UN Climate Conference – ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ or new approach to global commons governance?

Two developments took place during the previous year, both related to society’s capacity to deal with the management of global commons problems.
The first, the Pope’s Encyclical of 18th June 2015, which has been widely praised by environmental groups as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, calls for action on climate change and for the rich to change their lifestyles to avert the destruction of the ecosystem.
It implores not just Roman Catholics, but every person living on our planet to protect the Earth – ‘our common home’. It states that dealing with global commons issues is an activity that should not be left to governments, or corporations, or some other organisation to solve, but is the task of every individual.

The second event was the Paris Agreement, where a new global climate change agreement was put together by the 195 Nations attending. The Agreement is the outcome of the United Nations Climate Conference which took place in Paris late last year (30th November to 12th December 2015), as one step in a long process of international climate negotiations. The Paris Climate Conference has been seen by some as a ‘last chance’ to achieve “…a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world”, and the Pope’s Encyclical, issued in advance of the conference, was clearly intended to influence the thinking of those involved.

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Climate change can be viewed as a global commons issue as we all contribute to the emission of global warming gases, and we all rely on a stable climate for survival. Large scale commons such as climate offer significant challenges to the more traditional environmental management approaches, as integrated action is required at both local and global scales, along with new institutional arrangements to bring about improvements. Increasing understanding about the nature of commons resources among policymakers will be a key requirement for achieving new and innovative approaches to such global issues. An important principle to grasp is the extent to which every individual is involved in both causing, and being a victim of, climatic change. Management of global commons issues such as climate change are extremely difficult, as no single person, group, or nation, has the power to bring about improvements; in this case it requires action from all of us, as Pope Francis pointed out in his Encyclical. These events leave us facing two questions: first, to what extent can the Paris Agreement be considered a success; and second, what can our understanding of smaller-scale commons governance contribute towards the problem of managing global climate change?

To what extent is the Paris Agreement a success?

In order to explore the first question we should examine what the Paris Agreement achieved, but that can depend on whom you listen to. Some climate scientists, including James Hansen, indicate that the proposed decreases in carbon emissions do not go far enough, suggesting the Agreement is not adequate to prevent global temperature rise of more than 2oC, beyond which significant levels of ecosystem deterioration are envisaged. 12 December 2015.

There is also criticism that there are no enforcement mechanisms, and no guarantees of financial support from the rich nations to assist the poor in reducing their carbon emissions.


On the other hand the Agreement has also been hailed as a major success. Anne-Marie Slaughter (President of the New America Foundation), for example, stated that the Agreement represents a “… new kind of global governance…which substitutes rolling processes for fixed rules” that is “far better suited to the kinds of global problems we face today”.

The fact that 195 countries talked for nearly two weeks in order to reach an agreement illustrates that global warming is finally on the political agenda, is in itself a success, and was helped by progress made between China and the USA to take steps to control their own carbon emissions. The Agreement puts climate change firmly on the political agenda at the global level. It is important to note, however, that the agreement ‘will only become legally binding if joined by at least 55 countries which together represent at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions’.

The countries signing up will need to adopt it within their own legal systems and be in a position to sign the Agreement between 22nd April 2016 and 21st April 2017. For many, including some of the larger Carbon emitters such as the USA, this will not be an easy task.

What does the Paris Agreement actually achieve? In an editorial, The New York Times identified the four main items in the agreement as:

  • Rise in global temperatures is limited to no more than 2 degrees Celsius The aim is to limit the rise in global temperatures is limited to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.
  • Collective responsibility A total of 186 of the countries signing have already agreed to cut or limit the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions. This includes both developed and developing countries and is felt to ‘…reflect a new sense of shared responsibility’. However, these commitments will take us only halfway to the 2 degree goal.
  • Regular assessments The signatories agreed to meet every five years to take stock, and revisit their commitments, and where necessary to increase them so that the 2oC goal can be attained.
  • Transparency The agreement requires regular and transparent reporting of every country’s carbon reductions.

The Agreement goes further than this, however, there are Articles that illustrate the signatories realised the need for capacity building among nations at all levels of society, and the need for a flexible approach to address the problem. To the list above we can also add the following:

  • Support for capacity building Capacity building and participatory approaches are required at all levels from national down to the local level.
  • Flexibility The Agreement recognises the differential abilities of developing and developed countries to take action, and in terms of the type of action taken to reach the overall goals.
  • Recognition of the need for wider societal involvement The Agreement supports the need for both public and private sector involvement, using both science and indigenous knowledge to help develop solutions that will deliver the overall goals.

The fact these are written into the Agreement represents a step forward. It indicates that the signatory countries are starting to recognise the need for wider involvement in finding solutions.


Unlike a standard international treaty, what the Agreement did not do is come up with fixed targets that must be met to avoid the imposition of sanctions. There is widespread acknowledgement that such an approach would not have worked. What the Agreement has accomplished instead, is a conceptualisation of a process about how global climate issues might be managed in the long-term. The Agreement is based on Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) which effectively amount to ‘draft’ national climate contributions to decrease carbon emissions. These target emission reductions were announced by 186 countries in the run up to the 2015 climate conference in Paris but it is estimated that the INDC contributions will only limit global warming to 2.7oC by 2100 – assuming they are implemented in full. What the Agreement does is enable all the signatories to meet every five years (after 2023) to perform a ‘stocktake’ and decide whether progress is occurring at a suitable pace, and what else might be required to meet the 2oC target.

On ratifying the Agreement each country will establish a target for emissions, but this will be voluntary and there will be no enforcement measures to ensure targets are met – only a ‘name and shame’ process through the transparency created in ensuring signatories publish all relevant data related to carbon emissions – and it is this lack of any enforcement mechanisms that is one of the major causes of concern for climate scientists. Thus, while there is recognition that every country will need to be involved, and that there needs to be transparency in terms of emissions and control measures, the only means of checking progress is a series of regular meetings. Whether this will be sufficient to ensure that the signatory countries have the political will and enforcement capacities to actually reduce carbon emissions within a voluntary system, with limited checks, remains doubtful. Experience with commons, from the very local to large regional resources such as marine fisheries, suggests that governance based on voluntary action does not work, and commons can only be managed successfully where monitoring and enforcement of rules occurs.

One might, therefore, be forgiven for considering the outcome from the Paris Conference as little more than a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’, with the aura of polite trust that accompanies such informal and legally non-binding arrangements; it’s as if the signatories are saying ‘we are all honourable people, and if everyone pulls their weight then things are bound to improve’!

We are left asking ourselves whether this actually represents a new approach to managing global commons. Is it a new departure from the old reliance on international treaties backed up by sanctions, is it a ‘fudge’ brought about by an inability to reach agreement on more demanding approaches, or is it actually a new way forward? Can international agreements with no means of enforcement beyond ‘publicity’ be applied in practice? Does it offer any lessons that point the way towards more effective global commons governance?

Can our understanding of commons resources contribute to the creation of new systems for the governance of global climate change?

The second question of interest is whether commons scholars, and the past decades of commons research, have got anything useful to say about the management of global commons, and if so whether that is having any influence on the development of this new approach to managing climate change. In short, it would be useful to explore whether the Paris Agreement integrates any of the design principles put forward as necessary for effective and long-term commons governance?

Ostrom’s design principles for commons governance (1990), were insights developed from years of research based on the operation of relatively local and small scale commons resources. As such they have been criticised as being inadequate for dealing with global commons problems. The eight design principles can be summarised as follows:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries for the resource and the rights of users
  2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions. Appropriation rules must be linked to local conditions and to provision rules.
  3. Collective choice arrangement. Most of those affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Those monitoring the system are accountable to the appropriators, or are the appropriators themselves.
  5. Graduated sanctions for those who violate operational rules.
  6. Conflict resolution mechanisms. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organise. Rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external government authorities.
  8. Nested enterprises. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

Source: Ostrom, E. (2005) Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton University Press.

It has been suggested that the design principles cannot be applied at global levels for a host of reasons, including: the complexity and lack of understanding of global socio-ecological systems; the inability to assign rights of use; the difficulties of monitoring; the inability to impose sanctions; the inability to enable the appropriators to devise institutions; and, the complexity of any system of nester enterprises that would be required. It is true that the principles were drawn up using commons where the spatial boundaries and allocation of rights could be more easily ascertained, and some of the principles either may not apply, or might have to be re-conceptualised. The complexity of global commons issues and lack of defined boundaries would undoubtedly make management more difficult, particularly if everyone is considered a ‘user’ or rights holder, and linking appropriation rules to local conditions may not be relevant in such a situation. Principle 7 on who should be involved in creating the governance institutions will need to be adapted for global scale commons, and in addition the eighth Principle, on nested enterprises, might need to be re-considered in the absence of suitable international institutions. Principles 3 to 6, however, are applicable, though they might need some modification. There will still be a need for monitoring, rulemaking, sanctions, and conflict resolution.

There have been more recent proposals for modifying the design principles to make them more applicable to global issues such as climate change. Stern (2011), for example, suggested the following principles for global commons:

  1. Invest in science to understand the resource and its interactions with users and those affected by its use.
  2. Establish independent monitoring of the resource and its use that is accountable to the range of interested and affected parties.
  3. Ensure meaningful participation of the parties in framing questions for analysis, defining the import of scientific results, and developing rules.
  4. Integrate scientific analysis with broadly based deliberation.
  5. Higher-level actors should facilitate participation of lower-level actors.
  6. Engage and connect a variety of institutional forms from local to global in developing rules, monitoring, and sanctioning.
  7. Plan for institutional adaptation and change.

pic1Looking at the Paris Agreement it would appear that some of these principles are being put into effect. In particular Principles 1, 3, and 4 appear to have been integrated into the process, while the other Principles have not, or are only considered to a lesser extent. The Agreement raises the issue of the need for greater scientific understanding and awareness raising at all levels (Principle 1), which will certainly be required if a wider range of organisations are going to have a role in implementing the INDCs. The recognition of the need for capacity building illustrates the influence of this particular principle. In addition, Principles 3 & 4 on ensuring meaningful participation, and integrating scientific analysis with deliberation, were certainly a feature of the Paris Conference.

Independent monitoring (Principle 2), is required for managing carbon emissions, but the Agreement is going to rely on the transparency of self-reporting rather than create potentially expensive and onerous monitoring systems. In terms of meaningful participation the Conference itself was open to a wider range of parties than previously, but little evidence that higher-level actors are supporting the participation of ‘lower-level’ actors. Principle 6 has not been achieved at this point, as relatively few organisations were involved in developing the INDCs, and the process has mostly been top-down. The focus of the Agreement was not on rules, sanctions and monitoring, preferring instead to rely on publicity and regular meetings to check progress. Principle 6 as stated above might be considered as rather weak, requiring only ‘engagement’ in rule creation and sanctions, but says nothing about implementation, and there is no consideration of the need for conflict resolution. Principle 7 has been applied but only to the extent of recognising the need to flexibility and creating the foundation for a reflexive process of checking the extent to which INDCs are being effectively implemented.


The Paris Agreement has demonstrated that global level agreements can be made between large numbers of countries, even where there are conflicting views as to the correct course of action, and significant imbalance between those causing the problem and those most likely to suffer the effects.   The Paris Agreement is one step on a long road. Looked at through the lens of commons management it is not much more than its title suggests, an ‘agreement that there is a problem’, and that needs to be addressed at the global scale. There are commitments for the signatories to reduce their carbon emissions (through the INDC mechanism), but those commitments will require ratification by national governing bodies, implementation by countless organisations, and ultimately by individuals, who will need to have an enhanced awareness of the global climate problem if they are going to undertake behavioural change at the most basic levels.

Management of global commons will depend on individual action, in exactly the same way as the long-term sustainable management of any commons resource requires individual restraint to ensure rights of use are not exceeded. The major difference is that with a global commons there is no external body telling us how to act, we all have to recognise that living within the planetary ecological limits is the only guarantee of long term survival. We also know from extensive research on commons, that even at the level of the smallest common, whether it is a pasture, a piece of woodland, a fishery, or a communal garden, there are those who will seek to gain at the expense of others, or who will try to avoid undertaking their fair share of the work that maintains the common (free riders). Monitoring of other resource users, keeping an eye on neighbours, enforcement of rules, and imposing sanctions on the rule-breakers, are the necessary elements of sustainable commons management. We cannot expect resource users to police themselves; an external body (or set of bodies/institutions) standing separate from the resource users is usually the best approach, as it provides a means of hearing appeals over unfair treatment and resolving disputes between different users. At the global level there is no suitable institution with the ability to play this role. The UN, already over-burdened and under-funded, does not have the capacity to be effective, so the question remains, how do we ensure rights of use in a global commons are not exceeded?

The Paris Agreement is silent on these issues. Like many attempts to deal with large-scale commons the focus has been on the state of the resource itself, and not on the institutional arrangements and governance systems required to ensure sustainable use. Paris is the first step – agreement by everyone that there is a problem, and recognition of some of the requirements needed to resolve the problem: trust, transparency, capacity building, flexibility, collective responsibility, and the need for wide involvement to develop effective solutions. In itself, that is something of a success.


In terms of dealing with carbon emissions, however, Paris is not much more than a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ and will not address the fundamental problems of climate change. In particular it does not create the institutional arrangements needed to ensure reduction in carbon emissions. In terms of a new approach to global commons governance, however, the Agreement shows some promise. The way in which it is structured suggests recognition of the need for a more flexible approach to managing global commons, and some of the Articles demonstrate awareness of the need for wider societal involvement and capacity building. What is not apparent from the Agreement is any realisation of the need for rules, monitoring, and enforcement mechanisms. Nor is there consideration of the institutional arrangements that might be required to put those elements into effect, and that is where attention must now be focused, building on the experience and understanding built up over the last few decades of research into commons governance. In terms of a new approach, it is a promising start, offering a foundation for a potentially radical alternative to previous attempts at managing global commons.