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Emerging challenges for global commons

Author

Jennifer Harper

Aug 22, 2022

The concept of the global commons refers to resource domains that fall outside national jurisdiction, to which all have access, including high seas, airspace, outer space and cyberspace. Given the growing significance of these domains and related resources for states and other global and local players across a range of purposes, defining the global commons concept has become more complex.

A range of challenges need to be addressed in relation to global commons:


- Access to most of the global commons is difficult. S&T advances and increased demand for resources is leading to increased economic and scientific research activity. As a result our planet is facing critical environmental challenges, most importantly climate change and global warming, the depletion of the Ozone layer, and rapid environmental degradation in the Antarctica. If business as usual prevails, these trends will likely worsen and will negatively impact the global commons’ capacity to provide ecosystem services for human well-being. (UN).

- The danger is not just of degrading the environment, but of breaching crucial biospheric limits. Resource users need well-defined boundaries (to date 5 of 9 boundaries have been breached : climate, biodiversity, biogeochemical flows (fertilizer use), deforestation and freshwater)

- The Global Commons Stewardship Index results suggest that almost all countries and regions are unlikely to achieve the 2030/2050 goals and that drastic socioeconomic system transformation is urgently needed.

- To stay within the planetary boundaries, a radical transformation of key economic systems will be required to significantly reduce their environmental footprint. Four systems are of particular importance: the food system, the energy system, the urban system, and the global production/consumption system. Incremental progress will not be enough. Only with disruptive, systems-level change can we hope to get on the right path. Our focus should be a complete overhaul of key economic systems and development pathways. Transition management theories.

- Managing the global commons - many gaps and challenges remain since the frameworks covering the global commons are complex and fractured. Their management involves increasingly complex processes to accommodate and integrate the interests and responsibilities of states, international organisations and a host of non-state actors.



Drivers and Barriers

Changes in the related foresight drivers may influence the global commons in different ways, for example, in terms of perceptions and behaviour in relation to the resource domains. Technological change may make resource domains more accessible, geopolitical change may affect previously agreed regimes of governance, values may change with specific generational concerns, while ecological and economic change has meant that as land resources are depleted, deep sea minerals have gained in importance.

A key driver for the global commons is the emergence of global societal challenges, including climate change, polluted atmosphere and oceans and biodiversity loss. Widespread awareness of how these challenges are connected to unregulated, exploitative behaviour, with repercussions for social equity, quality of life and well-being, fuels the demand for climate justice. Indeed, a key driver is the view that markets can be very unfair and destructive, unless they exist within a frame of governance that ensures fairness in the community. Increased citizen discontent is becoming more evident, particularly in the use of social media to shame exploitative market behaviour and through consumer activism, boycotting brands with unethical production processes or marketing. The drive for more equitable economic and social governance frameworks extends to the younger generation with their concern for redressing past exploitative behaviour and what they consider ‘historical injustices’.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals set targets for moving towards more sustainable management of the planet and its resources which has set in motion global, EU and state action. Developments in digital technologies provide the tools enabling such action. For example, ICT enabled mapping and management of global resources means that there is hardly a spot on earth that cannot be assessed and made accessible through sophisticated earth observation systems, including orbit, deep sea, or areas below the ice. The internet, including big data and satellite technology, leads to abundant knowledge. In theory, everyone on earth could access the nearly endless source of knowledge and information. In this context, open-source and open technologies are trends that drive the establishment of global commons. However, as technology allows access to previously non-accessible spaces like the deep sea, space or areas covered by ice, the pressure on raw materials increases.

The scarcity of certain materials leads to intensified research for new materials with new characteristics and for a more circular economy, recycling and energy technology. The abundance of resources is an equally important question which needs to be addressed since it can lead to (over-) exploitation of resources which are perceived as abundant.

The main barriers relate to the fact that the global governance system is becoming weaker in the face of growing conflicts and crises, as states become more concerned with protecting their interests. A potential barrier in this respect is the growing resurgence of national sovereignty, extending to economic and technological sovereignty, and the related drive to secure critical resources. The rise of new global powers with different world-views and value-systems adds to the complexity together with the growth and (geographical) expansion of global markets (powered by digital advances and competition) and their behaviour in the absence of an effective governance framework and regulation. In the worst scenario, global markets dominated by unethical players can generate unfair and destructive economic behaviour. If unchecked such behaviour can lead to exploitative practices which can set dangerous precedents.

While ongoing advances in information and communication technology enhance transparency in global market operations and provide more effective tools for improving governance particularly in the movement of money, however, the spread of virtual currencies and threats to cyber security, highlight the challenges faced in developing a frame of governance which ensures fairness and equitable trading.

Whether countries will renew efforts to participate meaningfully in international governance systems – the ‘rules-based order’ – or whether they will continue to shift focus to more unilateral action (UK POST study). The extent to which governments will coordinate to direct and regulate the operations of international corporations.

Futures

What if knowledge, space, the sun, the sea, energy, oil, lithium, uranium, vaccines, microbes etc., became recognised as “global commons”? How will property rights be affected?

What would science look like in an “open source” and “open knowledge” base?

What if there is “fair” access to resources (for countries, social groups) and younger generations can influence global governance?

What if there will be a return to multilateralism as a global governance principle (a multipolar world without stand-off between the big beasts)?

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