“The Global Commons Stewardship: Enacting Systemic Transformations” (Naoko Ishii seminar)

by Sophie Welsh

Our planet earth has been undergoing a cascade of environmental crises, as human society has experienced economic development on a global scale. We are approaching multiple major environmental tipping points and risks, which pose existential threats to human society. In her stimulating seminar, Professor Naoko Ishii (University of Tokyo) argued that we have only about a decade left to set fundamental systemic changes on track across a wide range of areas, including the socioeconomic system, the food system, the energy system, the digital system, consumption and production patterns, and cities. Dr. Ishii presented findings from the 2021 Global Commons Stewardship (GCS) Index, which examines over 100 countries and their impacts on the global environment. 
We can envision the “global commons” as a stable and resilient earth system, which is the foundation of human prosperity. We have yet to develop a system to govern the global commons effectively, with frequent breakdowns commonly known as the “tragedy of commons.”  As the economy prospered and globalized, we did not create mechanisms to protect and steward the environment in the long run. Several treaties demonstrate challenges of international cooperation to protect the global commons, such as the Paris Accord and the Rio Conventions of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The GCS Framework focuses on four systems: energy, cities, production, and food. It also points to four “action levers” or principles: aligning governance and institutions; resetting the economy and incentives; ensuring inclusion and fairness; and enabling innovation including the use of cyber commons. These action levers are not exercised at the level of nation-states, but instead involve multi-stakeholder coalitions including businesses, academia, and individuals.
Another achievement of the GCS initiative is its annual index that measures countries’ environmental impact within and outside their own boundaries. The GCS Index measures a country’s domestic production as well as consumption, also includes the impacts of a country’s cross-border trade.  For example, by most measures Japan’s environmental impact is minimal on a global scale. But when we factor in the impact of Japan’s international trade, we observe its more adverse effects. Another important finding from the GCS index is that some countries incur more spillover effects than others, and there is a large disparity between the global North and South in such spillover effects.  
According to the World Resources Institute, we are not on track to solve any of its forty risk indicators, showing the need for an accelerated transformation of the varieties of economic and social systems. The UNFCCC’s recently held COP26 had much to be desired, despite its accomplishment of cementing the net-zero carbon neutral target of 2050, emphasizing active participation by non-state actors; and standardizing international accounting of climate-related measures. 
The GCS Framework will continue to highlight the fundamental risks of the planet earth’s current trajectory and the urgent need for systemic transformations to address them.