Law and Governance of the Global Commons Incubator 


Governance of the global commons is increasingly relevant for achieving sustainable development and is a key priority for the United Nations as part of its 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. International law defines traditionally five global commons: high seas, the deep-sea bed, the atmosphere, Antarctica and Outer Space. Recently, this list has been extended and also includes new resources such as the subsurface, which is increasingly being used as an energy resource and storage space. Some lobby even for a wider definition including science, education, information and peace.

As the resources in the global commons fall outside the domain of jurisdictions of individual states, the need becomes pressing for collective, coherent decision-making mechanisms on how to govern the global commons.

The incubator has the ambition to become one the major players to engage with new international negotiations in relation to the regulation of the global commons. 
The incubator has so far focused mainly on the law and governance of outer space and the subsurface. The incubator builds upon the previous work that has been done in the area of property theory and fugitive resources within the context of renewable energy.

Law and Governance of the Subsurface

With increasing pressures on natural resources caused by population growth, consumption, technological innovation and environmental change, society is rapidly exploiting subsurface resources, for purposes such as transport, supply of drinking water, extraction of heat and minerals, storage of waste or conveyance of services. These resources already provide society with significant natural capital; the demand for which is ever increasing. The expanding use of the underground space can cause conflicts associated with uncertainties about ownership. The focus in such issues stems from a wide range of agents with diverse interests. 

The incubator addresses many research questions about the governance of underground resources, from understanding the range of current and future ways in which a geological resource may be utilised to devising appropriate policy approaches. A key challenge emerging is the development of a socio-legal property regime that balances on the one hand the property demands that arise through these dynamic complexities, but on the other hand also protects the environment and its multiple users in a sustainable way. A legal regime is needed that has at its core a fair, equitable and just use of the subsurface incorporating the distributive and democratic principles which should underlie a sustainable exploitation and use of the subsurface.

The incubator is endorsed by the British Geological Survey and  brings together a multidisciplinary team of academics and practitioners to study jointly the challenges of developing a sustainable, fair and equitable property and governance regime of the subsurface.

Law and Governance in Outer Space

On the basis of current advancements in science and technology, it is widely believed that manned space explorations can be realised in the next 50 to 100 years. For some space observers, the survival of humankind depends on the interstellar travel. 

One of the main impetuses behind the interstellar explorations is the belief that Earth will no longer be able to sustain growth. Particularly, running out of cheap fossil fuels sparks the idea of an exodus, further powered by climate change discourses and its geopolitical implications.  

The global space sector is no longer just the playing field of governments. Increasingly, private enterprises have entered the space arena; first as contractors for government-led space activities but more recently as proper and independent actors in the commercialisation of the space sector. A new chapter in the space race has thus begun. 

The incubator studies the history and the future of space law and examines:

  • What are the needs of the current space age in relation to property rights and sovereignty?
  • How can imaginative approaches to law making inspire a synergetic co-evolution of law and technology?

Related Publications

  • Read Saskia Vermeylen's blog on Who Owns the Moon and listen to a programme on the Making of the Moon on BBC Radio 4 podcast.
  • Vermeylen, S. (2010) ‘Resource Rights and the Evolution of Renewable Energy Technologies’. Renewable Energy 35(11), 2399-2405.
  • Van der Horst, D. and Vermeylen, S. (2010) ‘Wind Theft, Spatial Planning and International Relations’ Renewable Energy Law and Policy Review 1: 67-75.