Global Commons in the Anthropocene: World Development on a Stable and Resilient Planet

Nakicenovic, N. ORCID:, Rockström, J., Gaffney, O., & Zimm, C. ORCID: (2016). Global Commons in the Anthropocene: World Development on a Stable and Resilient Planet. IIASA Working Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: WP-16-019

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Project: The World in 2050 (TWI2050)


• Three decades of internationally coordinated research on the Earth system has led to the conclusion that Earth has entered a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene. The stability and resilience of the Earth system is now at risk. Yet, a stable Earth system is a prerequisite for human development.

• Nine Planetary Boundaries determine Earth system resilience. Human activities have caused the Earth system to transgress four of these boundaries, namely climate, biodiversity, land-use change (deforestation) and biogeochemical cycles (predominantly overuse of phosphorus and nitrogen in fertilizers).

• The Anthropocene changes our relationship with the planet and how societies view the “global commons”. One definition of the global commons currently used by international law names: the high seas; the atmosphere; Antarctica; and outer space – as the globally common resources that fall outside national jurisdictions. However, the stability and resilience of the Earth system is also common to all. This stability and resilience is dependent upon both the global commons as recognized under international law and also the resources within national jurisdictions, for example rainforests, sea ice, mangroves and biodiversity.

• We argue that humanity must be the steward of the planet’s natural resources – the ecosystems, biomes and processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system, for example the carbon cycle. These are what we term the new “Global Commons in the Anthropocene”.

• The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change indicate a paradigm shift in the global response to safeguarding the Global Commons in the Anthropocene.

• In the coming decades, four key socioeconomic megatrends will determine the trajectory of the Anthropocene: energy, food, water and urbanization.

• Food, the world’s single largest user of fresh and underground water, and the single largest reason for transgressing Planetary Boundaries on nitrogen/phosphorus, land, and biodiversity. Transformation of the food system has the potential to improve personal, societal and planetary health and wellbeing.

• Decarbonization of the global energy system is now of critical importance for a 1.5–2°C future global temperature increase line with the Paris Agreement.

• Water, the source of life, is under severe pressure, and water stress and scarcity are increasing in many parts of the world.

• By 2050, 75% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This global shift requires a major focus on transformation to sustainable and livable urban environments, transportation and a circular economy.

• A focus on these four interlinked sectors holds the best chance of protecting the global commons in the Anthropocene for human prosperity and wellbeing.

Item Type: Monograph (IIASA Working Paper)
Additional Information: This paper was produced as a background document for a conference hosted by GEF and IUCN in October 2016 on “Our Global Commons – Assessing the pressures on the global environment and disrupting the systems that drive them” ( to explore the changing nature of the global commons in the 21st century.
Uncontrolled Keywords: Anthropocene, Paris Agreement, Resilience, Earth System, SDGs, Climate Change
Research Programs: Energy (ENE)
Transitions to New Technologies (TNT)
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Michaela Rossini
Date Deposited: 29 Nov 2016 07:23
Last Modified: 26 Jan 2022 11:46

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