The Scottish philosopher Iain McGilchrist explains that our brains consist of two asymmetric hemispheres. Each has a different take on the world. The left hemisphere works like a spotlight on a specific object; the right like a lighthouse beaming into the night sky. In everyday life, our view is a synthesis of this duopoly.
More specifically, the left hemisphere thrives on narrow, linear, focused thought, blanking out anything that might obstruct certainty. The right hemisphere attends to the world in a broader, intuitive way, discovering things we might otherwise miss, more comfortable with uncertainty and paradox.
Neuroscience may seem an unlikely starting point for a discussion on climate change, but it clarifies things that matter. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, was designed to stop rising global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It committed the world to a net zero emissions outcome ‘sometime in the second half of this century’. This would stabilise the stock of GHG in the atmosphere and, with it, global temperature. Narrow, linear thinking at its best.
Over 700 cities, more than 200 asset managers, and nearly all major corporates now embrace net zero. But GHG emissions continue to grow.
There is unlikely to be a long-term solution to climate change without appreciating a much greater context. In 2015, 17 Sustainable Development Goals were also agreed at the United Nations, of which climate action is just one.
The global societal challenge is multi-faceted, non-linear, involving difficult trade-offs within a complex earth system. A focus on just one of these issues, climate, without an analysis of the others and a reasoned synthesis, fails to engage our full brainpower. Predictably, half-brained results disappoint.
“The global societal challenge is multi-faceted, non-linear, involving difficult trade-offs within a complex earth system.”
With that in mind, Ireland’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), targeting net zero by 2050, is a well-written document, but the vision is partial. A net zero domestic production target is flawed – while it is the simplest route, it exports the problem elsewhere, possibly augmenting global warming in the process.
There are further problems. The target to halve emissions in less than ten years on the proposed path (by 2030) fails to trust that innovation will reveal lower cost routes over time, especially in agriculture, but also in other hard-to-abate sectors. The logic of ‘more now, less later’ makes good headlines, but brings its own broader risks – even if we accept net zero, there is room for more imaginative paths to the destination.
Sustainability has many dimensions, but it is ultimately about people – young, old, and our descendants. Just one example of a substantial challenge for Ireland in this context relates to demographics. Data from the Office for National Statistics suggest a base-case net immigration to Ireland of 20,000 per annum to 2050, bringing the total population to just over six million. Adding on its neighbour north of the border brings the projected all-Ireland population near to a level last seen in the 1841 census – just over eight million.
However, when Ireland’s unique position in a warming world is taken into account, the total population by 2050 could be greater, perhaps much greater than these figures suggest.
“Ireland may well become one of the most attractive places in the world to live in terms of temperature, as the value premium on staying cool increases.”
Ireland may well become one of the most attractive places in the world to live in terms of temperature, as the value premium on staying cool increases – changes in global temperature are concentrated in a ring of fire around northern Europe. Further, as the northern seas warm, Ireland will enjoy a unique set of trading links to Asia, Africa and the Americas. The island also has access to enormous renewable solar, wind and tidal resources on its land and shores. All of this in a country with a vibrant liberal democracy, which is the envy of many.
Against this background, the maximum leverage we have today to deal with diverse sustainability challenges comes from unleashing innovation. This can create sustainable solutions to the broader set of issues, including carbon; in energy, agriculture, transport and buildings.
Moreover, the knowledge gained is potentially a public good to be shared across the globe. Ireland’s education system and R&D programmes should be at the very centre of investment today, to ensure this vision can become widespread. This is where to focus the money and incentives.
The emerald isle now stands at a dramatic moment in its history. Too long the narrative has been about sadness and escape. This time, the pipes are calling a new tune. Opportunities abound on its own shores. We just need to put both sides of our brains to work to capitalise on them.
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