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Protecting the atmospheric commons

23 December 2015

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Professor Robert Costanza is a Chair in Public Policy at Crawford School of Public Policy. His research integrates the study of humans and the rest of nature to address sustainability and well-being. He currently teaches Special Topics in Environmental Management and Development (EMDV8041).

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The Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 is an historic turning point in the effort to protect the climate. It represents a complete international consensus on the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees celsius (and preferably below 1.5 degrees). Countries submitted goals to curb emissions that will get us somewhere between 2.7 and 3.7 degrees rise, which is already about 5 degrees lower than a business-as-usual scenario, but still well above the 2 degree target. In addition, many are skeptical about implementation.

The Paris Agreement does include a mechanism by which all countries review their emission reduction targets and hopefully set more ambitious ones. But the question remains: how can the world take stronger action immediately to implement the ambitious Paris goals?

In an article in The Guardian, Crawford academics Robert Costanza and Ida Kubiszewski recommend using the public trust doctrine, a legal principle that states that certain natural resources – including the atmosphere - are to be held in trust to serve the public good. Under this doctrine, it is any government’s responsibility, as trustee, to protect these assets from harm and maintain them for public use.

Under the public trust doctrine, “all countries are co-trustees in the global atmosphere” and the academics have drafted an open letter encouraging the “Vulnerable 20” - a group of 20 countries most at risk from the effects of climate change - to establish an atmospheric trust as an independent entity. The trust would collect claims for any environmental damages directly from the parties responsible. This will not be as daunting a task as it might appear, given that about 90 enterprises (mainly extractive industries) are responsible for two-thirds of global carbon emissions.

“Our call for action has already been signed by more than 30 prominent advocates,” said Kubiszewski, “including former prime minister of Bhutan Jigme Thinley, former director of the United Nations Environment Programme Ashok Khosla, legal scholar Mary Wood, sustainability thought leader Hunter Lovins and environmental activist and scholar Vandana Shiva.”

“Anyone can add their name to the open letter and participate in our call to action,” said Costanza.

“The world needs stronger action to implement the goals of the historic recent UN Climate agreement to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees celsius. We believe a concerted effort to ‘claim the sky’ as a public trust on behalf of all of global society will help us achieve these ambitious and critical goals.”

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