‘Planetary commons’ needed to safeguard humanity's future on Earth

Smoke from a fire rises into the air as trees burn amongst vegetation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas state, Brazil, August 3, 2023. REUTERS/Leonardo Benassatto

Smoke from a fire rises into the air as trees burn amongst vegetation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas state, Brazil, August 3, 2023. REUTERS/Leonardo Benassatto

The Amazon rainforest protects all of us; how do we create new governance systems to protect it and other major Earth systems?

Johan Rockström is director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Louis Kotzé is a law professor at North-West University, South Africa.

Another international climate conference ended in December with no real turning point being reached – even though the protection of the climate and the Earth system is more urgent than ever. 

We continue to treat rainforests as lumberyards, the seabed as a source of raw materials, and rapidly bleaching coral reefs as tourist attractions.

But none of these are simply resources for us to exploit as we please. They are essential parts of the life-sustaining Earth system on which we depend, and their capacity to maintain resilience and stability is dwindling. 

We humans and the global economy we live in are the dominant force of change on Earth, and that is driving six of nine planetary boundaries being breached, an increasingly unstable Earth system, rising sea levels, and massive loss of biodiversity, among others.

That is why we – an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists – have put forward a new concept: the “planetary commons”, which we believe holds considerable promise to rethink, design and implement global governance regimes to protect the planet.

Our new approach complements the conventional understanding of global commons, which are defined for systems or areas that are geographically located outside of national jurisdictions – things such as the oceans, the atmosphere and Antarctica. It expands this notion to include all of Earth's critical biophysical systems and their functions.

These planetary commons would include, among other things, rivers and oceans, giant glaciers, mangrove forests and tidal flats, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, monsoon systems, forests, and permafrost regions.

Our proposal is that all people in the world should collectively care and contribute to maintain them through better governance arrangements – a mixture of formal and informal governance and regulation of states and social actors, of global overview and local oversight.

Science clearly shows that the planet is in peril, and we must become active planetary stewards to ensure that all Earth system functions remain intact and continue to be available for all, including especially for the vulnerable and poor.

The planetary commons framework offers a valuable opportunity to craft protective measures for those Earth systems not falling under the protective umbrella of existing global commons and their governance regimes – for things such as the Amazon rainforest that lies within and across the boundaries of several states.

The Amazon, although shared by several states, is a good example of a critical Earth system. It is the most biodiversity rich land ecosystem on Earth, a key carbon sink, one of the “lungs” of Earth, and a provider of freshwater to downstream neighbours. It is a major biome on which the entire global population depends for their wellbeing and security.

It is in our best collective interest that Amazonian states, with support from the world community of states, significantly improve efforts to protect the Amazon. 

This could be done by setting up a new overarching governance institution for the Amazon, where Amazonian states, indigenous peoples and local communities will play a central custodianship role. In return, these custodians would be supported and compensated for their efforts by the rest of the global community.

Similar protective governance arrangements could be devised for all other critical Earth systems and their functions. Some could be developed from existing international agreements and arrangements as a baseline – the ozone governance regime, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Antarctic Treaty, for example - but others will have to be newly developed.

Throughout the process of creating new governance arrangements, neo-colonial and neoliberal practices of exploitation must be avoided, since we do not want to replicate the destructive patterns of climate colonialism and exploitation that brought us to this situation in the first place.

For anyone sceptical of whether the global community would be capable of joining together in this way, there is already evidence that it could: The protective ozone layer is only recovering thanks to far-reaching and well-conceived global collaboration.

We nonetheless recognise the sheer complexity and scale of trying to do this. Designing and implementing a form of cooperation this comprehensive and innovative is an incredibly difficult undertaking.

And let us be honest: governing the planetary commons collectively will encounter resistance. Not only would it impinge on countries’ rights of self-determination and freedom of choice, but corporate interests, global power imbalances, and national borders would also be called into question.

Yet, we are convinced: our future demands nothing less.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Adaptation
  • Loss and damage
  • Forests
  • Biodiversity

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