Members' Research Service By / January 12, 2023

Climate and socio-economic tipping points [Ten issues to watch in 2023]

Climate tipping points have received growing attention, in the wake of an international conference dedicated to the issue, and new research results on the likelihood of tipping points being reached under current trends.

Written by Gregor Erbach.

This is the seventh edition of an annual EPRS publication aimed at identifying and framing some of the key issues and policy areas that have the potential to feature prominently in public debate and on the political agenda of the European Union over the coming year.
The topics analysed encompass the 2024 European elections, budgeting in times of crises and war, lessons for public investment in the EU from the EU recovery instrument, the fiscal and monetary policy mix, climate
and socio-economic tipping points, the impact of increasing fuel prices on transport, cyber-resilience in the EU, protecting media freedom and journalists, the future of Russia, and geoeconomics in an age of empires

Climate tipping points

Climate tipping points have received growing attention, in the wake of an international conference dedicated to the issue, and new research results on the likelihood of tipping points being reached under current trends.

A tipping point is the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable, but not necessarily abrupt, effect or change takes place. Climate tipping points were first identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2001 and further analysed in a 2008 research paper. The latest IPCC assessment report identified 15 potential tipping points, among them global monsoon, tropical and boreal forests, permafrost carbon and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The Greenland ice sheet is an element in the climate system with a tipping point: its stability depends on its height, which reaches up to 3 200 metres and helps maintain eternal snow on top. As soon as it loses height, it may enter an irreversible decline.

Figure 4 – Tipping points and global warming

Late 2022 research estimates the temperature rise needed to trigger these tipping points (see Figure 4), and concludes that seven tipping points are likely at global warming of 1.5 °C, of which five might already be reached at current levels of global warming. The presence of climate tipping points increases the economic costs that result from emitting a tonne of CO2 by around 25 %.

Tipping points are often associated with cascading impacts, where one impact leads to another. An example is the melting of the Arctic ice sheets leading to sea level rise, which in turn triggers population movements and economic disruption. Crossing a tipping point may also lead to reinforcing feedbacks, for example the melting of permafrost leading to the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that reinforces global warming and causes further permafrost melting.

Socio-economic tipping points

Research on socio-economic tipping points finds that even gradual climate change may alter and disrupt socio-economic systems, leading to major economic costs, especially at a more local level. Socio-economic tipping points identified in this EU-funded research include climate induced agriculture and food shocks, migration from coastal areas due to extreme sea level rise or major climate impacts, energy supply shocks, transport disruption, large macroeconomic and financial market impacts, and the potential collapse of insurance markets from extreme weather risks. The World Meteorological Organization warns that higher temperatures and humidity during hot spells could lead to physiological tipping points that make outdoor human labour impossible without technical assistance in some regions.

Policy implications

To avoid the crossing of tipping points, efforts to contain global warming must be reinforced. Every fraction of a degree may be decisive, even if the lower 1.5 °C target of the Paris Agreement is likely to be breached. The 2022 emissions gap report projects a temperature rise of at least 2.4 °C even with full implementation of all national pledges, which would trigger multiple tipping points. The sobering outcome of the COP27 climate change conference has not changed that picture. In light of the limited effectiveness of the Paris Agreement, complementary cooperative approaches, such as climate clubs, are of increasing interest. However, certain social tipping points may make it harder to achieve consensus on climate action, namely the geopolitical crisis accelerated by the war on Ukraine, the erosion of social consensus by social and synthetic media, a shift from climate mitigation to adaptation driven by faster and larger than expected climate impacts, and the demographic crisis that increases state burdens, reduces productivity and creates intergenerational tensions.

Impacts on Europe
Europe would be directly affected by a collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, leading to sea level rise, the loss of Alpine glaciers, the loss of permafrost peatland in Svalbard and Scandinavia, a northward shift of boreal forests, and a collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, an ocean current that transports warm water from the tropics to the North Atlantic. The latter would lead to less warming in Europe, but also to prolonged Mediterranean drying. Research indicates that European forests have already reached a tipping point around the year 2000, induced by a temperature increase as low as 0.5 degrees. This has reduced forests’ resilience to fire, windfall and pest outbreaks, potentially affecting 33.4 billion tonnes of forest biomass.

Large-scale removal of carbon from the atmosphere through nature-based and technological approaches will be critical to keeping global warming well below 2 °C, the upper target of the Paris Agreement. This requires innovative financing mechanisms, such as advance market commitments that were used successfully for the development of vaccines. Moreover, it may be prudent to initiate a research programme into controversial solar radiation management techniques, in order to understand their potential and their risks relative to the risks of reaching certain climate tipping points, and to address the associated governance issues.

Although knowledge on tipping points has improved, more research (recommended in Parliament’s 2019 resolution on the environmental action programme), with involvement of the IPCC, is needed to correctly assess the likelihood and possible impacts and create an early warning system, which the Parliament called for in its resolution on COP25. A broader knowledge base would facilitate smart decisions about potentially costly and disruptive adaptation options such as managed retreat from coastal areas. Experts on geopolitics recommend that governments and relevant institutions strengthen their risk assessment and act to prepare for and preferably prevent the worst-case scenarios. The EU supports tipping points research through Horizon Europe, and the Bezos Earth Fund awarded a £1 million (€1.15 million) grant for research into ‘positive tipping points’ in socio-economic systems that would help accelerate the transition to a climate-neutral economy.

Positive tipping points are already happening, for example the switch to electric vehicles enabled by lighter and cheaper batteries, public opinion and policy support. Positive tipping points in the energy system may be triggered by the ever-falling cost of renewable energy together with advances in energy storage. Researchers apply system analysis to identify effective policy interventions by various agents that would enable a cascade of positive changes to rapidly and profoundly transform technology, economy and society, instead of improving incrementally.

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten issues to watch in 2023‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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