Natural Resources and Global Commons

Replay the panel discussion and read the summary below



Natural Resources and Global Commons:
New Stakes, New Tensions (Panel 8)

Chaired by: Sébastien Treyer, Director, IDDRI (Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales). | Student Greeter: Aji Fajri, PSIA student, Master in International Energy. 

  • Ushi Eid, Former Chair of the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB); President of the German-African Foundation
  • Elena Grifoni-Winters, Head of Cabinet of the Director-General, European Space Agency
  • Naoko Ishii, Executive Vice President, Professor and Director for the Center for Global Commons, the University of Tokyo; former CEO of the Global Environment Facility
  • Xinqing Lu, PSIA student, Master in Advanced Global Studies
  • Lucile Maertens, Lecturer in political science and international relations, University of Lausanne; Associate Research Fellow, CERI, Sciences Po
  • Caitlin Ryan, Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations and International Organization, Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen


The ecological crisis is far from resolved. Although multilateral attempts have been made, natural resources continue to be exploited and global commons are not preserved. This has several implications for peace. In fact, as Aji Fajri pointed out, since the end of the Cold War, at least 40% of all conflicts have been linked to natural resources. And “as the global population continues to rise and the demand for resources continues to grow, there is a significant potential for conflicts to intensify in the coming decades.” 

The chair Sébastien Treyer highlighted the fact that the panel was taking place on the same day as the inauguration of the new US president. “This raises a lot of expectations, concerning multilateral cooperation, particularly on the environment and climate,” he said.  He proceeded to structure the panel into two sections: the first focusing on 2021 and the potential for cooperation, the second addressing possible solutions.  

2021: the year of cooperation? 

Many see the year 2021 as a critical year for state cooperation. In order to discuss that topic, we first need to remember why States ought to cooperate. According to Lucile Maertens, States need to cooperate when they can’t do the job by themselves or when the magnitude of the problem exceeds their capabilities. The outbreak of the pandemic, for instance, has shown the reality of the interdependence of societies. But “you can’t compare the Covid-19 pandemic with the way States need to cooperate for climate change,” said Maertens. According to her, the pandemic has a different temporality than climate change. “All eyes are focused on short-term emergencies,” Maertens explained, “but we need long-term solutions as well.”  

According to Naoko Ishii, the solution is one most people might not want to hear: a total system transformation of our current economic model. “The convention doesn’t solve that fundamental problem... We definitely need a new way of governing global commons.” 

When thinking about climate change, there is one State that often comes to mind. Xinqing Lu was thinking the same: “We must address the elephant in the room, which is China.” China is contributing to one third of the GHG emissions and has rapidly become a grand player on the global stage. Lu laid out some of the commitments that China has made, such as its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2060. But “I think the impact is far from being reached,” says Lu. She points out that 65% of China’s investment on their bold BRI plan is still in the fossil fuels sector. “I don’t think this year will be the year that China takes concrete steps of progress on climate change... Economic stability is still the top priority for China.” 

Turning back to the topic of research, Caitlin Ryan called for needing a radically different understanding of global commons. “In many ways, the commons are sources of conflict... they further inequality,” she said. But if we think about the commons in a different way, “as a place where agricultural production used to happen for the benefit of everyone who had a stake,” we might be able to cooperate better, Ryan explained. 

However one might define the commons, we can all agree that space, and the data that it collects of the earth, is also part of that definition. Elena Grifoni-Winters confirmed this, calling space “a global cooperation” and “an instrument for a greener economy.” Thanks to collective efforts, satellites in space are constantly monitoring the earth and collecting data that help us understand what is happening. But space is also important for services and communication, Grifoni-Winters pointed out. “We wouldn’t have this conference today without space.” She also highlighted the progress that space has been making, despite the pandemic. In fact, “we have never had such a big request for space data and for space services because everyone is realizing how important they are,” Grifoni-Winters said. 

Ushi Eid brought the conversation back to the topic of inauguration day and the importance of Joe Biden as president. “I hope that the UN Climate Change conference can take place in November in Glasgow, as planned, and then I do expect major inputs from the US.” But focusing on the US is too narrow, she also said. “Important is that each individual country is implementing at home what has been agreed upon in Paris or in New York.” She does hope that other countries might follow the new US example. 

Possible solutions

It seemed that all panelists agreed on the value of cooperation. It brought Treyer to introducing the second topic: what do we need to do? 

According to Eid, we need global strategies and planning. For that, she explained we need three things: a political will, a supported administration, and more inclusion. The former is perhaps the most important. She highlighted it by drawing from her own experience, the water sector. The only and last convention on water was in 1977 and the second one is in 2023. When there is so little follow-up, it made her wonder: “When do the governments report about their process?”

Ishii argued that it is not a finance issue. Essentially, “we really don’t have a mechanism to translate these targets into action,” she said. Instead, “People – business, politics, citizens – need to come together to be ready to transform each of the important systems,” Ishii explained. Finance can bring these people together, but it can’t solve the problem. 

For Grifoni-Winters, the key to achieving ambitious goals is global cooperation and a long-term shared, but realistic vision. “If it’s not realistic, we’re not getting anywhere,” she declared. 

Lu emphasized civil society and inclusion of a wider range of actors: “especially coming back to the theme of our summit: the youth.” She called for attention to the importance of youth activism, especially in China where these efforts largely go unnoticed or are even ridiculed.  

The two researchers, Maertens and Ryan, both mentioned the need to be complex and critical. Maertens’ answer was fairly straight forward: “If there was a simple solution, we would have found it... We need to embrace complexity.” By trying to simplify the science behind the global commons, we also simplify the social and the political actions, she explained. Ryan once again emphasized the need to be critical. “The problem is caused by extractivist capitalism – as long as the solutions are market-based...we will never get out of this problem.” Essentially, she explained that we need to forget this seemingly simple capitalist solution and open our eyes to other opportunities. 

The burning question: a new or old economic model?  

Many students were interested in the economic issues and asked the question: what type of economic model do you think we need instead and what can global governance do? Lu thought that domestic governance is more important. Eid, who mentioned her membership of the German Green Party as an example, said that we should not turn the current economic system upside down but rather that we ought to demand a socio-ecological market-economy. Ishii slightly disagreed and stated that a new economic model would bring more benefits. Grifoni-Winters brought up the extremely highly educated population of Europe and how a push from the bottom-up, which is already taking place, can be effective. Ryan said we need to think more broadly about different types of economic models which prioritize people rather than profit. Maertens agreed and emphasized the need to teach more than one economic model at university. 

All in all, the major messages of the panel were those of cooperative and collective efforts, having a critical point of view, and the importance of implementing the promises made during major conventions. 


(c) An article written by Meike Eijsberg, PSIA student in the Master in International Public Management, 2021


More information about the Youth & Leaders Summit 2021. Watch all the sessions replays.

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