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Experts urge governance of planetary commons to manage climate change

The Amazon River is pictured from the International Space Station as it orbited 260 miles above Brazil in South America. Image:

Earlier this year, an international group of 22 experts from a range of disciplines, including environmental science, governance, and law, emphasized the importance of establishing “planetary commons” in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The group argued that this step is essential for strengthening global governance to “protect the functions of Earth’s biophysical systems in ways that ensure planetary resilience and justice for present and future generations.”

The article introduces the concept of “planetary commons” as a framework to align global law and governance with the science of the Earth system. The consequences of climate change are worsening globally, and there is presently no effective governance system in place to address the issue. Instead, nations have developed their own policies for climate change, each motivated by national-level pressures and interests, often misaligned with other nations and the global goal of a sustainable Earth. According to the authors, however, if “essential systems and processes are perturbed beyond critical thresholds, they can undergo irreversible state shifts with potentially dire consequences for life on Earth.” For this reason, it is necessary to develop “collective global scale solutions that transcend national boundaries.”

A framework to align global law and governance with Earth system science

The authors argue that “planetary commons governance” should involve integrating, in a “nested” manner, “formal and informal, higher- and lower-level, established and self-organized, but reasonably coordinated, governing entities.” They stress that an “overarching institution” would be needed that serves as a “universal point of aggregation.” A starting point could be the United Nations General Assembly, despite its “state-based approach that grants equal voting rights to both large countries and micronations,” which “represents outdated traditions of an old European political order.” For this reason, the article states, “novel arrangements, such as weighted voting or the addition of a United Nations Parliamentarian Assembly or a Global Deliberative Assembly might be needed to make governance at the planetary scale more representative, legitimate, just, effective, and reflective.”

The scale of climate change and the extreme inequity of its impact are therefore a central and urgent argument for global democracy. Countries primarily in the global North, that have been industrialized for many decades, are responsible for aggregated carbon emissions that predominantly cause damage to countries in the global South. Recently, the Climate Governance Commission endorsed the creation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly as a central feature of just climate change governance that is able to preserve the stable state of the Earth system.

Johan Rockström, the lead author of this article, is regarded as a leader across efforts for global sustainability and is presently co-director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, professor of Earth system science at the University of Potsdam, and professor of environmental sciences at Stockholm University. Rockström is best known for introducing the widely received concept of “planetary boundaries,” a set of nine limits of allowable change to the Earth system, after which the familiar stable state of the planet becomes uncertain. By now, six of the nine boundaries have been transgressed, an indication of the severe need to establish a governance system that effectively protects the resiliency of the Earth.

Both the “planetary boundaries” and the “planetary commons” are informed by Earth system science, a discipline that regards the planet as a system made up of multiple biophysical subsystems, interacting with one another and together self-regulating the overall stable state of the Earth. These biophysical systems connect the five general “spheres” of the Earth: the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, and cryosphere. There are many biophysical systems, including atmospheric circulation, ice sheet reflectivity, ocean carbon capture, and others (see figure).

Proposed categories of planetary commons shown across five spheres and divided as tipping elements and other subsystems. Source: Figure 2 in Rockström, et al. 2024. “The Planetary Commons: A New Paradigm for Safeguarding Earth-Regulating Systems in the Anthropocene.” PNAS 121 (5)

Rockström and co-authors refer to these biophysical systems as the “planetary commons,” because although some sit squarely within national borders, like the Amazon rainforest, the stability of the entire Earth system relies on their protection. In their article, the authors propose a list of planetary commons, shown as the grey boxes in the figure, and suggest that a central purpose of global governance needs to be their protection.

Presently, the only regions that are globally managed for the sake of collective interest are the global commons, which exist outside of national boundaries and include the high seas, the deep seabed, outer space, Antarctica, and to a lesser extent, the atmosphere. Notably, these commons were not chosen for collective governance in order to protect the Earth system, but instead to regulate equitable access between nations. Furthermore, each global common is governed separately with the assumption of a stable Earth system.

Rockström and co-authors’ article presents the planetary commons as the expansion of the global commons, arguing that the global commons are no longer adequate to address current issues because they omit most biophysical systems that are in our collective interest to protect. Although forming an effective global governance scheme is an immense challenge, the planetary commons should provide a useful framework around which to organize governance that aligns with science, and that is based on a global democratic architecture with a parliamentary body at its center to represent the world’s citizens.

Elena Frie
Elena Frie is a researcher in Earth system governance at McGill University and co-founder of Climafide, an organization that hosts in-person events for hope in the context of climate change. She is based in Montreal, Canada and holds a Bachelor of Science in Earth system science and anthropology.