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The McDougall Creek wildfire burns next to houses in the Okanagan community of West Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, August 19 2023. Picture: CHRIS HELGREN/REUTERS
The McDougall Creek wildfire burns next to houses in the Okanagan community of West Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, August 19 2023. Picture: CHRIS HELGREN/REUTERS

Dubai— As governments haggle over the future of fossil fuels at the COP28 climate talks, scientists warned that the natural world is in the danger zone for tipping points that could provoke “catastrophic” effects, including mass migration, conflict and failure of food crops.

In a new report, more than 200 researchers found that five major natural systems are already at risk of crossing tipping points that would lead to abrupt or irreversible change, from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melting to warm-water coral reefs largely disappearing.

Those risks are coming at the current 1.2°C of global warming above pre-industrial times, they said, which is well under the 1.5°C limit set in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

More worrying, triggering one tipping point could spark others as well, “causing a domino effect of accelerating and unmanageable damage”, the report said. That could threaten economic, social and political breakdown that would hit the most vulnerable communities the hardest.

“This is the ultimate red line in the sand that we need to avoid,” Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told journalists, emphasising that the risk of crossing a range of tipping points becomes “high” at 1.5°C of global warming.

Keeping global average temperatures below that internationally agreed limit requires wholesale rather than gradual change, said the climate scientist, who helped organise a major conference on tipping points in 2022.

He said it is already too late to avoid passing 1.5°C, but any overshoot needs to be swiftly brought back down by phasing out fossil fuels and cutting planet-heating emissions.

“There is no business-as-usual path left any more,” said Tim Lenton, lead author of the report and head of climate change and earth system science at Britain’s University of Exeter.

The report said the threat “demands an urgent response”.

To that end, it also highlighted “positive tipping points” — such as exponential growth of renewable energies, electric vehicle use and expansion of plant-based diets. Those “can create a powerful countereffect, avoiding spiralling disaster”, it noted.

To keep people and the planet in the safe zone, the researchers recommend steps that include phasing out fossil fuel emissions by 2050 and backing ecological restoration worldwide, while noting that deeper knowledge is needed on tipping points.

More finance is needed, as well as better ways to help people adapt to a heating climate and deal with the loss and damage that cannot be avoided, they said.

Governments should try to identify tipping points relevant to their countries in the next round of national climate action plans due in 2025, they added.

To spur the urgent pace of change needed to avert negative tipping points and unlock positive ones, “we must have leaders with the power to stand up to lobbyists and vested interests and the status quo — and we don’t always have that”, Lenton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Dubai.

A record number of those lobbyists are roaming the halls of COP28, according to a new analysis from the Kick Big Polluters Out coalition. It noted that more than 2,450 fossil fuel lobbyists have been granted access to the summit in the United Arab Emirates, itself a major oil and gas-producing nation.

Extreme weather

Rising carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are set to hit a record high in 2023, worsening climate change and fuelling destructive, extreme weather, scientists said in a Global Carbon Budget report released this week.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said emissions must fall 43% by 2030 from 2019 levels to have a fair chance of keeping global warming to 1.5°C.

The mounting evidence that the world is far off track for that has forced a potential phase-out of fossil fuels up the political agenda.

“We’ve never had as much support for an outcome on fossil fuels as this year,” Romain Ioualalen, global policy manager at Oil Change International, an energy advocacy group, told journalists on Wednesday.

The draft text for a COP28 final deal, released on Tuesday, includes three options for dealing with fossil fuels.

First is “an orderly and just phase-out”, suggesting industrialised nations that are the historically highest emitters would move fastest.

The second calls for “accelerating efforts towards phasing out unabated fossil fuels”, or emissions that are not captured and stored underground — a technology that is growing but at a rate far behind its projected use in national climate plans.

The third option would be to avoid mentioning a fossil fuel phase-out at all in the COP28 decision.

The US, EU and small island developing states have been pushing for a phase-out, while some big producers of coal, oil and gas — including Saudi Arabia and Iraq — are against it.


On Wednesday, US climate envoy John Kerry said meeting the 1.5°C warming goal requires net-zero emissions by 2050. Achieving that requires “largely” phasing out fossil fuels in energy systems by mid-century, along with carbon capture for industrial sectors where it is hard to do that.

The COP28 talks have been dogged by criticism around the role of the UAE’s president of the summit, Sultan al-Jaber, who runs the Gulf nation’s oil company and has been embarrassed by revelations that his team planned to use pre-COP meetings to negotiate oil and gas deals — something his office has denied.

He was also quoted by the Guardian newspaper as saying during a November 21 online event that “there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5°C”.

This week he defended his role as chair of the climate summit and insisted he understands and respects climate science.

Former US vice-president and long-time climate activist Al Gore told an event in Dubai on Tuesday that the controversy and resulting pressure on the UAE would “maybe ... increase the odds that they will do something that is difficult for them to do” and land a COP28 deal to phase out fossil fuels.

He stressed that growing impacts of climate change around the world, including unprecedented wildfires in Canada, mean “no place is safe now”, which is shifting public attitudes in favour of climate action. “I do not think we are far away from a positive political tipping point beyond which people are going to demand that policymakers in every country get their damn act together,” he said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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