Planetary Commons: Fostering global cooperation to safeguard critical Earth system functions

24 January 2024
Professor David Schlosberg, Director of SEI, is a key contributor to a significant new publication on global environmental governance, collaborating with an international team of authors.

Tipping elements of the Earth system should be considered global commons, researchers argue in a new paper published in the renowned journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Global commons cannot - as they currently do - only include the parts of the planet outside of national borders, like the high seas or Antarctica. They must also include all the environmental systems that regulate the functioning and state of the planet, namely all systems on Earth we all depend on, irrespective on where in the world we live. 

This calls for a new level of transnational cooperation, leading experts in legal, social and Earth system sciences say. To limit risks for human societies and secure critical Earth system functions they propose a new framework of planetary commons to guide governance of the planet. 

This is a crucial statement about the need to expand and improve global environmental governance to protect vulnerable earth systems.

“Stability and wealth of nations and our civilisation depends on the stability of critical Earth system functions that operate beyond national borders. At the same time, human activities push harder and harder on the planetary boundaries of these pivotal systems. From the Amazon rainforest to the Greenland ice masses, there are rising risks of triggering irreversible and unmanageable shifts in Earth system functioning. As these shifts affect people across the globe, we argue that tipping elements should be considered as planetary commons the world is entrusted with, and consequently in need of collective governance,” explains Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor of Earth System Science at University of Potsdam.  

The publication is the result of an almost two year-long research process involving 22 leading international researchers, including Sydney Environment Institute Director, Professor David Schlosberg. Legal, political and Earth system scientists make their case building on the well-known idea of the global commons, but significantly expanding it to design more effective legal responses to better govern biophysical systems that regulate planetary resilience beyond and across national boundaries, such as natural carbon sinks and the major forest systems.  

"For me, this is a crucial statement about the need to expand and improve global environmental governance to protect vulnerable earth systems,” said Professor Schlosberg. “But importantly, the piece highlights the relationship between planetary resilience and justice – social, intergenerational, environmental, ecological, and multispecies justice."

A planetary shift towards collective global scale solutions transcending national boundaries

Global commons or global public goods like the high seas and deep seabed, outer space, Antarctica, and the atmosphere are shared by all states. They lie outside of jurisdictional boundaries and thus sovereign entitlements. All states and people have a collective interest, especially when it comes to resource extraction, that they be protected and governed effectively for the collective good. 

The planetary commons expand the idea of the global commons by adding not only globally shared geographic regions to the global commons framework, but also critical biophysical systems that regulate the resilience and state, and therefore liveability, on Earth. 

The consequences of such a “planetary shift” in global commons governance are potentially profound, the authors argue. Safeguarding these critical Earth system regulatory functions is a challenge at a unique planetary scale of governance, characterised by the need for collective global scale solutions that transcend national boundaries.  

Header image: Zac Porter via Unsplash.

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