Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

10 May 2016

Our global commons

Posted by Michael Keating

If we are going to deal with many serious sustainability issues, we have to change ideas that have been developed over thousands of years. Much of the world is organized around the idea of the nation state with total sovereignty over its territory. The government decides how to use or conserve its land, water and natural resources. But, this traditional idea of power over territory bumps up against the concept of the global commons, areas that are important to all of us. The commons include the atmosphere, oceans, Antarctica and outer space. They can also include nationally controlled but internationally important resources such as ecosystems, including great forests and genetic resources in these ecosystems. All these can be considered part of the common heritage of humankind.

We started dealing with global commons with agreements such as the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1982 Law of the Sea. The 1987 Montreal Protocol to control substances that deplete the ozone layer marked the first global atmosphere protection agreement. The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change is the latest step in a long struggle to control greenhouse gases that threaten the stability of the world’s climate. In the case of the climate agreement, huge amounts of money are being promised to help less-developed countries pay the costs of moving to clean energy. But, what about other commons? We still have no system to protect fisheries that lie outside national jurisdictions, the exclusive economic zones. There have been some efforts to preserve rainforests by providing financial compensation for their preservation. Like many people in the 1990s I “bought” an acre of rainforest in Costa Rica to protect it. However, it is usually more profitable for countries to clear cut forests for logs or burn them to plant other crops. This not only destroys ecosystems, but it puts more carbon into the atmosphere, and removes a carbon sink. Maybe the next big step in protecting the global commons for ourselves and future generations should be to work out an international compensation system that makes it worthwhile for countries to protect important parts of their environment as part of the global heritage.

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