Climate ‘Tipping Points’ Have Long Signaled Doom and Disaster, but a New Report Reimagines Them

A report launched at COP28 from Bezos Earth Fund and Exeter University says eating more plant-based foods could help us avert climate crisis.

A bowl of plant-based food, including various veggies and chickpeas

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Eating more plant-based foods could save humanity from a “disastrous trajectory” toward crossing critical climate tipping points, says a report launched Wednesday at COP28 in Dubai.

The concept of “tipping points” was developed by climate scientists in the early 2000s to convey a point of no return for global warming, a threshold at which even a small shift could push the planet into a new state. Over the years, the notion of “tipping points” has been criticized as so catastrophic-sounding as to be unhelpful.

The new report takes a fresh tack, however, examining both positive and negative tipping points and says the term, at its most basic, describes situations in which small changes can make big differences to planetary systems, for better as well as worse.

On the negative side, the world is already at risk of crossing five key tipping points, the 700-page plus report says: The Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets, warm-water coral reef die-offs, North Atlantic subpolar gyre ocean circulation and a permafrost thaw that would release metric tons of methane into the atmosphere.

The “catastrophic” effects of these tipping points include the failure of our food system caused by a “global-scale loss of capacity to grow major staple crops,” says the UK’s Exeter University and the Bezos Earth Fund report. Without “adequate global governance” to cope with the threats, the “world is on a disastrous trajectory,” the report’s authors argue.

Positive tipping points outlined in the report that could avert disaster include a switch to plant-based diets, especially in richer countries, which could significantly curb emissions.

Emissions from meat and dairy are responsible for around 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, thanks in large part to land use for pasture and feed crops, as well as cattle burps. A recent study showed cutting meat and dairy consumption in half could reduce climate pollution from the food sector significantly, and essentially halt deforestation.

Eating Less Meat Is the Single Most Powerful Leverage Point

“Reducing consumption of livestock products is the single most powerful leverage point for shrinking the environmental footprint of agriculture and food systems” and would have “strong synergies with improving public health,” the report says.

“The switch to diets based on plants or alternative proteins would certainly be one of the most important positive tipping points in terms of the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions that would be saved,” says Steven Smith of Exeter’s Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, and lead author of the report’s positive tipping points chapter.

Because global food production “is responsible for around a third of all emissions caused by humanity, and over half of that can be attributed to the use of animals for food,” the other advantages of eating more plants would be reduced biodiversity and habitat loss, Smith told Sentient Media in an email.

“We need to remember that most of the global acreage for growing crops is used to feed animals, not people,” Smith says.

Positive tipping points in food and agriculture, he says, “could eliminate over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.” Of that quarter, almost half, or up to 12 percent, could be saved, Smith estimates, if people switched to plant-based diets.

U.S. meat sector representatives, the North American Meat Institute and the Global Meat Alliance, and the EU’s leading farmer union, Copa-Cogeca, did not respond to Sentient Media’s requests for their view on the report’s findings.

We Know People Need to Eat Less Meat, but How Do We Persuade Them?

Although it is difficult to estimate how many people need to eat more plants and less meat to create a positive tipping point, Smith says research literature suggests the numbers required to activate social tipping points, negative or positive, is between 3.5 percent and 25 percent of the population, depending on the specific situation.

Practical policy measures to boost plant-based food consumption, the report says, could include reducing sales taxes on animal protein alternatives and encouraging the production and supply of high quality, affordable, plant-based foods to public cafeterias, restaurants, and supermarkets, along with a few nudges to get people to eat more of them.

The report further suggests boosting support for agro-ecological practices, such as farming animals in forested areas, as these can increase carbon storage capacity and biodiversity, while weakening “economic incentives for environmentally degrading practices, including intensive livestock production.”

No matter the strategy, curbing food-related emissions is critical for countries who hope to meet their climate goals of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, even as that goal appears increasingly out of reach.

In this context, Smith calls the significant shift to plant-based or alternative protein diets “an essential component of the effort to keep 1.5 alive.”

Challenges to Plant-Based Transition Are Stubbornly Persistent

Just how close are we to a positive tipping point toward plant-based diets? According to Smith, “those of us lucky enough to have the agency and resources … could switch to a plant-based or alternative protein diet today.” Or even simply eat a little less meat each week, as the World Resources Institute recommends.

To achieve a just transition away from animal protein, Smith says, there would have to be national policy changes to provide support for livestock farmers and others who might be “losers” in a plant-forward food system. These “just transition” policy changes must include resources and support to ensure that livestock farmers and meatpacking workers can find new employment opportunities.

Of course, “there are formidable obstacles and countervailing forces at work … that would resist the triggering of this positive tipping point,” Smith adds. These forces range, he says, from the “individual, cultural and religious customs and attractions of eating meat, to the various political, economic and infrastructural systems that would need to be addressed.” Not to mention, he adds, “there are powerful food and agricultural lobbies who would do everything in their considerable power to resist such change.”

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