Global land requires international cooperation

In “Nature”, MCC group leader Felix Creutzig advocates treating land and atmosphere alike and ensuring access to land by all.

Global commons, food security, UN, United Nations, Elinor Ostrom

Photo: MCC


The United Nations would do well to officially recognize land as a global commons. Accomplishing this task calls for an overarching evaluation, which could be commissioned by the UN Secretary-General. It also requires establishing links between the international organizations responsible for the various functions of land—such as food, shelter, energy and biodiversity. These are the main propositions of the commentary “Govern land as a global commons,” written by Felix Creutzig from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC). It has now been published in the renowned journal Nature.

More specifically, Creutzig advocates pursuing regulatory changes at a global scale in four main areas: 1) scaling up funding for biodiversity conservation; 2) advancing the supra-regional harmonization of conservation standards; 3) ensuring the global availability of modern technologies for improving yields and food storage; and 4) strengthening sustainable consumption habits. These changes should be reflected in international law and the regulations of the World Trade Organization.

“Biodiversity and forests as carbon sinks are crucial for the present and future generations alike. These functions of the land should be recognized both conceptually and legally as a global commons,” says Creutzig. The human right to food and shelter likewise suggests that land should be recognized as a commons. According to Creutzig, every human being is entitled to a minimum level of access to the products of the land.

However, this stance has been controversial in research and science to date. MCC Director Ottmar Edenhofer emphasizes that “Food security alone does not justify the recognition of land as a commons. Indeed, additional research is needed to inform and advance this debate.” Creutzig and Edenhofer agree that the concept of the commons is fully compatible with private property and national sovereignty.  

According to Creutzig, land should be viewed—globally—at the same level as the atmosphere or the oceans, which are already discussed as commons. He argues that the resource land is becoming increasingly scarce because it is needed to meet an ever increasing range of tasks and challenges: climate protection, food security, urbanization. In fact, by as early as 2050, the area of required productive land is expected to be more than twice as large as the area of land that is currently idle. The mere task of securing the food needs of the growing world population will consume up to 20 percent more arable land. In addition, increasing urbanization will be devouring over two percent of the most fertile farmland by 2030, according to a recently published MCC study.

As a local model for the management of land as a commons, Creutzig points to the municipality of Curitiba in Brazil. Curitiba ensures the conservation of the surrounding ecosystems by means of a space-saving public transport network and a strict nature conservation regime.

Economist Elinor Ostrom, a pioneer in the field of the commons, identified eight principles for the management of a commons at the local level—principles that could be transferred to the global level. These include clearly defining group boundaries, matching rules governing the use of commons to local needs and conditions as well as providing means for locals to dispute or modify the rules and sanctions for violators.

Research and science would do well to analyze the benefits of cooperation concerning land at the international level. Scientific assessments such as the “Global Land Outlook” and the “Special Report” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are important steps in this direction.


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