Global Commons Research Paper

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The term global commons refers to the Earth’s natural resources that fall beyond the jurisdiction of any state, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, and outer space—and, since the enactment of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, Antarctica as well. The treaty totally demilitarizes the continent, freezes the claims of any state, and ensures freedom of scientific investigation. As of 2009 the treaty includes forty-seven signatories.

The global commons are domains that lie beyond the exclusive jurisdiction of any state, but which may be used by all states and their nationals. Among areas traditionally considered as global commons are the world’s oceans, the Antarctic, the atmosphere, and outer space, all of which today are governed by international regulatory regimes.


The oldest recognized commons are the world’s oceans. Ocean space covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, touches 150 states, and serves as a main conduit for international trade and commerce, as well as a vast storehouse of food, mineral, and energy resources. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which in 2009 has 153 state parties, is the framework instrument for managing the ocean commons. Its 440 provisions incorporate generally accepted principles relating to activities on, over, and under the world’s oceans. With respect to offshore delimitation, the convention adopts a 12- nautical-mile territorial sea, over which the coastal state enjoys all rights of sovereignty. The convention creates a new delimitation, the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which establishes offshore state jurisdiction over the exploration for and exploitation of natural resources. It provides objective criteria for delineating the outer limits of the continental shelf and the high seas, and it articulates certain freedoms for use of the high seas, including vessel navigation, aircraft overflight, and the rights to fish, lay pipelines and cables, and conduct marine scientific research. The convention also establishes the right of vessels (and aircraft) to pass unimpeded through international straits, as well as obligations for all states to protect the marine environment and to regulate scientific marine research. The most difficult issue negotiated in the convention concerned deep seabed mining and who has the right to mine manganese nodules from the deep seabed—states with the technology to do so or an international regulatory body? The convention establishes an international organizational structure to regulate future deep seabed exploitation.

The Antarctic

The Antarctic commons encompasses the massive ice-covered continent surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Antarctica approximates the size of the United States and Mexico combined (14 million square kilometers), and is the highest, windiest, most desolate continent. It is also the world’s largest desert (in terms of precipitation), yet paradoxically contains 70 percent of the world’s fresh water frozen in its massive ice cap. Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom claim territory in the Antarctic. Following the successful International Geophysical Year during 1957–1958, these seven states, along with Belgium, Japan, South Africa, the Soviet Union, and the United States, agreed that preserving international cooperation in the Antarctic was essential. In 1959, the governments of all twelve nations negotiated the Antarctic Treaty, which in 2009 has forty-seven parties. This agreement totally demilitarizes the continent, freezes the claims, and ensures freedom of scientific investigation. Additional agreements for the Antarctic have been negotiated, including the 1964 Agreed Measures for the Conservation of the Antarctic Fauna and Flora, the 1972 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, the 1980 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, a 1988 Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (which never entered into force), and the 1991 Environmental Protection Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. Serious problems still confront the Antarctic commons, among them increasing ship-borne tourism to the region, the accelerating depletion of fisheries in circumpolar seas, and the effects of global warming resulting in disintegration of Antarctic ice shelves.

The Atmosphere

The atmosphere includes the troposphere (where weather patterns begin), as well as the stratosphere (where the ozone layer is located), the mesosphere, and beyond. The atmosphere provides virtually limitless sources of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen essential for all life, as well as the water needed for living resources. At the same time it shields the Earth from ultraviolet radiation, cosmic rays, and meteors.

Three manmade threats to the atmosphere required creation of special regimes. The first of these occurs in the stratosphere and relates to human-released chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that react photochemically, thereby eroding the ozone layer. This process permits more intense ultraviolet radiation and greatly amplifies the risk of skin cancer for larger numbers of people in the Southern Hemisphere. Reaction to this threat in 1985 produced the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, but this instrument does not contain specifics on how to arrest ozone depletion; it merely calls for action. Consequently in September 1987, governments negotiated the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which sets out a schedule for progressively phasing out CFCs.

A second atmospheric threat concerns global climate change. Human activities—most importantly deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas—are known to be altering the atmosphere’s composition and contributing to global warming, although uncertainty still surrounds its severity or future effects. These changes cause glaciers and polar ice caps to melt, thereby raising sea levels and threatening islands and low-lying coastal areas. The international response to the climate change threat came in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted at the Rio Summit in 1992. This instrument establishes a process for voluntary reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In December 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated to legally commit industrialized states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Final negotiations on the protocol in 2001 require industrialized states to reduce their combined annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 to 5.2 percent below the levels measured in 1990.

A third threat to the atmospheric commons is airborne transnational pollution. The air serves as a medium for pollutants, most notably transnational acid precipitation from the United Kingdom over Scandinavia and from the United States over Canada. In 1979 the International Treaty on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) was negotiated, which remains the preeminent attempt to regulate transboundary air pollution. At least eight protocols have been negotiated to curb specific pollutants, such as sulfur emissions and nitrous oxide.

Outer Space

The final global commons is outer space, which extends beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. As humans seek to use this region, the need for regulating it grows. Special international agreements now comprise a legal regime for managing the outer space commons. The main agreement is the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space. This agreement sets out core duties for states using outer space. Among these are the stipulation that exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out in the interests of all countries; outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all states; outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty; no weapons of mass destruction may be placed in orbit or on celestial bodies; the moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes; and states shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.

Other major space law instruments include the 1968 Convention on the Rescue and Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Space, the 1972 Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects Convention, and the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. A fifth accord, the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the Moon Treaty), has attracted few parties and no space-faring state.

The industrial revolution profoundly changed how the global commons are used, particularly in terms of resource exploitation and environmental degradation. If the oceans, Antarctica, the atmosphere, and outer space are to provide future benefits for all humankind, governments will have to cooperate more closely to regulate and enforce the legal regimes created for their protection and conservation.


  1. Cramer, D. (2008). Smithsonian ocean: Our water, our world. Washington, DC: Smithsonian.
  2. Dinwiddie, R. et al. (2008). Ocean (American Museum of Natural History). London: Dorling Kindersley.
  3. Joyner, C. C. (1998). Governing the frozen commons: The Antarctic regime and environmental protection. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  4. Oceans and Law of the Sea. (2004). Retrieved July 29, 2016, from
  5. Soroos, M. S. (1997). The changing atmosphere: The quest for environmental security. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  6. Vogler, J. (2000). The global commons: Environmental and technological governance, 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

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