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In Conversation: Dr Matt Kennedy, Arup

In Conversation: Dr Matt Kennedy, Arup

Design engineering firm, Arup count buildings such as the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou among their innovative projects. As Associate Director of Carbon and Climate Change, Dr Matt Kennedy leads climate change services for Arup in infrastructure, buildings and cities. Across his 20 years of sustainability leadership spanning government, industry and academia, the NUI Galway alumnus has seen major changes in the way we think about climate change.

Can you tell us about your background and how you became involved in the sustainability industry?

In the early 2000’s, while sustainability wasn’t high on the agenda, sustainable energy was becoming quite a hot topic because of the challenges in energy supply that Ireland was facing. I had worked in government in terms of strategy, but I wanted to move towards a more sustainability-focused career. So, I joined Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI), now SEAI, to help them develop their innovation, research and strategy in an area where energy policy hadn’t been updated in Ireland since the 1970s energy crisis. There was a huge gap to overcome in terms of sustainability at a policymaking level.  

I spent 10 years in the agency, developing technology roadmaps and plans for energy efficiency and conservation. I gained an international perspective during this time, working closely on behalf of the Irish government with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the United Nations (UN). Afterwards, I was asked to be the lead negotiator for the Climate Agreement by the European Commission.

Can you talk about your work with the design engineering company, Arup

Arup is a multinational company at the forefront of design engineering with 16,000 or more employees in Europe. The company has been in Ireland for 75 years. We put together engineering requirements to achieve the most efficient building or infrastructure design. The Sydney Opera House, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Terminal Two at Dublin Airport are just a few of Arup’s high-profile designs. What attracted me to that firm was the fact that sustainability was always embedded within all of its offerings – ensuring that materials are low-carbon and promoting circularity in terms of how buildings are designed, broken down and repurposed. The firm applies a sustainability lens to services provided for clients across various sectors such as transport, aviation, and water, in collaboration with local authorities.

I lead climate and carbon services for our engagements across Europe. That involves helping public and private sector organisations to understand their carbon and climate impact. I help them to develop strategies and plans to reduce emissions, to understand where the opportunities lie for them, and advise them on what types of actions they need to take. Ultimately, you want to help an organistion to decarbonize or achieve a target of net zero or close to net zero.  

There is a clear emissions gap between what we are doing now, and where we want the world to be in ten and 20 years’ time. We’re not on the right trajectory; my aim is to provide advisory services to these various organisations to help them to get closer to that trajectory in emissions reductions.

The last couple of years have been an extremely rich period for Ireland’s climate response.

With regards to action against climate change, how do you think we’re doing?

While the urgency of climate change should have dawned on organisations and governments a few years ago, there is a clear recognition from both public and private sectors that action needs to happen. We can see that in the private sector, businesses want to attract the right type of clients and staff, so they need sustainability credentials. 

The last couple of years have been an extremely rich period for Ireland’s climate response. We’ve seen the establishment of a citizen advisory council to look at climate. We’ve also seen the development of a robust Climate Action Plan including an annex of actions with a whole of government approach. The environment is there to enable the change to happen, and we’re seeing a lot of commitments being made. We in Ireland have been very successful in renewable electricity, for example. We are finally harnessing our wind power, and that will link into the decarbonisation of the transport industry eventually. 

We’ve been less successful with things like heat and reducing fossil burning – that’s a transition that will take time. I think we need to invest more as a nation in nature-based solutions. A focus needs to be placed on the importance of biodiversity and active travel, exploring what it means for people to maximise the outdoors, and the kinds of landscapes and infrastructure that it calls for. We have been very successful in certain parts, but weaker in other parts.

Acquiring investment to meet the plans is the real challenge. That’s not just something for the government to consider. I do think it’s something all of us need to own collectively, whether that involves industry choosing projects of a low carbon caliber over other projects, or civil society standing up and saying, “This is the type of country we want to live in, and these are the types of policies we want to pursue.

Having worked in this industry for a number of years, it must be satisfying to finally see some real headway being made with regards to sustainability. Are you hopeful for the future?

I do acknowledge that a lot of the resources that we have are finite, but I am hopeful because the signals provided by government, industry and even by society are all really positive. There is an opportunity for us to deliver on the challenge of achieving a 1.5 degree world, but a plan needs to be enacted quickly. And a plan won’t get us there alone. Still, I am optimistic; I’ve seen nearly 20 years of  limited action on climate change with very few market signals in place. Climate is now at the centre of our thinking and the responsibility is not just for governments – business, youth, gender and NGOs are all influencing climate policy and engaging in climate meetings. Now suddenly, these are the ones pushing the government to act.

This is where universities come in, to come up with solutions, test products and services, and work with industry to make those options available within the marketplace.

What do you think people should be doing on an individual level?

I do think there is an individual responsibility in facing these challenges. Options need to be there to facilitate those individual decisions – better public transport, for example. We need better infrastructure for college and work commutes. We also need to take ownership of the decisions we can make. Maybe that involves less travel, a greater understanding of transport options or more time spent outdoors. We live on a beautiful island that offers many exciting ways to engage in outdoor activities. 

There is a much greater challenge in terms of our heating options. This is where universities come in; to come up with solutions, test products and services, and work with industry to make those options available within the marketplace. As a consumer, making decisions based on your everyday life – how you invest money, heat your home, travel, embrace nature – all of these things become a personal responsibility. Our own politicians are obliged to respond to the needs and ideas of the citizen. As citizens’ behaviors become more sustainable, that change will impact and ultimately be reflected within government policies.


Matt Kennedy

NUI Galway alumnus, Matt Kennedy (Phd) is an energy and environmental scientist and engineer, with over 20 years’ experience in delivering national and international carbon, climate and sustainable development initiatives across government, industry and academia. As Associate Director for  Arup Ireland’s Carbon and Climate Change Team, Matt leads carbon and climate change services and sustainable development within infrastructure, buildings and cities.

He has significant experience in the management and delivery of complex, multidisciplinary projects at city, corporate, national and infrastructure scale and has worked on UN technology needs assessments, energy market transformation and electro-mobility projects across Africa, Asia and Middle East.

Matt was previously Head of Strategy and Business in the International Energy Research Centre of Tyndall National Institute, UCC. Matt was lead EU Negotiator for technology transfer at COP21 UNFCCC and was a member of the UNFCCC Technology Executive Committee. Matt was previously Chair of the UN's Climate Technology Centre and Chair of the IEA’s Renewable Energy Technology Deployment Implementing Agreement. He has specialist experience in sustainable development, sustainable energy, climate action. financial business models and research and innovation. Matt holds a PhD in Engineering from Trinity College Dublin, and Masters degrees from NUI Galway and University College Dublin.


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