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Harness positive Tipping Points for a cascade of goods for Africa

Tipping points present huge risks in the climate and ecological emergency, but also huge opportunities to transition to more sustainable futures. That’s the key message of a new Global Tipping Points Report, which will be released at COP28. Understanding what this means for Africa underscores stark warnings about the vulnerabilities of the continent to climate change, but highlights opportunities for African communities, businesses and governments to be leaders and innovators in addressing these challenges. Critically, it also raises important challenges to the narratives of sustainability that dominate global discussions.

Tipping points – like the straw that breaks the camel’s back – occur when a small change in a delicate balance sparks an abrupt, irreversible transformation. They can occur in any complex system, from ecosystems to economies to wider societies, where so called ‘reinforcing feedback loops’ can drive accelerating self-amplifying change. For example, a vicious cycle of lost vegetation cover leading to lost soil fertility – which leads to further vegetation loss – can cause arid ecosystems to ‘tip’ into a desertified state from which it is hard to recover.

Such tipping points threaten Africa’s rich and unique ecological and cultural heritage; as ecosystems like grasslands and forests become increasingly stressed – by poor management, climate change or both – their resilience or capacity for self-healing is weakened and they are more easily tipped into degraded states.

Large-scale global tipping points could also be triggered by climate change. Our report identifies 26 potentially dangerous Earth system tipping points, at least five of which are likely to be triggered as global warming passes 1.5⁰C. These include the collapse of major ice-sheets and ocean currents, and widespread die-offs of warm-water coral reefs.

Climate change already presents Africa with unprecedented risks which exacerbate the continent’s existing vulnerabilities. Where many people have limited access to clean water, healthcare, electricity or food security, every drought, flood or heatwave becomes life threatening. While ice-sheet collapses may feel far-removed from the least glaciated continent, they mean tens of metres of locked-in sea level rise which threatens Africa’s rapidly growing and urbanising populations in major coastal cities from Lagos to Mombasa. Melting ice in Greenland could weaken major sea-currents in the Atlantic Ocean, with knock-on effects for the West-African Monsoon and the people and ecosystems that depend on its rainfall. And coral reefs support fisheries on which millions of livelihoods depend.

But just as tipping points can trigger vicious cycles with negative impacts, they could also spark ‘virtuous’ cycles that lock in what we call ‘positive tipping points’. Strong reinforcing feedbacks like economies of scale (the more units are built, the cheaper they are to build) and ‘learning by doing’ (the more units are built, the better they get), mean that solar panels are over 25 times cheaper now than they were in 2000 (and 150 times cheaper than in 1980). Off-grid solar PV systems are now a viable option for many of the tens of millions in Africa without access to electricity. Tens of thousands already have better access to healthcare, education and economic opportunities as a result, and this figure is not only growing, but accelerating.

Solutions like this, where life-changing services become affordable or accessible to those who can benefit from them, can create cascading, self-amplifying change. Mobile money, for example, has transformed the way people access and use money in many African economies, allowing them to share money remotely and access services like banking and insurance. In just a few years after the release of MPESA in Kenya over 90% of households had access to the service, and it had lifted an estimated 2% of the population out of poverty.

For Africa’s ecosystems too, and the many people who depend on them for their livelihood, hopeful examples of scalable, win-win opportunities are emerging. For many smallholder farmers, deforestation and intensification have eroded soils and increased vulnerability to drought. Re-establishing trees in the farm can jump-start a raft of co-benefits by providing fuelwood, fodder, shade, and opportunities for diversified livelihoods; while supporting agro-biodiversity, soil regeneration, regreening and resilience at landscape scale. New financial models, like voluntary carbon markets or wildlife economies, provide opportunities to make nature-supporting land-management more profitable than nature-eroding models – whether for farmers, pastoralists, fishers or conservationists.

These ‘positive’ tipping points carry their own risks though. Globally, the focus has been on leveraging virtuous cycles to substitute carbon emitting technologies for low-carbon alternatives; last year wind and solar PV made up the majority of the word’s new power generation, and electric vehicles are fast passing tipping points to dominate Chinese and European markets. If new clean technologies for wealthier countries demand so called ‘green sacrifice zones’ in Africa and the Global South, where the majority of the minerals needed to build them are found, they cannot be truly ‘positive’. As African leaders noted in the Nairobi Declaration, global decarbonisation strategies must not simply rely on extracting the continent’s mineral wealth; they must enable Africa to use that wealth and take a leading role in producing and developing the technologies we all need to stave off climate tipping points.

Even more importantly, ‘solutions’ for Africa’s challenges should not be dominated by ideas developed in and for the Global North. Electric cars are not a transformative solution in a country with rolling blackouts and a coal-intensive grid, let alone one with very limited power or road infrastructure. But electric buses and motorbikes could make African cities safer and cleaner; and are being developed by African businesses.

Powerful examples like MPESA, or the agroforestry network TIST, show how home-grown solutions are more likely to fit the needs and preferences of their users, and can grow exponentially. Even so we should be wary of unintended negative consequences of rapidly spreading new practices or technologies; and protect against maladapted or predatory ‘solutions’ which perpetuate existing inequalities or nature-eroding practices. For Africa, positive tipping points must have people’s wellbeing and livelihoods at their heart, or they will not succeed in driving the urgent transformation we need.

A similar cautionary tale lies in the global push for tree-planting, which is often seen as synonymous with ecological restoration and underpins many emerging mechanisms for climate and biodiversity finance. In Africa’s iconic open, grassland ecosystems, planting trees damages biodiversity, water cycling and other ecosystem services including carbon storage. African conservationists, researchers and entrepreneurs are taking the lead in challenging these models and developing new ones that are appropriate for, and reflect the value of, African ecosystems.

Africa’s youthful population is creative and rich in innovators and entrepreneurs. These are the people who can reimagine and reinvent the continent’s future in a flourishing, sustainable world. Climate tipping points should feed a growing urgency to do so, but positive tipping points show us that when a solution makes sense economically, ecologically and culturally, it can take root and spread faster than we imagine.

Dr Tom Powell: Oppenheimer Impact Fellow, Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter (Section lead author: Positive Tipping Points in the forthcoming Global Tipping Points Report)

Professor Laura Pereira: Associate Professor, Global Change Institute, University of the Witwatersrand and Stockholm Resilience Centre (Chapter lead author: Risks, equity and justice in the governance of positive tipping points, Global Tipping Points Report)

Antony Emenyu: Oppenheimer-Turvill Doctoral Scholar, University of Exeter (Contributing author: Positive tipping points in food and land-use systems, Global Tipping Points Report)

Therezah Achieng: Oppenheimer-Lovelock Doctoral Scholar, University of Exeter (Contributing author: Risks equity and justice in the governance of positive tipping points, Global Tipping Points Report)


Main image: A farm worker cleans solar panels. Credit Prashanth Vishwanathan, IWMI


Tom Powell
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