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‘Tipping points’ of risk pose new threats, UN report warns

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 United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).

The Interconnected Disaster Risks report 2023 finds that the world is fast approaching risk tipping points on multiple fronts.

Cliff fast approaching

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,” said Dr. Zita Sebesvari, one of the report’s lead authors and UNU-EHS Deputy Director.

Interconnected Disaster Risks 2023: Risk Tipping Points

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. 

Understanding and acting 

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 categorizes 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.

Identifying a solution’s category helps evaluate 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.

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