Tipping points are reached when the systems we rely on stop functioning as designed, amplifying the risk of catastrophic impacts. According to new research published by the UNU-EHS, the world is approaching multiple tipping points.
- UNU-EHS has published a report warning that there are six interconnected tipping points that the world is rapidly approaching.
- There are solutions and approaches to manage the risk but informed action needs to be taken in order to minimise the impact.
- Trade-offs between actions and consequences are going to have an impact on all sectors, but particularly those most affected by climate such as agriculture and built environment. It will also have a huge reputational impact on consumer facing industries such as retail.
The United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) has published a report, the Interconnected Disaster Risks report 2023, and found that the world is fast approaching risk tipping points on multiple fronts.
Climate change and the overuse of resources have put the world on the brink of six interconnected tipping points that “could trigger abrupt changes in our life-sustaining systems and shake the foundation of societies,” said the authors of the report.
What are the tipping points?
By indiscriminately extracting water resources, damaging nature and biodiversity, polluting both Earth and space while cutting down options to deal with disasters, human actions introduces new risks and amplifying existing ones.
“With these risk tipping points, it is as though we are approaching a cliff that we cannot see clearly ahead of us, and once we fall off the cliff, we can’t easily go back,” added Dr. Zita Sebesvari, one of the report’s lead authors and UNU-EHS Deputy Director.
The report analyses six interconnected risk tipping points. Selected for their representation of large global issues that impact lives across the world they are:
- Accelerating extinctions that trigger chain reaction to ecosystem collapse
- Groundwater depletion that drains water risking food supply
- Mountain glaciers melting
- Space debris causing loss of multiple satellites, “our eyes in the sky”
- Unbearable heat making it hard to live in some areas
- Uninsurable future when rising risks make homes unaffordable
The impacts can also cascade through to other systems and places around the world, authors of the report warn.
There is still time to change trajectory
If risk tipping points are understood, informed decisions and decisive actions to avert the worst are possible. “Because of the interconnected nature of these risk tipping points, their drivers, root causes and influences, avoiding them will require more than a single solution”, explained Dr. Sebesvari. “We will need to develop solutions that bring together different sectors and address the drivers and root causes in a systemic way.”
The report offers a new framework that categorises risk mitigation solutions into four types based on their approach:
- Avoid (preventing risk),
- Adapt (dealing with risk),
- Delay (slowing risk progression), and
- Transform (system overhaul).
This framework aids in evaluating a solution’s potential outcomes and trade-offs and identification of a solution can help in the evaluation of potential outcomes and trade-offs.
For instance, addressing the “Unbearable heat” tipping point due to climate change may involve an Avoid-Transform approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while an Adapt-Delay approach could be installing air conditioners in hot climates, although this may contribute to global warming if powered by fossil fuels.
“In our interconnected world, we can all make changes and inspire others towards transforming the way we use our systems to reduce risk,” said Caitlyn Eberle, another lead author of the report and senior researcher for the UNU study.
While it is a significant concern that the world is approaching so many tipping points, what matters is ensuring that decision makers understand the implications of these concerns and make the right decisions.
If nothing else, COVID made us aware of how incredibly interconnected global supply chains, trade and communications are today. These provide a useful opportunity for collaboration across sectors and geographies, but they also provide a cascade opportunity when trouble erupts. Its important that we make decisions today, however hard, to ensure that we can either avoid or delay the long term impact of historical operations and decision making.