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Our planet faces six "risk tipping points" with irreversible impacts

A new report conducted by the United Nations University has recently found that substantial changes are urgently needed to preserve our critical socioecological systems from potential threats.

The 2023 Interconnected Disaster Risks Report by the United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) outlines six forthcoming risk tipping points:

  • Escalation in species extinctions
  • Over-extraction of groundwater
  • Shrinking mountain glaciers
  • Accumulating space debris
  • Surging unbearable heat
  • Uninsurable futures

Radical changes

Various systems are all around us (and interacting with us), such as ecosystems, agricultural systems, and water systems. When these systems degrade, the process is often non-linear and unpredictable. 

They gradually become unstable until a tipping point is reached, leading to potential radical changes or even system collapse, resulting in severe repercussions.

Risk tipping points

The report defines a risk tipping point as a situation where a socioecological system can no longer mitigate risks and function as expected, significantly increasing the likelihood of disastrous outcomes. 

These risk tipping points are not confined to single domains like climate, ecosystems, society, or technology; they are complexly interconnected and closely associated with human activities and well-being.

Water reserves 

The intersection of the natural and physical worlds with human society brings forth numerous risks. Groundwater depletion serves as an important example. Aquifers, underground water reserves, are vital for freshwater supply globally, catering to over two billion people. 

Nearly 70 percent of groundwater extracted is utilized for agricultural purposes, particularly when surface water is scarce. 

Currently, aquifers compensate for half of the agricultural losses due to drought, a challenge expected to intensify with climate change. However, the report warns that aquifers themselves are nearing a critical tipping point.

Agricultural systems

At the moment, over 50 percent of the primary aquifers worldwide are diminishing more quickly than they can recover naturally. When the water level drops to a point that is too low for current wells to reach, this leaves farmers without a means to obtain water, jeopardizing entire agricultural production systems. 

Nations like Saudi Arabia have already crossed this critical threshold of groundwater risk, while others, including India, are dangerously close to reaching this point.

“As we indiscriminately extract our water resources, damage nature and biodiversity, and pollute both Earth and space, we are moving dangerously close to the brink of multiple risk tipping points that could destroy the very systems that our life depends on,” said lead author  Zita Sebesvari, the Deputy Director of UNU-EHS. “Additionally, we also lose some of our tools and options to deal with future disaster risk.”

Emerging risks

The report emphasizes that risk tipping points cover a wide range, affecting various sectors and are closely related to human actions and lifestyles. The emerging risks are diverse, and many are still unknown.

“As we approach these tipping points, we will already begin to experience the impacts. Once crossed it will be difficult to go back,” warned lead author Jack O’Connor, a senior expert at UNU-EHS. “Our report can help us see risks ahead of us, the causes behind them, and the urgent changes required to avoid them.”

Avoid and Adapt solutions

The report goes beyond identifying risk tipping points; it introduces a comprehensive framework for mitigating or preventing their consequences, categorized into Avoid and Adapt solutions. 

Avoid solutions address the root causes to prevent tipping points, while Adapt solutions aim to mitigate the impacts if they are unavoidable. Actions can be either Delay, working within the existing system, or Transform, requiring a fundamental system overhaul.

For instance, in the case of unbearable heat due to human-induced climate change, an Adapt-Delay action might involve installing air conditioners, while an Avoid-Transform action would necessitate reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to low-carbon living.

Delay actions

The report notes a current preference for Delay actions but emphasizes the need for transformative change. Achieving this necessitates collective and individual efforts.

“Real transformative change involves everyone,” said Sebesvari. “The report serves as a timely reminder before the UN Climate Conference that we must all be part of the solution.”

Here is a concise summary of the six risk tipping points highlighted in the report.

Accelerating extinctions

Human-induced factors such as habitat alteration, excessive exploitation, climate change, pollution, and introducing non-native species are driving species extinction rates that are 10 to 100 times higher than the natural baseline. 

Ecosystems, reliant on the complex interconnections among species, are at risk when key species are lost, potentially leading to a domino effect of extinctions and potential ecosystem collapse. 

A pertinent example is the gopher tortoise, whose extinction could lead to the loss of the endangered dusky gopher frog and disrupt insect control in certain forest ecosystems.

Groundwater depletion

Over half of the world’s significant aquifers are diminishing quicker than they can naturally recover, posing a serious threat to the two billion people reliant on them for drinking water and the 70 percent of water withdrawals used in agriculture. 

A critical point is reached when water levels fall too low for existing wells to reach, endangering global food production and ecosystems. Saudi Arabia and India exemplify countries on opposite sides of this tipping point.

Melting glaciers

The world’s glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate due to global warming, threatening the freshwater supply for entire regions. The “peak water” phenomenon marks a crucial tipping point, beyond which water availability from melting glaciers will consistently decline. 

Regions like Central Europe, Western Canada, South America, and the Andes are already experiencing or nearing this critical juncture, with significant implications for local communities and nearly 870 million people dependent on the glaciers of the Himalayas, Karakorum, and Hindu Kush mountains.

Space debris

Space is increasingly cluttered with defunct satellites and debris, with potential catastrophic consequences. Currently, only about 25 percent of tracked objects in orbit are operational satellites. The rest, along with millions of smaller, untracked debris, pose a serious collision risk. 

The tipping point here is a potential chain reaction of collisions rendering Earth’s orbit unusable, jeopardizing satellite operations critical for weather monitoring and disaster warnings.

Unbearable heat

Human-induced climate change is escalating global temperatures, leading to more severe and frequent heatwaves. Extreme heat has already been responsible for an average of 500,000 excess deaths annually over the last two decades. 

The critical threshold, or tipping point, is a “wet-bulb temperature” above 35°C, a level that has been surpassed in some regions and is projected to become more common, threatening large portions of the global population.

Uninsurable futures

The insurance industry is facing challenges as weather-related disasters and associated damages have increased exponentially since the 1970s. 

The tipping point here is when insurance becomes either unobtainable or prohibitively expensive, leaving populations, particularly the most vulnerable, without financial protection in the face of disasters. 

Changes in weather patterns are also expanding the range of at-risk areas, further straining the industry and increasing the number of uninsurable properties.

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