The Global Commons

Our life support system. Vital for all life and civilization.

What are the global commons

Human well-being and the global economy depend entirely on a stable, resilient planet with two permanent ice caps, clean flowing rivers, a cloak of forests, reliable weather and a diverse abundance of life.

These tightly woven, interconnected Earth-systems – our global commons – which are vial for all life and civilization, are in crisis. We have pushed the global commons to breaking point, and the impacts are already hitting hard: failed harvests; unhealthy air; poisoned rivers; deadly heat, and extreme wildfires and floods.

There are currently two definitions of the global commons: One is based in geopolitics. In this definition the global commons are areas – and their potential economic resources – that lie beyond national jurisdiction: the atmosphere, the high seas, Antarctica and outer space.

The second definition has its roots more in economics than geopolitics and relates to how shared resources can be overused by some at the expense of others, regardless of national jurisdiction. Both definitions are relevant to the Global Commons Alliance, but we are more concerned with this second definition.

In this definition, the global commons are things we all share – all 7.8 billion people – and that we all need them to thrive and prosper. They include the atmosphere and land, the ocean and ice sheets, a stable climate and abundant biodiversity, the forests, the gigantic flows of carbon, nitrogen, water and phosphorus and more.

While we all need and share these global commons, they are being overused by some at the expense of others. We are jeopardizing the stability of a planet that has supported civilization for 10,000 years.

Thanks to the work of thousands of scientists, researchers, engineers, activists and more, we know what we need to do to turn things around: to restore the global commons, regain planetary stability and secure a thriving economy through regenerative and circular production, consumption and investment practices, among many other critical solutions.

Now is the moment to harness this knowledge, take action with the tools we have to do so, and to prioritize deep collaboration with each other: across sectors, disciplines and communities to accelerate effective stewardship of the global commons.

In 2009, the Nobel Committee awarded Elinor Ostrom the Nobel Prize for economics for her work in identifying principles for effective management of common resources. Towards the end of her life, Ostrom, who died in 2012, and colleagues explored how these principles might be adapted for managing the global commons. The first principle is to identify clearly defined boundaries.

That same year, researchers for the first time quantified Earth’s boundaries that keep our planet in a relatively stable state. They identified nine boundaries and concluded three have been transgressed: climate, biodiversity and biogeochemical flows (fertilizer use).

In 2015, the researchers announced a fourth boundary had been transgressed: deforestation and changes to our land. But work needs to be done with a much broader group of scientists to establish safe and just boundaries for people and planet. This is the work of the Earth Commission, established in 2019 and will submit for peer review in June 2022.

This is a summary of Ostrom’s principles, adapted for the global commons:

(The term “resource user” could refer to nations, cities, companies or citizens)

  1. Resource users need well-defined boundaries
  2. Users need accurate information of the state of the resource and share a similar view of how the resource operates and how their actions affect it.
  3. Users need to be persuaded that the benefits of collective responsibility outweigh the costs.
  4. Resource users have some autonomy to modify the rules to manage the commons.
  5. Monitoring and graduated sanctions reduce free riding.
  6. Low-cost and fast conflict resolution mechanisms have been shown to support effective stewardship.
  7. High levels of trust are needed to reduce costs of sanctioning and monitoring. This means investing in relationship building
  8. Government (or higher authority) recognition of the legitimacy of the arrangement is important. Or more generally, the arrangements created to manage a resource are not challenged or undermined by other authorities.

In the last decade, science and technology has progressed to a point where it is possible to envisage a management approach to the global commons based to some extent on these principles and adopted by cities, citizens and companies as well as countries.

With time running out to protect our common home, the Global Commons Alliance is, for the first time, adopting a systematic approach to applying Ostrom’s principles at a global scale  and alongside other frameworks. This can complement existing efforts to deliver strong international agreements.

Our work starts with the most critical global commons, identified by a large international group of experts: climate, ocean, freshwater, biodiversity and land.