• This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
  • Earth.Org Newsletters

    Get focused newsletters especially designed to be concise and easy to digest

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
SHOP Support

First posited in 1968 by American ecologist Garret Hardin, the Tragedy of the Commons describes a situation where shared environmental resources are overused and exploited, and eventually depleted, posing risks to everyone involved. Hardin argues that to prevent this, there should be some restrictions to the amount of usage, for example, property rights must be affixed. 

What is the Tragedy of the Commons?

The definition of the Tragedy of the Commons is an economic and environmental science problem where individuals have access to a shared resource and act in their own interest, at the expense of other individuals. This can result in overconsumption, underinvestment, and depletion of resources.

Garrett Hardin, an evolutionary biologist, wrote a paper called “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the journal Science in 1968. In  summary of the Hardin paper, the Tragedy of the Commons addressed the growing concern of overpopulation, and Hardin used an example of sheep grazing land when describing the adverse effects of overpopulation. In this case, grazing lands held as private property will see their use limited by the prudence of the land holder in order to preserve the value of the land and health of the herd. Grazing lands held in common will become over-saturated with livestock because the food the animals consume is shared among all herdsmen.

Hardin argues that individual short-term interest– to take as much of a resource as possible – is in opposition to societal good. If everyone was to act on this individual interest, the situation would worsen for society as a whole- demand for a shared resource would overshadow the supply, and the resource would eventually become entirely unavailable. 

Conversely, exercising restraint would yield benefits for all in the long-term, as the shared resource would remain available. 

Tragedy of the Commons Examples

Arguably the best examples of Tragedy of the Commons occur in situations that lead to environmental degradation. 

Among many things, pollution is caused by wastewater. As the number of households and companies increase and dump their waste into the water, the water loses its ability to clean itself. This results in water that is toxic to wildlife and the people that live around and rely on it. 


Another example of the Tragedy of the Commons lies in overfishing. In Canada, the Grand Banks fishery off the coast of Newfoundland was a means of livelihood for regional fishermen. Abundant in cod, the fishery allowed fishermen to catch as many cod as they desired without negatively impacting their population. 

Then, in the 1960s, advancements in technology allowed fishermen to catch vast quantities of cod, far more than before. However, with each passing season, the amount of cod deteriorated and by the 1990s, the fishing industry in the region collapsed because there wasn’t enough fish to go around. This situation where individual fishermen took advantage of opportunities to benefit themselves in the short term, even when their actions were clearly detrimental to society in the long term, encapsulates the self-preserving mindset behind the Tragedy of the Commons. These fishermen thought logically, but not collectively, which led to their downfall. 


The Tragedy of the Commons can also be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its early days, people were generally wary of mixing with anyone outside their immediate family, leaving their homes less and working from home. However, another result of the pandemic was that people began to stock up on food and utilities. People likely assumed that everyone else would stock up as well and so the only solution was to preempt this scenario and stockpile food before the next person could. Again, people were thinking logically, but not collectively, and herein lies the relevance of the Tragedy of the Commons. Individuals took advantage of opportunities that benefited themselves, but spread out the harmful effects of their consumption across society. 

Retailers responded by imposing restrictions on the number of items one could buy, but it was too late. Entire grocery aisles were empty, wiped clean. 

You might also like: Carbon Tax: A Shared Global Responsibility For Carbon Emissions

What About the Environment?

Shared resources that mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis are abused constantly. 

No single authority can pass laws that protect the entire ocean. Each country can only manage and protect the ocean resources along its coastlines, leaving the shared common space beyond any particular jurisdiction vulnerable to pollution. This has led to obscene amounts of ocean pollution, as seen in garbage patches that accumulate in the centre of circular currents, for example. This will affect everyone as these pollutants cycle through the marine food chain, and then humans as we consume fish. Another problem facing the oceans are dead zones, areas in lakes and oceans where no marine life can live because of the lack of oxygen caused by excessive pollution and fertiliser runoff. 

The atmosphere is another resource being used and abused, as are forests. Unregulated and illegal logging pose great risks to forests’ ability to store carbon. In some parts of the world, vast expanses of rainforests aren’t governed in a way that allows effective management for resource extraction. Timber producers are driven to take as much timber as possible as cheaply as possible, without considering the wider impacts of doing so. 

Poor governance exacerbates the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. 

Who is Meant to Fix It?

Ideally, governments at the local, state, national and international levels would define and manage shared resources. However, there are problems with this. Management inside clear boundaries is quite straightforward, but more problematic are resources shared across jurisdictions. For example, at the international level, states are not bound by a common authority and may view restrictions on resource extraction as a threat to their sovereignty. Additionally, more difficulties arise when resources cannot be divided, such as in whale treaties when the fishing of the whales’ food source is separately regulated. 

Economist Scott Barrett at Columbia University in New York says that international law “has no teeth, so treaties are essentially voluntary. “Even when countries decide to take part in collective conservation efforts, they can simply pull out again when they want to,” as Canada did in 2011 when it pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol and when America withdrew from the Paris Agreement in late 2019 – though they rejoined shortly in the following year by the Biden Administration. 

As the global population increases and demand for resources follows, the downsides of the Commons become more apparent. Some may argue that this will test the role and practicality of nation-states, leading to a redefinition of international governance. Further, it may lead some to question the role of supranational governments, such as the UN or the World Trade Organization; as resources become more limited, some may argue that managing the commons may not have a solution at all. 

What Can Be Done?

A potential solution to this is to affix property rights to public spaces. For example, charging a toll to use a freeway or implementing a tax for dumping wastewater would reduce the number of users to those who act in the best interests of others, not only themselves. Other solutions could include government intervention or developing strategies to trigger collective behaviour, such as assigning small groups in a community a plot of land to look after. 

Overall, regulating consumption and use can reduce over-consumption and government investment in conservation and renewal of the resource can help prevent its depletion.

Featured image by: Matteo de Mayda

Our post-industrial civilisation was founded on over a hundred years of large-scale fossil fuel exploitation. The exploding human population, combined with improvements in quality of life, has led to resource depletion and environmental pollution. We have seen temporarily lower greenhouse gas emissions this year as a result of COVID-19, but it is likely that emissions will increase beyond pre-pandemic levels in the years to come under business-as-usual scenarios. The disruption caused by the coronavirus to the global economy is, however, an invaluable opportunity for change. Deep decarbonisation offers one such way to do this.

Decarbonisation: Definition

The term ‘deep decarbonisation’ refers to the phasing out of carbon-emitting fuels in favour of more sustainable alternatives. Deep decarbonisation is more than just a temporary measure to combat the climate crisis: it is a long-term strategy that could offer us a longer lease upon this Earth. 

In 2007, the European Union committed to their 20/20/20 targets: a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions, a 20% increase in energy efficiency and a 20% increase in contribution to total energy from renewable sources by 2020. EU member states collectively increased their share of renewable energy from 8.5% to 17.5% between 2004 and 2017 and are set to attain their 2020 goal, aided by the drop in energy demand due to the coronavirus epidemic. Many states, such as Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Croatia, have already reached their 2020 target and many others are on track to reach theirs later this year.

You might also like: Germany to Phase Out Coal by 2038- A Done Deal?

Meanwhile, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project is an international collaboration of energy researchers that focuses on sharing practical solutions for reducing GHG emissions in line with a 2°C increase limit by 2050. It comprises research teams from 16 of the biggest GHG-emitting countries including USA, China, India, Brazil, Germany and Japan. The energy sector is the worst offender when it comes to carbon emissions, being responsible for 72% of global emissions. It therefore stands to reason that deep decarbonisation in the energy sector should be a key climate goal.

Production of energy from renewable sources is rising, continually increasing its cost-effectiveness, and is already out-competing coal in terms of profitability. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), solar photovoltaic- and onshore wind-generated power is often cheaper to produce, and cheaper for consumers, than using fossil fuels, even without government subsidies.

There is also a veritable treasure trove of untapped potential from geothermal energy. Unlike wind and solar, geothermal energy is always available. For heating especially, geothermal is ideal as it does not need to be converted into an intermediate form of energy such as electrical. Iceland has been diverting geothermally heated water to heat pavements for over a decade, keeping them clear of ice and snow and reducing the need for salt which harms the environment. 

Conscience alone, will not be enough to mobilise the large-scale change needed to reduce emissions sufficiently; deep decarbonisation would require the creation of incentives for major contributing countries and industries. The top 5 CO2 emitting countries are China (27%), USA (15%), EU-28 (10%), India (7%) and Russia (5%), with international industries such as shipping and aviation contributing a further 1.15 billion tonnes of CO2 annually, or the same as all of South America combined. 

Simple measures such as reducing cruising speed and varnishing hulls to reduce friction could have a huge impact on reducing GHG emissions. A tax on fuel consumption for members of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) would provide an incentive to reduce speeds and increase energy efficiency, thus decreasing GHG emissions and improving environmental conditions for marine life.

Large ships are also responsible for huge amounts of air pollution in docks throughout the Mediterranean region, causing health and environmental issues for passengers and locals alike.

Faig Abbasov, shipping policy manager for the non-profit Transport & Environment (T&E), says,T&E’s analysis of air pollution caused by luxury passenger cruise ships in European waters shows that the brands owned by Carnival Corporation emitted in 2017 in European seas alone 10 times more disease-causing sulphur dioxide than all of Europe’s 260+ million passenger vehicles.”

Dan Hubbell, shipping emissions campaign manager at Ocean Conservancy agreed, stating that “the IMO must follow the science and aim for full decarbonisation of the shipping sector by 2050 at the latest”.

Introducing a carbon tax would be an easy way to discourage and penalise the biggest emitters, regardless of whether they are net CO2 importers or exporters. Carbon tax encourages households and companies to seek lower-carbon alternatives such as green energy or biofuels, and to consume less energy in general. GHG emissions include CO2, but also methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, the latter of which is emitted by refrigerators and air-conditioning systems and trap heat 1 000 times more effectively than CO2. Some jurisdictions, such as the EU, already have legislations in place for the gradual phasing out of f-gases where possible, such as prohibiting its use in newly manufactured appliances, stricter checks and servicing procedures to prevent leakages, and restrictions on their sale within the EU.  

A barrier to the phasing out of carbon fuels is the concern that it would interfere with economic growth. However, a reduction in emissions does not necessarily coincide with economic loss; 2019 saw an increase in global GDP while maintaining the emissions levels of the previous year. According to BP statistics, 21 countries increased their GDP between 2000 and 2014, while reducing emissions. Among them, Ukraine and Slovakia decreased emissions by 29% and 22% respectively, while growing GDP by 49% and 75%.

Ways in which governments could stimulate their economies while transitioning to a cleaner and more responsible future include offering cash incentives to replace old vehicles and appliances for more energy-efficient models; expanding electricity networks to accommodate vehicles and infrastructure that run on electricity; and through government-investments in wind and solar power that would lead to the creation of new jobs down the supply chain.

The weeks following the declaration of a global state of emergency due the Covid-19 outbreak have already shown the positive potential that substantial reductions in fossil-fuel consumption could hold for the environment. Amid this humanitarian and economic crisis, the rest of life on Earth is flourishing: air pollution has cleared to reveal the Himalayas for the first time in decades; cormorants have been spotted fishing in the still waters of the Venice canals; and mountain goats are roaming the streets of Llandudno, Wales. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding these events, perhaps this is a reminder that we can and do have an enormous impact on the quality of our environment. 

Featured image by: Daniel Parks

As the realities of the climate crisis become more widely discussed around the world, governments are increasingly under pressure from the general public to take action. Many institutions and governments have declared a ‘climate emergency’, but does this translate into policy or is it just hot air?

Climate Emergency Declaration: First Country

The city of Bristol was the UK’s first council to declare a climate emergency. Bristol’s move has since been widely credited as a breakthrough for cities, local governments and parliaments worldwide to follow its example. Six months later, the UK became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency. 

One of the UK’s research hubs on climate change, the University of Bristol, declared such an emergency soon after, becoming the first UK university to do so following widespread pressure from its student body. Reacted to with much elation from environmentally-conscious students, the move was soon followed by other universities across the UK.

However, the question of whether such announcements will translate into effective policy remains.

Dr Dann Mitchell, an Atmospheric Scientist and Associate Professor at the university, responded to the declaration by highlighting the importance of policy follow-through once the declaration has been made.

“Legally, there are no commitments for declaring a climate emergency, so the university doesn’t actually have to do anything. That is a cause for concern because it raises the question of whether the university is just declaring this as a publicity stunt, or if it’s actually developing strategies to become carbon-neutral.”

UK institutions have paved the way for such landmark declarations, and other international bodies are beginning to follow suit. In November, the EU parliament declared a climate emergency following a landslide vote from members, with the president of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, asserting that it was a resounding ‘agenda for change’. 

However, these calls to action are waiting to be met with discernible change. Such an agenda places pressure on countries to join the ranks to fight climate change without significant promises or legal action. It invites the European Council to align with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global mean temperature rise below 1.5°C, but imposes no obligation on them to align themselves with such a goal.

Around the world, it seems that climate emergency declarations haven’t delivered many material accomplishments. One day after Canada declared such an emergency, the government approved a tar sands pipeline expansion that could bring an additional 600 000 barrels of oil per day to international markets. The UK’s declaration in May came as local authorities supported plans to significantly expand coal mining. 

Environmental campaigners approached the declaration in a familiar manner, by applauding the language of change but wanting to see real change. Greenpeace EU policy climate advisor, Sebastian Lang, responded by saying, “Our house is on fire. The European Parliament have seen the blaze, but it’s not enough to stand by and watch.”

Von Der Leyen’s commission has already proposed a reduction to net zero emissions by 2050, but the European Council has failed to pass this motion as of yet with staunch opposition from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. It’s alarmingly evident that tough words often don’t translate to tough policy. 

The climate crisis however, is obviously not limited to developed countries, where climate action is proclaimed by countries built on the use of fossil fuels and natural resources. Tackling the climate emergency in developing countries must address the complex interface of the need for emissions reduction alongside the necessity for economic development. 

So far, few African and Asian countries have incorporated the climate crisis into their respective policy output, nor adopted the language of ‘climate emergency’. When understood in the wider framework of meeting people’s basic needs, impending environmental issues are often sidelined in favour of more immediate socio-economic development. 

Although wealthy Western nations disproportionately emit the largest percentage of emissions, it must also be considered that six of the top ten global emitters are rapidly developing countries, whose growth has come at the cost of immense emissions output. As economic growth continues around the world, the need to rethink the way that growth progresses, and incorporate the climate crisis into a multi-faceted approach to ‘development’ is becoming even more necessary. The climate crisis demands global cooperation on these issues, or humanity risks losing the determination and effort that such a crisis deserves.

Encouragingly, African leaders called for a global climate emergency at a UN climate action summit in September, in addition to requesting more funding from the international community for droughts, rising sea levels and severe tropical cyclones. However, questions arise as to whether declaring such an emergency will change attitudes in their countries. If developed nations face resistance from those who regard their own issues to be of greater importance, then the world’s lower-income countries will most likely be faced with even more resistance from their people. 

When considering that developing countries are the most likely to bear the brunt of climate change, policymakers and the masses must work together to produce an impactful response to such a declaration that incorporates emissions reduction with a sustainable approach to economic and social development. 

Progress has undoubtedly been made as the world wakes up to the reality of how the climate crisis is unfolding and how it is affecting the planet and those who live on it. Now that the nomenclature is beginning to be more widely adopted, questions abound as to whether effective policy implementation remains, as ever, just out of reach. 

Wildfires have been ravaging California in fall 2019, as thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Strong winds are causing the fire to spread quickly throughout the state, and firefighters are working to quell the burning flames in locations such as Los Angeles, Riverside County, and Sonoma County. These wildfires in California are increasing pro-climate political participation.

The state of California is engulfed in both fire and terror, and experts say that these fires are only set to get worse as climate change makes the environment hotter and drier. Anthropogenic causes of climate change are making wildfires more common in California, a trend that is primed to persist. 

In a study published in September 2019 by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of California Santa Barbara, suggest that the widespread havoc generated by out of control wildfires are forcing citizens to embrace costly, pro-climate political measures proposed by the state government. 

It found people living within 5, 10, or 15km radius of a recent wildfire to be 4-6 % more likely to vote for pro-climate policy reforms. 

The findings come at a time of heightened political tension in Washington and, contextually, a hostile climate for green policy reforms. The study claims a “temporal mismatch between short-term climate policy costs and long-term climate policy benefits.” Citizens are reluctant to invest in costly climate policy initiatives despite the fact that climate change has already disrupted economic, social, and environmental conditions globally. 

You might also like: Renewable Energy Can Support Economic Growth Post-COVID-19

Satellite imagery shows the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, California

Billions of dollars of funding have been spent to fight wildfires as well as rebuilding the homes and livelihoods that went up in smoke. Yet, it has been a difficult and slow process for costly climate mitigation bills, such as Congress’ Disaster Relief Bill, to be approved and passed. 

Despite the causal link the study exposed, between disaster and a hardening demand for muscular policy interventions, the shortcoming of this poll relies mainly in that it was conducted in dominant Democratic constituencies, with liberal voters being generally more prone to prioritise climate initiatives. Republican-leaning constituencies, which polls show to be less concerned by the climate crisis, were not as willing to champion these policy initiatives despite having similar experiences with wildfires. 

As the report states, “some parts of the public will respond by increasing their personal and political commitment to climate risk mitigation. However, this shift may remain much smaller in areas where pre-existing climate beliefs are weak, making costly policy change less likely.”

Ultimately, voting behaviour will determine the true extent of the public’s commitment to radical policy shifts. Meanwhile, the ongoing fire-crisis in California and its inevitable economic consequences, are expected to keep pushing people towards rethinking how their money gets spent on mitigation and prevention measures. 

Featured image by Daria Devyatkina

Subscribe to our newsletter

Hand-picked stories once a fortnight. We promise, no spam!

Instagram @earthorg Follow Us