase-out and growth of zero-carbon solutions will now determine the future of billions of people,” it concludes.

The report, nonetheless, finds progress towards “positive tipping points” in favour of the planet and addressing climate disruption.


The report, released to coincide with Cop28, says current global governance is inadequate for the scale of the challenge and makes six key recommendations to change course fast, including co-ordinated action to trigger positive tipping points to benefit the planet.

Based on an assessment of 26 negative Earth system tipping points, the report concludes “business as usual” is no longer possible – with rapid changes to nature and societies already happening, and more coming.

With global warming on course to breach 1.5 degrees, at least five Earth system tipping points are likely to be triggered, it says – including collapse of major ice sheets and widespread mortality of warm-water coral reefs.

As Earth system tipping points multiply, there is a risk of catastrophic, global-scale loss of capacity to grow staple crops, it warns. Without urgent action to halt the climate and ecological crisis, societies will be overwhelmed as the natural world comes apart.

Alternatively, emergency global action – accelerated by leaders meeting now at Cop28 – can, however, harness positive tipping points “and steer us towards a thriving, sustainable future”, it adds.

The report lays out a blueprint for doing this, and says bold, co-ordinated policies could trigger positive tipping points across multiple sectors including energy, transport and food. This would “save millions of lives, billions of people from hardship, trillions of dollars in climate-related damage, and begin restoring the natural world upon which we all depend”.

The research was co-ordinated by the University of Exeter, in partnership with Bezos Earth Fund.

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

“But tipping points also offer our best hope: we need to prioritise and trigger positive tipping points in our societies and economies,” he underlined. 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,” he said.

“Currently, our global governance system is inadequate to deal with the coming threats and implement the solutions urgently required,” said Dr Manjana Milkoreit of the University of Oslo. “Some Earth system tipping points are now likely to be triggered, causing severe and disproportionate impacts within and between nations. This provides an urgent impetus to strengthen adaptation and loss and damage governance, adjusting existing frameworks and increasing resources to account for tipping point threats.”

Dr Steve Smith of the University of Exeter, said: “Just as with Earth system tipping points, positive tipping points can combine to reinforce and accelerate each other.

“For example, as we cross the tipping point that sees electric vehicles become the dominant form of road transport, battery technology continues to get better and cheaper. This could trigger another positive tipping point in the use of batteries for storing renewable energy, reinforcing another in the use of heat pumps in our homes, and so on,” he explained.

Many areas of society have the potential to be “tipped” in this way, including politics, social norms and mindsets, he said. “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.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times