Human Activity Pushing Planet Towards Point of No Return, UN Warns
A new report by the United Nations University warns that climate change is a major factor in pushing the world towards multiple tipping points, which will cause rapid and fundamental change to the planet.

Human activity is pushing the world towards multiple tipping points that will cause rapid and fundamental change to the planet, according to a new report by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).

The Interconnected Disaster Risks report, released on Wednesday, identifies six key tipping points: accelerating extinctions, groundwater depletion, mountain glacier melting, space debris, unbearable heat, and an uninsurable future.

These tipping points are defined in the report as the moment at which a given system is no longer able to buffer risks and provide its expected functions. 

Once a tipping point is reached, it is irreversible and can lead to cascading failures of other systems. For example, the loss of mountain glaciers could lead to water shortages and mass migration, while unbearable heat could make some areas uninhabitable.

The report also highlights the interconnectedness of the tipping points, warning that they could trigger each other in a vicious cycle. For example, the loss of biodiversity could make ecosystems more vulnerable to climate change, which could lead to more extreme weather events and further biodiversity loss.

Running out of time

The report’s authors say that humanity is running out of time to avert disaster. They call for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect ecosystems.

“These tipping points have either passed or are about to happen,” said Dr Jack O’Connor, lead author of the report and a senior export at UNU-EHS. 

“Depending on where you are in the world, you might have a little bit more time,” said O’Connor. “But you should be looking at what is happening in other places of the world because we are all interconnected, and the impacts of tipping points passing in other places will eventually affect you.” 

The report comes a month before representatives from all countries will meet at the annual UN Climate Conference, COP28, in Dubai.

Chain reactions are already underway 

Extinctions are already happening at an alarming rate. Animals are running out of places to feed and reproduce as humans take over more and more land, while climate change is making it harder for threatened species to survive. This loss of biodiversity is increasing the risk of a chain reaction of extinctions, which could have devastating consequences for ecosystems and human societies alike.

“Recent research has shown that the way that ecological networks have formed means that as we lose biodiversity, we increase the risk of this chain reaction of extinctions in an ecosystem,” said O’Connor. “Extinctions could accelerate at a much faster rate in the future.”

Depleting groundwater is another major tipping point that is already having real-world impacts, threatening food security in many parts of the world. Groundwater is essential for agriculture, providing a reliable source of water during droughts and other periods of water scarcity. 

Yet, in many parts of the world, groundwater is being extracted faster than it can be replenished. This is due to a combination of factors, including population growth, climate change, and unsustainable agricultural practices. 

Farmers who are already facing the vagaries of fluctuating rainfall can no longer rely on groundwater to make up the shortfall. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have already surpassed the groundwater risk tipping point, while others, like India, are not far behind.

Impacts of today in the future

Rising space debris is becoming a major issue as more and more satellites are launched into low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space closest to Earth that is already crowded with satellites. By 2030, as many as 100,000 satellites could be in orbit, posing a significant risk to other spacecraft and missions. 

“Communities and individuals can influence the other tipping points on the list … [but] I think this is the one where individuals probably have the least agency,” said Dr Zita Sebesvari, another lead author of the report and deputy director of UNU-EHS.

New research from the University of British Columbia’s Outer Space Institute echoes Sebesvari’s concerns, estimating that as many as one million satellites may be headed into orbit.

“By treating orbital space as an unlimited resource, humanity is creating serious safety and long-term sustainability challenges to the use of low Earth orbit (LEO), including science conducted from space and the ground,” the study said.

“If even a portion of these million satellites are actually launched, national and international rules will be needed to address the associated sustainability challenges, like collision risks, light pollution, and reentry risks,” Andrew Falle, lead author of the study, told

Transformative change needed

The report provides two categories of solutions for each of the problems: avoid solutions and adapt solutions. Avoid solutions target the root drivers of the tipping points, while adapt solutions help prepare for or better address the negative impacts.

In the case of unbearable heat, the report suggests halting greenhouse gas emissions and driving society towards low-carbon ways of living as an avoid solution. An adapt solution would be to help install more air conditioners in places that need them the most.

The report emphasizes that current solutions are only working to delay the onset of the tipping points, not to avoid them altogether. While some work is being done on transformative solutions, these need to be scaled up significantly, the authors say.

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

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