Sunset over city; Sunset over city;

Climate change: it's roll-up our sleeves time

Paula Kirk, Arup’s climate change leader, talks about how pragmatic adaptation is now top of the corporate agenda.

In October 2018, over 180 of the countries that signed the COP21 Paris climate change agreement ratified the rules by which the agreement would be implemented. A huge moment for the process. But, although political agreement on the targets and rules for meeting them is vital, it won’t in itself solve the climate change problem.

I work in Ireland, a country that is currently falling two thirds short of its EU legislated target of reducing emissions by 20% by 2020. These issues are just hard, and often the nation state isn’t the most agile actor to take action on such multi-dimensional and long-term issues. Fortunately, I believe there are reasons for optimism, for at the city and business scale, pragmatic climate change action is already in progress.

In cities, pragmatic climate change action is already in progress.

Let the cities lead

I’ve worked for over a decade with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a group of over 90 cities across the world who are not just planning for a climate resilient future, they are proactively taking steps to make this a reality.

The city scale is a good one to work with: issues are apparent to populations who demand change. City politicians tend to be more engaged. Issues like air pollution, renewable energy, flooding and resilience to extreme weather are experienced in sharp definition, driving the political agenda.


Importantly, we know a lot more. Satellite photos of receding glaciers fill the newspapers. Weather forecasts are full of hotter summers and harsher winters. And, today, we have over a decade of valuable multidisciplinary research to analyse and understand how cities and climate change are intertwined. As the world continues to urbanise rapidly, making better-informed decisions about investments in transport, energy, water and other vital infrastructure has become a realistic priority for city decision makers.

Business steps up

In my experience, future-focused businesses are taking a lead. Here in Ireland, Business in the Community has mobilised 43 pioneering companies to sign up to the Low Carbon Pledge (and Arup is among the signatories). Across every sector, we’ve been helping clients who see climate change risk as a real factor that will affect their future success.

So, how do businesses make a start? We take a forensic approach, to reveal their exposure to the many interconnected aspects of climate change. A client might be in the property sector and need to respond to new regulations demanding zero emission buildings. They could be radically rethinking their use of materials like plastics or packaging. Or they might be trying to shift to digital tools to streamline deliveries, to reduce their vehicle emissions and operational costs.

Whatever their product or service, in my interactions with businesses I see a new mindset emerging. Adapting to climate change isn’t about burdensome costs, it’s about efficient operations and staying competitive. And when doing the right thing becomes a business advantage, we have cause to be optimistic that the best ideas will spread.

Our recent work for Meridian Water was an example of this new thinking. We worked with them to place realistic future climate impacts like potential flood risks in their overall development plans. Working at the urban scale, we’ve been helping many different cities to evaluate the threats they’re likely to face, and developing their own city resilience plans.

Time is of the essence when planning for a climate resilient future. Individuals, businesses and cities need to come together now and start embracing practical change. ” Paula Kirk Paula Kirk Director | Carbon and Climate Change

Learning by doing

Today, the engineers, environmentalists and planning and policy specialists I work with provide a carbon reduction and sustainability advisory service that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago. We’ve learned much as we’ve helped clients to measure and manage the risks and opportunities these problems present. The only way to tackle the issue is to stay imaginative, and bring scientists, economists, political leaders, business people and other experts together to generate new ideas, new business models and more responsible solutions.

Bike share schemes have been implemented in cities across the world

Beneficial connections

Adapting to climate change provides opportunities to solve other problems or changing behaviours. For example, across the world, cities have implemented city cycle hire schemes to ease congestion and promote healthier travel choices, making cities more liveable.

We’ve worked to quantify these benefits, generating the data that helps decision makers in city governments to justify introducing new schemes or expanding existing ones.


Everyone agrees that climate change now requires that we roll up our sleeves and make difficult choices. But despite the scale of the problem, I’m optimistic. This issue is already spurring some of the most creative and rigorous thinking that individuals, businesses, and cities have ever had to undertake. With a collaborative and pragmatic approach, we can achieve the change we need.