In a world confronting climate change, new questions arise about how land ought to be used and shared globally. Land has already become scarce relative to the demands of the global economy. Climate impacts and policies threaten to significantly exacerbate this problem. Some are suggesting that it is therefore time to classify land as a global commons, akin to other vital and endangered global commons such as the atmosphere. In a recent article, I identify reasons to fear that this move would not in fact promote land justice.
As a 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear, the problem of climate change is inextricably bound up with questions about land. Climate impacts such as sea-level rise will result in major land loss. But at the same time, land and land use play an important part in the progress of climate change.
On the one hand, certain forms of land use – such as fossil fuel extraction and deforestation – are key reasons why the climate is changing in the first place. On the other, what scientists refer to as the ‘land sink’ – residing in the world’s forests and soils – plays a vital role in removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Without the land sink, climate change would already be far, far worse.
The international Paris Agreement enshrines a goal of limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5⁰C. Emissions are not dropping anywhere near fast enough to meet this goal. Many scientists and policymakers are now suggesting that to meet the 1.5⁰C target, vast tracts of land will have to be devoted to removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. By some estimates, trees may need to be planted across an area the size of India. Afforestation at this imagined scale and speed threatens to displace existing forms of land use such as farming. The effects on food security and livelihoods could be devastating.
In the face of these challenges, some academics and climate policy advisors are suggesting that it is time to consider land as a global commons. This idea possesses understandable appeal. In discussions of climate justice, calls are often made for equitable and sustainable sharing of global commons like the atmosphere. One might therefore hope that a case for sustainable and equitable sharing of the world’s land will be within easy reach if it is added to this category.
However, this proposal is immediately confronted by the challenge that land does not straightforwardly meet the definition a global commons. Global commons are conventionally understood to be resources residing beyond state borders. Clearly, most of the world’s land does not fit this description. We shouldn’t assume that this status quo is justified. But (so far at least) those calling for land to be deemed a global commons don’t seem to have a radical overhaul of the existing state system in mind. In what sense, then, can land currently be viewed as a global commons?
An answer to this question can be found by returning to land’s role in the process of climate change. When thought of as a greenhouse gas sink, there is a sense in which land transcends territorial boundaries. Greenhouse gases disperse throughout the atmosphere, and access to the land sink cannot be restricted by turning away CO2 at the border. Perhaps, then, there is a way in which land can be seen as similar to the atmosphere after all: a global environmental resource, which is the object of global use claims by all those who emit greenhouse gases worldwide.
But even if land can thereby be conceptualised as a global commons, should it be? Here, it is important to note that efforts to categorize parts of the world as global commons are politically controversial. According to some, this global designation will not promote equity at all. Instead, it threatens to undermine valid local claims, thereby opening up new parts of nature to unequal and undemocratic appropriation by global market actors.
In the face of such worries, we must carefully assess calls for land to be designated a global commons. One important question to ask is: Would this designation help us understand and respond to important challenges of land justice? In my article, I consider three such challenges: land grabbing, forced displacement, and unfairness in land-based climate mitigation. Each time, I find reasons to think that the answer is likely ‘no’.
The key problem in these cases is roughly the same. Namely, that the global commons framing only appears equipped to assert undifferentiated, global claims to land, considered as a global resource. This may place the global commons designation in a good position to defend global claims to equitable use of land as a carbon sink. But responding to these three challenges of land justice instead demands attention to local claims over particular areas of land.
It is difficult to see how the idea of land as a global commons would help local commoners resist land grabs by governments and corporations. This idea is not clearly of much use to the forcibly displaced either, who need to assert a claim to return to the particular lands from which they were wrongfully evicted. Perhaps worse still, under the global commons framing, local communities may look like an obstacle to optimising global use of this resource. For example, as a barrier to land-based climate mitigation projects that would better protect and satisfy global claims to use land as a carbon sink.
How should land be conceptualised in the context of climate change, then? Those who proclaim land as a global commons are correct that this problem calls for global conversations about land and land use. However, how land should be defined and understood in these conversations is not a matter for academics or policy advisors to decide alone. Instead, any answer to this question must include the voices and perspectives of communities on the ground who are already engaged in struggles for land justice.