Who Owns the Sky?

Purchase PDF
The earth’s atmosphere is a resource common to all humanity, and legalized ownership rights should ensure its proper care and management.

The idea that anyone could own the sky seems absurd, and therein lies the problem. We would not consider paying for the air we breathe, and neither do the 90 corporations currently responsible for about two thirds of global emissions. Presently, there are no property rights over the atmosphere, which is being utilized as a kind of planetary cesspool for billions of tons of waste. Ultimately, we are all responsible because we are not paying for the social and environmental costs of these emissions, but are not all equally liable. The only way to change this scenario is to establish property rights over the atmosphere as a first step to dealing with global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The United Nations has been trying to deal with rising GHG emissions since the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio in 1992. The first meeting of the parties took place in Berlin in 1995. Subsequently, Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, but stalled after the first commitment period expired in 2012, without a second commitment period. Hopes are focused on the pledges of COP15 in Copenhagen and on negotiating a universal agreement that is fair, durable, and effective in addressing this issue.

At the present time, average citizens, non-governmental or community organizations, churches, schools and other civic organizations do not have a direct role in international negotiations, but they have to suffer the consequences of climate change and of very slow progress in reaching effective accords. Ultimately, they have to pay the costs to our environment and suffer the consequences.

Therefore, citizens have the right to question the abuse of global common resources, like the atmosphere and the oceans, over which there are no clear property rights and that are being destroyed by polluters. These resources are common to all humanity and their ownership should be exercised by all of us as planetary citizens. We need to take the necessary legal actions to establish our rights—an essential first step to being able to manage this resource sustainably.

The idea of viewing the atmosphere as a common property resource was raised by Peter Barnes and others in 2009, who argued that an Earth Atmospheric Trust Fund (EATF) could be established to hold the revenues coming from the pricing of GHG emissions, and that these could be viewed as compensation to the resource owners for environmental services rendered (see Costanza’s piece in this issue).

Since GHG emissions are so uneven throughout the world, and if the EATF were to be owned equally by all human beings, the pricing of GHG emissions could provide significant resources for redistribution from high to low emission societies, and help diminish the trend toward higher global inequality.

In recent years, efforts to control emissions have focused on carbon exchanges that allow companies to buy emission rights from those who emit less. But, most have struggled due to the lack of an international framework and the collapse in the price of carbon. The EATF proposal would still require a global structure, but by handing over property rights to the sky to the earth’s citizens it would avoid some of the pitfalls of trying to artificially create a market for carbon.

The San Jose Declaration on Claiming the Sky, adopted last year by members of the Ecosystems Services Partnership Assembly, aims to get one billion people to support this effort and take our collective claim as citizens to the International Court of Justice to establish our property rights over the resource, and to demand effective governmental action.

Citizens’ organizations, with the power of the internet and social media, are a new critical force in the world arena and could have an enormous impact on policies to address climate change. This was demonstrated by recent synchronized marches of millions of citizens in major cities throughout the world demanding action related to climate change.

We support the efforts of the United Nations to bring about a universal agreement on climate change that is effective, fair and durable. This is essential for our survival. However, the time is long overdue to establish new principles for proper care and management of the Earth’s common resources. This has to do with how we exercise our right as human beings to inhabit a healthy and ecologically sustainable planet. We should also keep in mind that with rights also comes the responsibility for proper management of the only planet we have, whose care and maintenance is entrusted to us for a brief time, and which we bequeath to future generations.

Over sixty years ago, French scientist and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it best:

The Age of Nations is past.
The task before us now,
if we would not perish
is to build the earth.