What are climate tipping elements?
As communities around the globe continue to face the challenge of stabilizing and reversing climate change, science continues to expand our understanding of the nature of that challenge and potential solutions. The phenomenon of climate system tipping elements¹, is one of the most pressing concerns that have become clearer over the past decade.
Climate system tipping elements are critical components of the Earth system that have the potential to shift into a fundamentally new state as temperatures pass critical “tipping point” thresholds. Simply put, the Earth system does not always change smoothly over time. Rapid, drastic changes to elements of the Earth system may occur if global temperatures exceed tipping point thresholds.
These tipping elements aren't abstract concepts; they are well-known, tangible systems, some of which may be alarmingly close to reaching their thresholds. The thawing of permafrost, disruption of tropical seasonal monsoons, and the dieback of the Amazon rainforest are just a few of the several potential tipping element shifts that have been identified². For any given tipping element, the consequences of surpassing their respective tipping points are severe, often irreversible shifts, with major impacts on our planet's ecological and climatic stability.
Peak warming and avoiding tipping points
To avoid surpassing tipping points, we must minimize peak warming — the highest global average temperature we might reach before temperature stabilization and reduction begins. This peak, primarily driven by the additional radiative forcing due to greenhouse gas emissions, could push our climate system beyond tipping element thresholds³.
Climate projections show that the exact temperature and timing of peak warming will vary with the rate that society can decarbonize the global economy and actively remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere⁴. Deeper cuts in emissions and greater amounts of carbon removal now can mitigate peak warming and help avoid tipping points. The closer we allow peak temperature to approach and exceed estimated tipping element thresholds, the more risk we run of pushing them into a potentially irreversible state of failure.
At the lower end of estimates, increases in global average temperature of just 1°C above pre-industrial temperatures have the potential to trigger shifts in some tipping elements, such as complete loss of summer Arctic sea ice or melting of the Greenland ice sheet⁵. With the annual global average temperature increase more likely than not exceeding 1.5°C sometime in the next five years, climate projections make clear the immediacy of the challenge⁶. Many of the shifts in tipping elements could occur in our lifetime if current emissions trends and degradation of nature persist.
There is no silver bullet to this challenge. We will need to implement and continue developing as many effective solutions as possible to address the massive scale of climate change. Emissions reductions and expansion of clean energy must be at the top of this list, but that full transition will take time. Facing the prospect of imminent shifts in the functioning of our environment on a global scale, it is vitally important to implement the full range of solutions we have available at hand now to reduce peak warming. A key piece of this all-hands-on-deck mitigation strategy is a high-potential carbon removal solution with a range of environmental co-benefits: regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture's contribution to mitigation strategies
Regenerative agricultural practices have vast potential in the landscape of climate solutions, and are scalable today. Regenerative agriculture is driven by the same set of principles as soil health management, including: 1) maximizing presence of living roots, 2) minimizing disturbance, 3) maximizing soil cover, 4) maximizing biodiversity and 5) livestock integration⁷ ⁸.
The practices associated with regenerative agriculture, such as cover cropping, diversified crop rotations, and conservation tillage, have been studied, implemented, and refined over decades and are able to be scaled out over a large portion of agricultural land globally⁹. With that expansion, regenerative practices have the capability to extract consequential amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for at least a few decades, with the most robust science-based estimates estimating multiple gigatonnes annually¹⁰. And with continuous advances in our understanding of the impact of these methods in different environments, we can find the best ways to tailor specific regenerative practices to specific locations, increasing soil carbon stocks even further with better-targeted implementation*.
By working in symbiosis with nature, regenerative agriculture not only sequesters carbon but also rejuvenates the land, making it more resilient to the challenges of a changing climate by actively restoring soil health, water quality, and ecosystem function⁸. When regenerative practices are implemented to their fullest extent, they possess a transformative power. Not only can they play a pivotal role in soil restoration and preservation, but they also safeguard against the risks posed by tipping elements in our planet's climate system by removing and sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the near-term.
Although the immediate availability of soil carbon sequestration makes it an excellent near-term solution, the longer-term durability of any carbon sequestration method is important as well. The ideal scenario would see soil carbon stored for over a century, or at least until we are well past the time of peak temperatures. However, the length of carbon storage is intrinsically tied to how long regenerative farming practices are sustained. Because of this, real-world considerations such as practical farming decisions, land ownership issues, and the impacts of climate change often limit duration guarantees to around 10 – 20 years for individual fields.
However, when one shifts from an individual field's perspective to a broader market view, the narrative becomes more optimistic. From this vantage point, the primary objective crystallizes: expanding the cumulative acreage practicing regenerative agriculture at any given time, and to continue expanding or maintaining the global acreage involved over several decades or more¹¹ ¹².
In studies like those by Matthews et al., the emphasis on a market-level perspective makes clear the significant benefits derived even from shorter-duration storage scaled out over time¹³. By evaluating the cumulative impact, it becomes evident that the widespread adoption of regenerative practices can have lasting and considerable effects on carbon sequestration.
Reaching a positive tipping point for regenerative agriculture adoption
The conversation surrounding climate solutions often revolves around tipping points we desperately need to avoid, yet there's a positive tipping point we urgently need to champion and facilitate: the mass adoption of regenerative agricultural practices.
The path to reaching this positive tipping point involves systematically reducing barriers to adoption and consistently incentivizing the continuation of these beneficial practices. As we work to dismantle these barriers, we inch closer to a future where regenerative agriculture isn't just an option but becomes the norm wherever its benefits can be reaped.
Incentivizing global farming communities is pivotal to crossing the tipping point of mass adoption. To scale regenerative practices and harness their full climate potential, we must align positive environmental outcomes with tangible economic incentives for farmers¹⁴. This means not only rewarding adoption but also encouraging the maintenance of these practices.
Effective scaling solutions encompass ongoing research and development**, fine-tuning the measurement of impacts ranging from carbon sequestration to soil health benefits. In addition to these technical advancements, it's equally important to foster awareness and acceptance within farming communities, providing them with the necessary resources, knowledge, and implementation assistance.
As the global community seeks to avoid triggering irreversible shifts in tipping elements, innovative market approaches such as Nori's are harnessing the potential of the voluntary carbon market to incentivize the adoption and maintenance of regenerative farming practices, with climate-conscious businesses purchasing the resulting carbon removal credits. The design of the Nori marketplace is specifically tailored to ease the entry barriers for farmers while maintaining market integrity, ensuring that adopting regenerative practices is not just environmentally sound but also economically feasible. In doing so, Nori is shaping a future where sustainable practices are the norm, and farmers are rewarded for their stewardship of the land.
Regenerative agriculture stands out as a key near-term tool to help maintain Earth's ecological balance. While we face imminent threats to tipping elements in the Earth system, regenerative agricultural practices present a proactive approach that can be scaled today alongside aggressive emissions reductions to help mitigate these challenges. By incentivizing the scaling of these agricultural practices, Nori aims to continue contributing to the effort towards stabilizing our global climate system.
*Additionally, new biological techniques are being developed to promote higher yields and reduce the amount of managed land needed while storing more carbon in the soils. And complementing the methods of regenerative agriculture, other carbon removal strategies, such as biochar amendments and enhanced rock weathering, are being explored and refined. These methods can be combined with regenerative agricultural practice changes in fields around the world to further scale carbon storage in soils.
**One significant example of these efforts is the proposed Advancing Research on Agricultural Climate Impacts Act, as part of the 2023 Farm Bill, which would jumpstart a massive centralized effort of large-scale soil carbon data collection to advance the next generation of soil carbon measurement and build confidence in soil carbon practices.
- What We Know and Don’t Know About Climate Tipping Elements
- Tipping elements in the Earth's climate system
- IPCC 6th Assessment Report - Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
- IPCC 6th Assessment Report - Working Group 3: Mitigation of Climate Change
- Mechanisms and Impacts of Earth System Tipping Elements
- WMO Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update
- NRCS Soil Health
- CSU College of Agricultural Sciences - Advancing the Science of Regenerative Agricultural Systems
- Regenerative Agriculture—A Literature Review on the Practices and Mechanisms Used to Improve Soil Health
- Global variation in soil carbon sequestration potential through improved cropland management
- ICVCM Core Carbon Principles Assessment Framework
- SBTi Forest, Land And Agriculture Science Based Target-Setting Guidance
- Temporary nature-based carbon removal can lower peak warming in a well-below 2 °C scenario
- Overcoming The Financial Barriers Of Regenerative Agriculture
Written by Rick Berg, Carbon Removal Methodology R&D Lead