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  • Introduction:Protecting the Global CommonsThe Challenge of Collective Action
  • Elizabeth Mrema (bio)

Four of the nine planetary boundaries—climate, biodiversity, land-use change, and biogeochemical cycles—that have enabled humanity to thrive for so long have been breached. Our planet’s current trajectory of environmental demise can be seen as the classic tragedy of the commons, whereby collective resources are more easily exploited than conserved, ignored than managed, and depleted than replenished. One of our greatest challenges today in the new age of the Anthropocene is to design governance structures capable of safeguarding our global commons from further compromise.

The global commons has traditionally included the high oceans, the atmosphere, outer space, and the Antarctic, in other words, the common heritage of mankind. More recently, resources of interest or value to the welfare of the community of nations—such as tropical rain forests and biodiversity—have also been included among the traditional set of global commons. Whether it’s land or sea, or indeed the earth’s atmosphere, these shared resources are under increasing threat. Extinction rates are at 10 to over 100 times their natural level, the chemistry of the oceans is changing faster than at any point in perhaps 300 million years, and we have the highest level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere in at least 800,000 years. While many countries have independently compromised the planet’s capacity to sustain us, no single country has the means to remedy the situation.

In recognition of this fact, the development of international environmental agreements has proliferated since the 1972 Stockholm Conference. However, the [End Page 3] complexities of governing the global commons mean that environmental agreements are not a panacea for global commons issues. Often, they are slow to produce the desired effects, tend to the lowest common denominator, and either lack or have inadequate monitoring and enforcement. Another major challenge of managing the global commons is the sheer scale of some of these resources. Take the high seas as an example. The high seas make up about two-thirds of the ocean and are so far from land that they fall outside national jurisdictions. Despite being vulnerable to pollution, over-fishing, and other commercial activities, only a relatively small area of the high seas is protected, which is why the recent declaration to make Antarctica’s Ross Sea a Marine Protected Area (MPA) met with such celebration.

A number of legal and institutional frameworks do exist to deal with the environmental issues of the global commons, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Antarctic Treaty Systems, and the UN Environment’s Regional Seas Conventions and Protocols, but fundamental gaps and inconsistencies remain that require immediate attention. Closing these gaps requires new thinking and solutions that go beyond the old model of development, beyond environmentalism, and beyond traditional economic thinking. Two events in 2015 indicate that a shift in the way we think is taking place. The first is the agreement to pursue the United Nations’ universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 holistic and inclusive goals that call for protection of the Earth system. The second is the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (UNFCCC 2015)—an agreement with the aim of rapidly decarbonizing the global economy to keep the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and limit the increase to 1.5°C. In addition, in 2015 the United Nations General Assembly established the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Informal Working Group to study issues and make recommendations relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction. The Convention on Biological Diversity is also in the process of developing scientific criteria for biodiversity conservation in areas beyond national jurisdiction, which will serve as an adjunct to hoped-for national commitments to designate at least 10 percent of national territorial waters as Marine Protected Areas by 2020 (compared to less than 3 percent today). These agreements and ambitions are a response to the profound realization that Earth is reaching a saturation point. Energy, water, food, and urban systems are the significant pressure points driving exponential change and are priority areas to search...


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