The Fourth Wave
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The Fourth Wave

Unleashing innovation to address the climate crisis: Transportation

The scale of the climate crisis demands that we approach it with boldness and creativity, and entrepreneurs are stepping up to the plate. Today’s climate tech pioneers are developing innovative, advanced solutions that have the potential to make a real difference in stabilizing the climate.

In this series, we look at how climate tech entrepreneurs are addressing barriers to progress and creating solutions and momentum to address climate change. Please note that EDF does not specifically endorse the products, companies or theories mentioned here. However, we do want to foster this vital conversation.

The transportation sector is the largest source of climate pollution in the United States, accounting for 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions — overwhelmingly from burning fossil fuel to power cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes. Cars and SUVs represent close to 60 percent of these transportation emissions, with trucks at 23 percent and aviation at 9 percent. Transportation is also an especially challenging sector to decarbonize: Despite gains in electric vehicle technologies, we still rely overwhelmingly on internal combustion engines, and are heavily dependent on oil; as a result emissions are going up.

Of course, COVID-19 has dramatically changed how people move around, resulting in disruptions to transportation patterns that are expected to last several years. Especially when it comes to cars, the net impact on emissions is unclear and the path forward uncertain. The pandemic and global oil crisis are expected to hit passenger electric vehicle sales hard. But many commercial fleets and state policymakers are continuing to push forward on their plans to electrify trucks and buses, endeavoring to meet their long-term climate commitments as well as near-term policy requirements. Once there is a vaccine in place, it is unlikely that COVID-19 will have driven a fundamental shift.

Electric vehicles are key to reducing emissions

To reduce transportation emissions, vehicle electrification is by far the most important strategy. And while the electric share of total vehicle sales remains small, the rate of growth is high. This year’s Electric Vehicle Outlook report projects that by 2040, over half of all passenger vehicles sold will be electric. (Notably, what had been steady progress has been disrupted by the changing mobility patterns spurred by COVID-19, but the long-term outlook remains positive.)

Electrification is widely recognized as the clearest path for getting land-based transportation to a zero-emissions future, and ethanol is not seen as a viable alternative to gas. So what’s essential is reducing emissions in heavy-duty trucking, and that will require increased use of electrification. Electrification has an important role in short-haul aviation, but for long-haul air transport, sustainable aviation fuels need to be ramped up quickly to displace conventional jet fuel.

Programs like California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) can help advance these and other strategies. In effect since 2011, LCFS is designed to reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions of transportation fuels, from production to consumption, and provide a range of more climate-friendly alternatives. By helping create a market for low-carbon fuels, programs like LCFS can help stimulate innovation and build investor confidence in these fuels as well as in electric vehicles. In California, as a result, the use of renewable diesel and biodiesel, ethanol and electricity for transportation are all growing. And other states have already adopted, or are considering adopting, programs like California’s.

Incentives for companies and consumers can make a difference

Earlier this year at a convening on climate tech, Dan Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California and a member of California Air Resources Board, pointed to some barriers that stand in the way of reducing transportation emissions. He also identified some key strategies for addressing them.

One challenge is that electric vehicles can put a strain on power grids. New regulatory approaches could help address this by encouraging electric utilities to boost production to accommodate increasing numbers of these vehicles. Doing so could ultimately bring benefits for both companies and consumers, in the form of increased revenue and lower rates. Encouraging off-peak charging and other technology solutions (like smart charging and vehicle-to-grid technology) could also help offset the load.

Many cities are built around the use of cars and outdated transit systems, and reliance on existing transportation infrastructure can be difficult to disrupt. But we shouldn’t assume this will always be the case: New generations have their own preferences that could spur a shift, say, from cars to buses or bicycles. In the meantime, legacy transit systems need improvements and incentives to encourage greater use. Some of the most effective are also straightforward: Displaying subway schedules in real-time, for example, takes some of the guesswork out of train travel, making it more dependable and therefore more appealing. And as technologies make bicycling a faster, safer, easier (and therefore more attractive) option, there are steps cities can take to promote greater adoption. They might, for example, invest in technology that supports faster battery recharging for e-bikes, apps that help people integrate bicycling into their commutes, and better analytics to help make their cities more bike-friendly.

It can be difficult to change people’s habits, but consumers are open to embracing low-emissions transportation options as long as it doesn’t make their lives or commutes more complicated. With that in mind, companies could make electric vehicle test drives and trials easier and more accessible. Public and private ventures could experiment with treating public transportation more like a service, with integrated payment systems that offer a more seamless experience. They could invest in technology that makes it faster to recharge electric vehicles, and in making pooled services like ridesharing, ridesplitting and microtransit faster, cheaper and more pleasant.

New transportation-tech innovators have fresh solutions

These areas — and this time — are ripe with opportunity for climate tech innovators. Electriphi, for example, offers charging management and monitoring software for fleets of electric vehicles — including school buses and municipal transit buses. The company uses an algorithm to make sure each vehicle has the energy it needs while keeping costs low. Sila Nanotechnologies designs and manufactures advanced battery materials that have a higher energy density at a lower cost — and that last longer. Ultimately, these batteries have the potential to extend an electric vehicle’s range before it needs recharging, with the goal of driving down the price of energy storage, and with it, that of the vehicles themselves.

Streetlight Data uses location data points from third-party smartphone apps to measure the mobility of vehicles and people. The resulting analytics can be used to inform transportation planning, policy and operations — helping government and business get essential data on transportation emissions, and determine the ideal placement for things like electric vehicle charging stations and bike lanes.

Entrepreneurs like these are approaching the defining crisis of our time with solutions that marry creativity with pragmatism. The scale of today’s challenges calls for precisely this kind of ingenuity — and for visionary investors to support it.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave



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Environmental Defense Fund

Environmental Defense Fund


We work with businesses, governments and communities to create lasting solutions to the most serious environmental problems. We’re EDF.