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Positive tipping points could help prevent climate catastrophe

Positive tipping points must be achieved to combat the escalating climate crisis, according to a recent commentary from the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.

The call to action emerges as global warming threatens to breach the critical 1.5°C threshold. This level of warming could trigger at least five Earth system tipping points with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Earth system tipping points

The researchers highlight a distressing scenario: if the current trajectory of global warming is not altered, it could lead to the activation of multiple Earth system tipping points

These include devastating sea-level rise due to ice sheet melting, mass species extinction from the dieback of the Amazon rainforest, and severe disruption to weather patterns due to the collapse of large-scale ocean circulation currents. 

The ramifications of these “risk tipping point” events would be both profound and far-reaching, impacting ecosystems and human societies on a global scale.

The team’s commentary introduces an innovative approach to this dire situation – the concept of positive tipping points. These are cases where beneficial changes rapidly gain momentum, leading to significant and positive environmental impacts. 

The researchers argue that such positive tipping points are essential to achieving the levels of decarbonization required to avert the worst of the climate crisis.

Rapid decarbonization 

“One reason for hope is that many of the tipping thresholds that are likely to be crossed first are so-called slow tipping systems, which can be briefly exceeded without a commitment to tipping,” said study lead author Dr. Paul Ritchie.

“However, rapid decarbonization that minimizes the distance of any overshoot and – even more importantly – limits the time spent beyond a threshold is critical for avoiding triggering climate tipping points.”

According to Dr. Jesse Abrams, one mechanism for achieving rapid decarbonization is ironically through positive tipping points, moments when beneficial changes rapidly gain momentum.

This statement highlights the paradoxical nature of the solution: using tipping points, often associated with negative outcomes, as a mechanism for driving positive environmental change.

Electric vehicles and broader implications

A prime example of a positive tipping point in action is the surge in electric vehicle (EV) sales in Scandinavia. This case demonstrates the potential of humans to promote positive tipping dynamics. 

“Under the correct enabling conditions, such as affordability, attractiveness and accessibility, Norway have managed to transition the market share of electric vehicles from under 10% to near 90% within a decade,” said Professor Tim Lenton.

This remarkable transition underscores the feasibility of rapid, large-scale environmental change under conducive conditions.

“Overshooting the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5°C is now probable, making crossing several climate tipping point thresholds likely,” wrote the experts.

“Triggering positive tipping points can help reach the levels of decarbonization required to minimize both overshoot time and peak warming in order to avoid triggering climate tipping points, but urgent action is needed.”

The study is published in the journal One Earth


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