The international climate change regime

While this report covers ESTPs beyond the climate system, climate-related tipping points present the majority of the tipping systems addressed. This raises important questions regarding the relevance and ability of the international climate change regime to govern climate tipping points.

The global climate governance landscape is polycentric, with a wide variety of actors from international regimes, transnational institutions, city and municipality-based initiatives, with a major role for national governments, but also non-governmental organisations and (transnational) civil society, the private sector and Indigenous peoples (Jordan et al., 2018). Yet, this landscape lacks institutions to specifically address tipping points. The international climate change regime orchestrates activities in this landscape (Hale and Roger, 2014) – for example, the UNFCCC and its treaties, especially the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015.

The climate change regime is the most relevant global-scale option for the governance of ESTPs. Addressing such tipping points falls directly within the scope of the UN Convention (Art. 2 “to achieve, […,] stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”) and its related treaties. Climate tipping points present dangers in the sense of the convention that need to be prevented (Lenton, 2011). The relevant objective of the Paris Agreement is to “strengthen the global response to the risks of climate change” (Article 2), including limiting global temperature increase, strengthening adaptation abilities and changing international financial flows to support mitigation and adaptation efforts. 

Tipping points have found their way into the climate negotiations only recently with a speech by UN Secretary General Guterres at COP26 in 2021 and a first mention of tipping points in the cover decision of COP27 (UNFCCC, 2022). However, they are not yet a part of the negotiation agenda. The climate regime’s rules and processes, especially regarding mitigation and adaptation, would need to be reviewed and adjusted to account for tipping points. Responsible bodies and decision-making procedures exist and could add climate tipping points to their agendas.

Even though climate tipping points squarely fall into the scope of the existing climate change treaties, relevant processes for addressing tipping point risks within the regime remain underdeveloped. The following components of the Paris Agreement are particularly relevant for the governance of climate tipping points and offer the potential for reinterpretation or adjustment: the global goals, especially the temperature goal, the timing of emissions peaking (i.e., reconsidering acceptable mitigation pathways), the content of Nationally Determined Contributions, and review and transparency mechanisms, especially the Global Stocktake, are relevant for efforts to prevent tipping points (see Chapter 3.2). The Paris Agreement’s stipulations on adaptation, and the still-skeletal loss and damage mechanism are relevant for governing the impacts of tipping processes (see Chapter 3.3). Tipping points present a strong logic for the expansion of international loss and damage provisions, possibly adding more tensions to this ongoing, contentious debate between countries.

The important role of sub-national and non-state actors (‘non-party stakeholders’) for global climate governance has been formally recognised by the UNFCCC (Hale, 2016), and is the foundation for an increasing number of initiatives that bridge the intergovernmental and non-governmental spheres, e.g. the Global Climate Action Portal and the High-level Champions. These existing initiatives could be important for making and implementing decisions related to climate tipping points. For example, the High-level Champions are supporting the Breakthrough Agenda efforts to accelerate decarbonisation.

Table 3.1.1: Features of the Paris Agreement that need adjustment to account for climate tipping points.

TopicParis Agreement stipulationsAdjustments required
Global goalsArt. 2 (1)Reinterpretation of the global temperature goal to minimise the risk of transgressing a tipping point; strengthening rationale for 1.5°C and recognising that an even lower long-term global temperature goal would be safer.
Emissions peakingArt. 4 (1)Establish an ad-hoc working group on acceptable mitigation pathways that takes tipping point risks into account, especially the need to minimise peak temperature and temperature overshoot period.
NDCsArt. 4 (2) – (19)Include climate tipping point risks in NDCs; Parties should map and describe their exposure and contribution to tipping point risks (which tipping points, what kinds of contributions and impacts), and how their plans and actions address these risks (e.g. mitigation ambition, measures to address secondary drivers of tipping processes, adaptation measures, support for knowledge development).
AdaptationArt. 7Account for tipping points in adaptation frameworks, especially the possibility of trend reversals, non-linear changes and new vulnerabilities to tipping points.
Loss and damageArt. 8Interpreting Art. 8 (4) items c and d to include climate tipping points. Anticipatory expansion and funding of the loss and damage framework, taking the risk of climate tipping points into account.
Public engagementArt. 12Experiment with and foster novel forms of public engagement and anticipatory learning, including participatory, active, immersive, multi-sensory learning – e.g. using serious games, storytelling and visioning.
Transparency frameworkArt. 13Within their obligations under the Transparency Framework, especially (7) item b, Parties should include information regarding their achievement of goals related to climate tipping points, differentiating prevention and impact governance. 
Global StocktakeArt. 14Include climate tipping points as a distinct item in the agenda of future GST processes, including material collection and assessment of collective progress towards prevention and impact governance in the technical phase and deliberation in the political phase.

The international climate regime appears to be the most relevant global avenue for addressing tipping points for now, but the effectiveness of such an approach is not clear. Discussions under UNFCCC are heavily politicised, making progress hard to achieve, while the number of agenda items is becoming unmanageable. In this context, introducing a new set of challenges that has implications for many existing governance processes and negotiation topics will doubtless be challenging despite its significance and far-reaching implications.

Bezos Earth Fund University of Exeter logo
Earth Commission Systems Change Lab logo Systemiq logo
Global Tipping Points logo
Share this content