NEWS 2024-02-08

Safeguard Earth-regulating systems through Planetary commons

All the environmental systems that regulate the functioning and state of the planet should be considered global commons, namely all systems on Earth we all depend on. Currently they only include parts of the planet outside of national borders, like the high seas or Antarctica. This calls for a new level of transnational cooperation, leading experts in legal, social and Earth system sciences say in an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). They propose a new framework of planetary commons to guide governance of the planet.

“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 Beijer Fellow Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor of Earth System Science at University of Potsdam.
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The publication is the result of an almost two year-long research process involving 22 leading international researchers, including Beijer Institute director Carl Folke. Legal, political and Earth system scientists make their case building on the well-known idea of the global commons.  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 sovereign entitlements. All states and people have a collective interest, that they be protected and governed effectively for the collective good, not least when it comes to resource extraction.

However, in their article they significantly expand this idea to design more effective legal responses to better govern biophysical systems that regulate the resilience and state of the Earth beyond and across national boundaries. Examples include natural carbon sinks and the major forest systems. “We believe the planetary commons have the potential to articulate and create effective stewardship obligations for nation states worldwide aimed at restoring and strengthening planetary resilience and promoting justice. However, since these commons are often located within sovereign territories, such stewardship obligations must also meet some clear justice criteria,” highlights social scientist Joyeeta Gupta, professor at the University of Amsterdam.

Law professor Louis Kotzé, North-West University in South Africa and the University of Lincoln, UK; and researcher at the Research Institute for Sustainability Helmholtz Centre Potsdam concludes: “Our existing global environmental law and governance framework is unable to address the planetary crisis and keep us from crossing planetary boundaries. This is why we urgently need planetary commons as a new law and governance approach that can safeguard critical Earth system regulating functions more effectively.”

Proposed categories of planetary commons. The Earth system, represented by the outer gray frame, constitutes the ultimate overarching planetary common, given its interconnected self-regulating characteristics. The Earth system is configured by planetary commons “spheres” (atmo-, hydro-, bio-, litho-, and cryosphere) and other subsystems within and across these spheres, namely the tipping elements (in bold font) and other biophysical systems that may not exhibit tipping behavior but play a vital role in regulating the livability on Earth. Image credit: Reprinted with permission from ref. 6.