In 1833, an English economist, William Forster Lloyd, published an article which included an example of over-use of a common resource. He referred to livestock farmers sharing a common parcel of land on which they were each entitled to let their cows graze as was then custom. For each additional animal, a farmer could receive additional economic benefits, while the whole group shared the resulting damage to the commons. If all farmers made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.
Unfortunately, we have learnt nothing from the tragedy of the commons that was postulated nearly 200 years ago, and our economic and political models (a focus on GDP and short-term politics) continues today – the current climate change crisis is an example of ‘the tragedy’ on a global scale. The economic benefits to those most powerful individuals, businesses (fossil fuel and aggritech lobbyists), and nations (Saudi Arabia, Russia etc) of continuing to burn fossil fuels outweigh the consequences of global warming which effect the poorest and most disempowered. Smallholder farmers and Indigenous Peoples, those that are first hit by climate change, continue to struggle to be heard at COP.
At COP 27 there were many declarations of intent, but an utter failure to deliver the action promised. In fact, many of the commitments to reduce GHG emissions were weakened, not strengthened during the two weeks of climate negotiations. We have not slowed, let alone reversed, the apparently inexorable rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere – Current policies presently in place around the world are projected to result in about 2.7°C warming above pre-industrial levels threatening human civilisations around the world.
While the agreements on damage and loss, that will see rich nations pay poorer countries for the damage and economic losses caused by climate change, is undoubtedly a success after 30 years of discussions, it pails into insignificance compared to the failure to agree a global ban on fossil fuels. I have a sense that we are giving up the ghost on any chance of keeping emissions below 1.5oc with an implicit acceptance of the global tragedy of the commons that will result from a heating planet. I hope I am proved wrong.
From a food systems perspective, dealing with the 30% of global emissions associated with food continues at glacial speed. Whilst food was more prominent at the side lines of COP (several pavilions were dedicated to food/agriculture) and there was a brief mention of food in a cover decision ‘Recognising the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change’ there was no recognition of the need to address food related GHG emissions. The need for agroecological and regenerative agricultural systems, the need to reduce food waste and loss or the need to move towards healthy and sustainable diets are all critical components of food systems strategies if we have any chance of limiting emissions below 1.5oc.
I sincerely hope that future negotiations will place food systems more centrally in the fight to mitigate and adapt to climate change. As our window of opportunity continues to narrow, I can only hope that as the tragedy of the commons at a global scale becomes ever more obvious, today’s economists, politicians and businesses wake up before it’s too late. COP28 to be held in the United Arab Emirates, may well be our last chance saloon.
For a great summary of the key outcomes as agreed at the UN Climate Talks in Sharm el-Sheikh (COP27) I would recommend this one from Carbon Brief here.