Overview of change

The global commons are defined by the UN as those areas that fall outside of national jurisdictions and to which all have access.1,2 To incorporate the potential for overuse by some at the expense of others they can also include the atmosphere, land, ocean, ice sheets, a stable climate and biodiversity.3 Globalisation and the increasing interconnectedness of nations have created an array of new challenges for governing the natural environment. There is increasing evidence for the harm to oceans, forests and polar regions that arise from climate change, biodiversity loss, and plastics,4 pharmaceutical and other waste.5 Several treaties exist that seek to protect the global commons against environmental harms from human interference, and the landmark UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a global effort to foster prosperity while equitably managing environmental and wider social risks.6 In its 2020 SDG progress report, however, the UN noted that global efforts to date have made insufficient progress, and that deterioration of the natural environment was an area in which progress has been particularly poor.7 In addition to the cooperation of states, the role of multinational corporations in environmental degradation is also coming under increasing scrutiny, with evidence that the power of a small number of corporations are central to global environmental change.8

Another increasingly prominent area outside the boundaries of state sovereignty is space activity – both close to Earth as well as out to other planets and bodies. There are increasing concerns around the impact of human activity in these places.9 Near-Earth activity is critical to the normal functioning of technological systems such as GPS and global communications, as well as the Earth observation systems used for a wide range of research. As an increasing number of private actors participate in space activity, concerns focus on the potential danger of space debris that could interfere with operations. Space activity is currently governed under the UN Outer Space Treaty.10

Challenges and opportunities

  • Plastic pollution flowing into oceans will nearly triple without greater international mitigation. Moves to a circular economy, which reduces, reuses and recycles, could help to prevent this.11
  • COVID-19 has made it more challenging to achieve the SDGs, as governments focus their attention on the public health and economic response to the pandemic.12 However, increasing focus on a ‘green recovery’, primarily in advanced economies but also more broadly, may help alleviate this and present new opportunities.
  • Many ecosystems that are part of the global commons have already been degraded beyond repair or are at imminent risk of reaching ‘tipping points’. These tipping points could cause severe, long-lasting and, in some cases, irreversible damage to economies, well-being and the environment.13
  • Corporate social responsibility, coordinated action by international firms and public policy, and improved government regulation could substantially accelerate sustainability efforts.7 However, some have warned against entrusting biosphere stewardship to transnational corporations,14 suggesting that more fundamental issues exist relating to the organisation of the economy and the structural imperative for growth and consumption.15
  • ‘Science-based targets’ for nature are increasingly being set by companies. These aim to prevent biodiversity loss while producing goods and services in ways that restore the natural world. It has been estimated that these transitions could generate up to $10.1 trillion in annual business value by 2030.16

Key unknowns

  • 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.
  • The extent to which governments will coordinate to direct and regulate the operations of international corporations.

Key questions for Parliament

  • Now that the UK has left the European Union, how will it now participate in international governance mechanisms?
  • How can the UK leverage its soft power to help ensure environmental sustainability of the global commons? For example, what role can the UK play in stabilising the polar regions and large forest regions like the Amazon, both of which are key tipping elements of importance for global climate stability?17 How can it make the most of its Presidency of COP26?
  • What can domestic regulation and rule-setting achieve in directing the operations of large international companies?

Likelihood and impact

High impact and high likelihood in the next five years

Research for Parliament 2021

Experts have helped us identify 30 areas of change to help the UK Parliament prepare for the future.


  1. UN System Task Team on the post-2013 Development Agenda (2013). Global governance and governance of the global commons in the global partnership for development beyond 2015.
  2. Schrijver, N.J. (2016). Managing the Global Commons: Common good or common sink? Third World Quarterly vol.37,(7) pp. 1252-1267.
  3. Global Commons Alliance [online]. What are the Global Commons? Accessed 26/03/21
  4. EcoWatch (2020). Microplastics found in Antarctica’s food chain for the first time.
  5. Giggs, R. (2019). Human Drugs Are Polluting the Water—And Animals Are Swimming in It. The Atlantic.
  6. UN (2020). The 17 Goals.
  7. UN (2020). The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020.
  8. Folke, C., et al. (2019) Transnational corporations and the challenge of biosphere stewardship. Nat Ecol Evol 3.
  9. Nasa (2020). Perseverance Rover: How we Protect Mars from Earthy Germs.
  10. UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (2020). Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.
  11. Parker, L. (2020). Plastic rubbish flowing into the seas will nearly triple by 2040 without drastic action.
  12. Naidoo, R. and Fisher, B. (2020). Reset Sustainable Development Goals for a pandemic world. Nature comment.
  13. HM Treasury (2021). Final Report – The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review.
  14. Schneider, A., et al. (2020) Can transnational corporations leverage systemic change towards a ‘sustainable’ future? Nat Ecol Evol 4, 491–492.
  15. Wiedmann, T., et al. (2020). Scientists’ warning on affluence. Nat Commun 11, 3107.
  16. Global Commons Alliance (2020). Science-based targets for nature: Initial Guidance for business.
  17. Lenton, T., et al (2019) Climate tipping points – too risky to bet against. Nature 575, 592-595

Photo by ActionVance on Unsplash

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