When I was a teenager keen to discover the world, I learnt the Morse alphabet for remote communication. In the Morse code, the emergency signal is an unbroken sequence of three dots / three dashes / three dots – the equivalent for the letters "SOS". Being first used by vessels in distress, it is often associated with the phrase “Save Our Ship”. SOS indicates an imminent crisis and the immediate need for action.
Scientists have suggested that there are some 70 quintillion planets (7 followed by 20 zeroes) in the universe, but most of them are unlikely to support life. The Blue Planet - with its mix of land, ocean, rivers, forests, atmosphere, biodiversity and climate, all vital to our survival - might rather be a statistical anomaly.
The term “Global Commons” is traditionally used to indicate the Earth’s shared natural resources beyond the national sovereignty of any state. It historically refers to the global ocean, the atmosphere, the outer space and Antarctica. More recently, climate change, biodiversity and the Artic region have also been included among the global commons. In the last couple of years, discussions arose if the Internet, as a global system of computers interconnected by telecommunications technologies, is a global commons. The answer is rather “No”, as this network is largely private owned (the debate on Internet governance is in progress). However, Cyberspace, on the other hand, is viewed as part of the Global Commons because its definition is related to freedom of expression.
Around the world, natural resources are overexploited, at a massive cost to the environment. This reality is sometimes labelled as “the tragedy of the Global Commons”. The global economy has increased fivefold since 1970, and the food crop production by 300%. At the same time, fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced “dead zones” greater than the size of the United Kingdom. As the world population is approaching ten billion, food consumption is expected to increase by more than 50% by 2050. To produce this food, an area twice the size of India is expected to be converted from other uses into agricultural land. The world is losing 10 million ha of forest – the size of Iceland – every year. Deforestation affects the fresh water system, reduces forests capacity to store carbon and amplifies natural disasters. Water scarcity may soon become the new normal in some parts of the world, risking to affect 5.7 billion people by 2050. Diseases caused by air pollution cause some 6.5 million premature deaths every year.
Due to global warming, one million of the planet’s estimated 8 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. We now have the highest quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the last million years. In 2019, a study by the US National Academy of Sciences projected that, in a low emission scenario, the sea level will rise 69 cm by 2100, relative to its level in 2000. In a high emission scenario, the rise will be 111 cm. Because the sea level is rising, entire island nations are at risk of disappearing. We live in a “Global Village” where no country is immune to pollution, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss or spread of infectious diseases, and no single state has the means to remedy this situation alone.
The solution is to reverse the negative trends in climate, biodiversity and oceans, and move towards a sustainable global economy. This requires behavioral change and structural transformations. In June 2020, Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (author of “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”), pointed out that: “The pandemic represents a rare but narrow opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.” As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, this is possible when no other choice is left. In the case of the pandemic it is about wearing masks, cleaning hands, keeping social distance. Avoiding “the tragedy of the Global Commons” is about changing bad habits in relation to nature, reducing food and water losses, reaching zero emissions by 2050.
Structural transformations are also needed: decarbonize power; electrify transport and industry; improve energy efficiency; shift from road to rail and shipping transport; protect forests; restore degraded landscapes; stop the overexploitation of species; stop marine pollution and clean the oceans; ensure that new buildings are zero carbon; adopt circular economy models; use regenerative materials; restore freshwater systems; include the digital revolution in people’s daily life.
To reach these goals, the social contract between people, governments and big corporations has to become more inclusive and fit-for-purpose. Strengthening the rule-based global order and reinforcing compliance with International Law will contribute to addressing the lack of trust between countries. Confidence-building measures are necessary not only on security matters, but also in the management of Global Commons. In such a paradigm, multilateralism remains the most efficient approach, and the United Nations system has a key role to play. Building more inclusive and resilient societies is possible with multilateral solutions which focus on a green, digital and sustainable global recovery and take advantage of the twin revolutions of InfoTech and Biotech.
In June 2019, a partnership of more than 50 of the world’s most forward-looking organizations in philanthropy, science, media and business, called “The Global Commons Alliance”, was formed with the goal to create a network for science-based action to protect the people and planet, restore the Global Commons and promote systemic change. More than 1200 companies already committed to these targets. In September 2019, France and Germany launched “The Alliance for Multilateralism”, a forum for promoting joint solutions to global challenges by strengthening multilateral cooperation. Romania joined this initiative in 2020.
Speaking in February 2021 at the launching of United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Report “Making Peace with Nature”, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted: “For too long, we have been waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature. The result is three interlinked environmental crises: climate disruption, biodiversity loss and pollution that threaten our viability as a species. Without nature’s help, we will not thrive or even survive. It’s time to re-evaluate and reset our relationship with nature. The path to a sustainable economy exists – driven by renewable energy, sustainable food systems and nature-based solutions.”
Epilogue. The value of the Global Commons was firstly considered in financial terms. For decades, the focus was more on exploiting and extracting profit, than on protection and preservation. Now we are realizing that the mankind is a big world on a small planet, using more resources than the Earth can sustain, and approaching the point of no return. We may eventually survive without money, but it would certainly not be possible without ecosystems capable of supporting human life. This is a distress signal, a "Save Our Ship" message indicating an imminent crisis and the immediate need for action. There may be 70 quintillion planets in the universe, but the Blue Planet is our home and the ship we travel through the intergalactic space. By protecting the Global Commons, we protect our future. Only by acting together we can make the Earth a sustainable planet.
As the President of Romania, Klaus Werner Iohannis, remarked from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly in September 2019: “Today we are, all of us, profoundly interconnected by multilateral governance. Solutions of these interlinked economic, social and environmental challenges can only be found through a renewed commitment to multilateralism and a rules-based international order with the UN at its core.”
Promoting national interests requires both patriotism and global cooperation. Professor Yuval Noah Harari (author of “Homo Deus: A Brief History Tomorrow”) argues that there is no contradiction between nationalism and globalism: “Nationalism is about loving your compatriots. And in the 21st century, in order to protect the safety and the future of your compatriots, you must cooperate with foreigners. So, in the 21st century, good nationalists must be also globalists. Globalism means a commitment to some global rules. Rules that don’t deny the uniqueness of each nation, but only regulate the relations between nations.”
Post Scriptum. On 1st April 2021, I will join a group of fellow ambassadors to the United Nations for an open conversation, in our personal capacities, on “The Global Commons in the 21st Century”.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article do not bind the official position of the author.