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).

According to the authors, the 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 depend on, irrespective of 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.

“The stability and wealth of nations and our civilization 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 the University of Potsdam.

The publication is the result of an almost two year-long research process involving 22 leading international researchers including IIASA Distinguished Emeritus Research Scholar Nebojsa Nakicenovic. 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 the biophysical systems that regulate planetary resilience beyond and across national boundaries, such as 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 through Earth system governance 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,” social scientist and coauthor Joyeeta Gupta highlights.

“Global commons, like the oceans or the atmosphere, are an integral part of the Earth system that supports life and humanity as we know it, yet they are outside national jurisdictions and under ever increasing pressure, especially during the past half century of great acceleration of human activities, leading to possible tipping elements endangering their critical life support functions,” explains IIASA Distinguished Emeritus Research Scholar and study coauthor, Nebojsa Nakicenovic. “As they are integral parts of the Earth system, a new holistic approach is needed to avoid cascades of connected negative tipping elements that are to be avoided through positive tipping of human activities for the people and the planet, thus the need for a new approach of planetary commons.”

The authors’ proposed framework of planetary commons expands 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 livability, on Earth. The study further points out that the consequences of such a “planetary shift” in global commons governance are potentially profound. Safeguarding these critical Earth system regulatory functions is a challenge at a unique planetary scale of governance, characterized by the need for collective global scale solutions that transcend national boundaries.

“Earth’s critical regulatory systems are now being put under pressure by human activities at unprecedented levels,” says author of the paper Louis Kotzé, Professor of Law at North-West University in South Africa and the University of Lincoln, UK; and researcher at the Research Institute for Sustainability Helmholtz Centre Potsdam. “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.”

Adapted from a press release by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). Read the original article here.

Rockström, J., Kotzé, L., Milutinović, S., Biermann, F., Brovkin, V., Donges, J., Ebbesson, J., French, D., Gupta, J., Kim, R., Lenton, T., Lenzi, D., Nakicenovic, N., et al. (2024). The Planetary Commons: A New Paradigm for Safeguarding Earth Regulating Systems in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2301531121


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