Mashable video captures solar on schools trend

April 30, 2021

To start your weekend with some positivity, we’re serving up a kick-ass video covering the nationwide success of schools going solar. We were excited to work with Mashable to help facilitate the story’s production. Tish Tablan, Solar for All Schools Program Director, plays a key role by capturing the larger trend of solar on K-12 schools.

Some of the feature stories might seem familiar. We showcased both the Batesville School District and Tuscon Unified School District stories in our 2020 Brighter Future report. These schools are serving as inspiration to other districts, saving millions in utility bills and using the savings to provide teacher raises and meet budget shortfalls. Wins like these for schools are exactly the kind of stories we aim to spread widely to inspire all schools to go solar and reap the benefits.

Watch the video and share it with a friend:

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Whether you’re a parent, city leader, or solar advocate, our Solar for All Schools campaign can help you bring solar to your community.

We have the most comprehensive database of solar schools in the country—and it’s all on a searchable map. Our 2020 Brighter Future Report outlines how and why schools are going solar across the country and features a How-To guide to equip you to get started. Our Help Desk offers a wealth of educational resources for the classroom, an introduction to solar financing and PPAs, and outlines relevant state energy policies. Dive in and get started!


We’re 100 days in: let’s keep the clean energy momentum going

April 28, 2021

This article is from the April 28, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

President Biden is about to hit Day 100 in office, and so far, it’s been a pretty impressive run. The federal government is making unprecedented progress in laying the groundwork for a clean energy future, including through rapid-fire policies, funding, and expertise. The administration is putting important steps in motion—both domestically and internationally—to get the country on to a low-carbon path. We should be exhilarated by this progress… but we also need to keep the momentum going.


progress toward 100% clean energy

Progress on the home front

 Biden didn’t skip a beat after his inauguration, signing into law a series of executive orders that have since shaped the domestic climate and energy agenda. One of his first directives, on “protecting public health and the environment and restoring science to tackle the climate crisis,” calls on the country’s top departments to immediately review any harmful regulatory rollbacks of the previous administration and revokes both approval for the Keystone XL gas pipeline and the opening of Arctic waters to offshore oil drilling. It also calls for federal agencies to start measuring the “social cost of carbon”—that is, the full impacts associated with greenhouse gas emissions—when evaluating different policy proposals.

A week later, Biden built on this momentum by issuing another executive order on “tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad.” The order will mean looking at everything in the daily workings of the federal bureaucracy with a climate lens, from procurement to policymaking. It also means assembling the right expertise. In addition to creating two high-level positions to lead and coordinate his climate agenda—the National Climate Advisor (Gina McCarthy) and the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate (John Kerry)—Biden has surrounded himself with a slew of highly qualified cabinet and agency leaders, including at the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of energy, interior, transportation, and agriculture.

Clean energy is the lynchpin of many of these efforts. As new energy secretary Jennifer Granholm has noted, her department’s mandate is to “kick…into hyperdrive” the science and innovation that’s needed for the U.S. to achieve a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035. Biden has called for massive investment in clean energy tech, including wind turbines, solar panels, battery storage, energy-efficient appliances, grid infrastructure, and electric cars (including the conversion of all government fleets to zero-emission vehicles). He’s also called on the private sector and everyday folks to join in the effort, including through the development of a new Civilian Climate Corps that would also create jobs.

Legislative action has been a little trickier, given the Democrats’ slim majority in Congress. The American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March, provides a massive economic stimulus to support COVID-19 recovery, but also includes substantial climate, anti-poverty, and equity measures. Several other high-dollar Biden legislative packages also have climate at the center, though they haven’t yet made it into law. For example, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan (a combined $4 trillion) form a substantial part of the president’s “Build Back Better” agenda and aim to revitalize the economy through job creation and infrastructure while also prioritizing the clean energy transition and environmental and climate justice. Meanwhile, the White House’s $1.5 trillion budget request calls for substantial increases in funding to support Biden’s climate agenda.


putting America back into the climate game

Getting back in the global climate game

Biden’s 100-day scorecard is also laudable on the international front. With U.S. greenhouse gas emissions expected to rise again sharply this year (following a COVID-induced slowdown), the administration has shown its eagerness to reengage the country in global climate action. Among Biden’s first acts as president was to immediately recommit the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global climate change to below 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.

In big news last week, the White House hosted dozens of world leaders at a virtual climate summit, where Biden announced the new U.S. commitment to cut its emissions by half over the next 10 years, with the goal of achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. This is by far the most ambitious climate goal the country has ever set, nearly double the target set by the Obama administration in 2015. (However, it’s still below Europe’s target of a 55 percent emission reduction, and some argue we’ll need cuts of nearly 60 percent to actually reach the Paris goals.).

The U.S. is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (contributing around 15 percent of the global total), but Biden recognizes the need to engage other countries—especially China, the top emitter—in tackling the climate challenge. “No nation can solve this crisis on our own,” he said. “All of us, and particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies, we have to step up.” Climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart recently pledged to work together on climate, and Biden also has committed financing for international climate efforts to help other countries get up to speed.


the path forward—forces for and against progress


The path forward—forces for and against progress

This all sounds amazing—but can it all really happen? The Biden administration plans to meet its international climate commitments through the exact steps that it’s already taking on the domestic front—that is, prioritizing the transition to clean electricity, boosting energy efficiency, and promoting electric vehicles (as well as expanding “carbon sinks,” like forests and agriculture). The good news is, many of the technologies exist, and none of this is expected to involve sacrifice. As climate advisor Gina McCarthy recently told NBC, “Clean energy is working in every region, and it’s less expensive.”

But getting there will be a struggle, given current political realities. Congress controls the purse strings, and Republicans have largely opposed new spending measures and tax increases. Even if climate-related legislation passes, it will likely face legal challenges, especially in a court system that’s become a lot more conservative. Meanwhile, the U.S. will face difficulties both living up to its own pledges and getting other countries (including China) to follow through on their ambitious commitments as well.

Fortunately, Biden has a few things going for him. Key among them, according to Tanja Srebotnjak, an environmental expert at Williams College, is that he’s learning from earlier lessons by “reframing climate action as a jobs, competitiveness, and infrastructure issue and taking advantage of executive powers and favorable rules in Senate legislative procedures.” Biden is a seasoned politician—he has a clear view of what needs to happen to address the climate crisis in the current decisive decade, and he’s surrounding himself with the folks who can make it a reality. We’ve got the best chance yet to set our country on the path to clean energy and climate resilience.


Earth Day? How about Earth Decade

April 21, 2021

This article is from the April 21, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

This Earth Day, things are looking a little more hopeful on the clean energy front, mostly because of promising trends in the political arena. But our work is cut out for us. The next ten years will be critical for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making big moves toward a clean energy powered world. As the UN warned recently, the world’s climate goals currently aren’t nearly ambitious enough. Wildfires in California and the recent blackouts in Texas are just a few of the signs that things need to happen quickly and deeply. It’s time to engage in rapid, economy-wide mobilization, as we’re now in the Decade of Decarbonization.

While overall scope and ambition need to ratchet up, one key piece of this addressing this crisis will be cleaning up the U.S. power system. This is so critical because it presents an opportunity to decarbonize many other areas of our lives, as we move to “electrify everything” from how we heat and cool buildings to how we get around. President Biden, in his bold platform for economic recovery, has called for 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. That means getting to a zero-carbon grid in a mere 15 years. With a little lot of work, we’ve got a shot at making it happen. 

Halfway to zero-carbon power

The good news is that, for this one piece of the climate solutions puzzle at least, we’re already halfway there. A new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) notes that carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants in 2020 were half (52 percent) of what experts predicted they would be 15 years ago. Of course, COVID helped put a damper on last year’s emissions, but even if you use 2019 as the end year, emissions were still 46 percent below the 2005 projection. This happened even without all-hands-on-deck action, suggesting that with a more dedicated focus in the coming years, reductions can happen even faster.

A key caveat is that a big contributor to the drop in power sector emissions since 2005 was the shift from coal to (relatively cleaner) natural gas generation—a “decarbonization windfall” that can’t really be repeated since we’ve already picked that low-hanging fruit. Fortunately, there are other important ways to get to zero-carbon electricity. Here’s a (quasi) roadmap for action in five key areas: 

Less fossil fuels, more renewable energy

1. Way less fossil fuels, way more renewables

Maybe the most obvious (but most important) route is reshaping our mix of power sources. This would mean continuing to retire polluting coal plants (already well on the decline) and ramping up investments in renewable energy, especially over the next five years. It also means putting the kibosh on new gas-fired plants (which, although lower-emitting, still contribute to the climate problem). But we can’t just get rid of fossil-based power generation without replacing it with something else that’s as competitive and reliable. That’s why we need to go big on wind and solar, as well as energy storage to ensure an uninterrupted power supply for those times when renewables aren’t producing.

By one estimate, getting to a carbon-free grid by 2035 could require installing an average of 70 gigawatts of new renewable capacity annually over the next 15 years. It sounds daunting, but given recent trends we can be cautiously optimistic. Wind and solar capacity grew an average of 17 gigawatts between 2017 and 2018, but by 2020 (just two years later), this annual growth figure had doubled to 34 gigawatts. It basically needs to double again. With the growth in renewables well exceeding forecasts in recent years, it could continue to do so.

2. Bigger, smarter electricity grid

According to estimates, more than half of the wind and solar capacity needed is already in the pipeline (including current wind, solar, and storage projects). But it can’t all be built without expanding transmission capacity—such as adding power lines—and improving grid operations to better support the integration of renewables. In addition to the general rise in electricity demand, the grid will need to be able to accommodate the extra growth in load from the increased electrification of buildings and vehicles (projected to represent 2-3 percent annual growth over the coming decade).

These grid improvements will need to occur alongside infrastructure ones to get to 100 percent electric vehicles (EVs), including major investments in charging and grid upgrades to serve EVs—estimated to cost a combined $10 billion per year by 2035. In total, President Biden’s plan has called for a $2 trillion investment in clean energy and infrastructure.

3. Strong policy support at all levels

A zero-carbon grid also won’t happen without strong clean energy policies, at all levels of government. Evergreen Action, in its Roadmap to 100% Clean Electricity by 2035, has urged Congress to do whatever it takes (eliminating the Senate filibuster, using budget reconciliation, etc.) to pass a federal Clean Electricity Standard. This would require utilities to increase their use of renewable or carbon-free energy resources in electricity generation, and has proven among the most effective state and local policies to reduce carbon emissions. More than two-thirds of voters support such policies.

Here again, policy action in the power sector needs to go hand-in-hand with a nationwide policy push to support 100 percent electric vehicles by 2035. A rapid EV rollout would have huge carbon, health and jobs benefits, contributing to an estimated 45 percent reduction in economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions through 2030.

4. Bring everybody—including utilities—to the table

Corporations are already playing a big role in the shift to clean electricity through their buying of renewable power, and automakers like GM are making commitments to sell only EVs by 2035. On the consumer side, support for clean energy is high, and there’s rising interest in both rooftop solar and EVs. But ultimately, utilities will be the key players in the shift to 100 percent clean electricity.

 Most U.S. utilities’ processes for deciding how to generate their electricity are outdated, favoring “legacy technologies” like coal and natural gas, and they don’t provide a level playing field for renewable energy generation. Over the coming decade, utility investments will need to be aligned with clean energy goals to avoid locking in billions of tons of CO2 emissions and setting back progress on climate. Researchers with RMI recommend that utilities adopt next-generation procurement practices that promote fair competition between different energy sources (including small-scale renewables) and focus on objectives like resilience, decarbonization, and local economic development. By carefully managing the shift to clean electricity, utilities can simultaneously lower electricity bills, cut carbon emissions, and retain reliability.

5. Consider justice and equity angles 

Finally, achieving rapid 100% clean power will require policies that are justice-centered. This includes, for example, designing a Clean Electricity Standard that not only rapidly decarbonizes the power sector, but focuses on equity, good jobs, and community benefits while doing so. EV policies also can be designed to share EV benefits more equally, such as by supporting charging infrastructure in low-income communities or providing point-of-sale rebates to help lower-income buyers. Biden’s plan for 100% clean electricity includes deep commitments to confronting systemic environmental injustice.

Let’s. Get. Going.

Of course, 100 percent clean power isn’t the only solution to addressing the climate crisis—but it’s a big one. We need to go all-in on a clean energy transformation, including harnessing the opportunities of explosive tech growth in both the power and transport sectors. As an author of the LBNL report observed, the U.S. was able to get “halfway to zero” over the past 15 years without really trying very hard, but we still succeeded. The choice now, he says, is “between muddling along as in the past or making a consistent and long-term push.” Let’s opt for the latter.


What’s “ESG,” and can it enable serious goodness?

April 14, 2021

This article is from the April 14, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

Investors of all stripes are increasingly “investing with their values” by prioritizing portfolios that aim for positive sustainable and societal impact. They’re shifting their assets to so-called ESG (environmental, social, and governance) funds. These are collections of company stocks with certain “do-gooder” criteria, such as clean energy or embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion. By opting for ESG, investors feel like they’re able to advance meaningful change in the business world.

Meanwhile, business leaders and entrepreneurs are jumping on the ESG bandwagon, out of a desire for a more sustainable and socially responsible economic system and/or because they recognize the benefits of riding this growing trend. Globally, investment firms managing some $100 trillion of assets have signed on to the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), and forward-thinking CEOs across the U.S. have joined the Business Roundtable, a coalition of top corporate leaders who aim to reorient capitalism to serve not just shareholders, but also workers and the environment.

ESG funds have come a long way since the 1990s when they first became an option for progressive-minded investors who didn’t feel comfortable with their dollars supporting, say, tobacco or fossil fuel companies. As the number of ESG choices has grown, the associated costs have gone down, and the funds now often outperform their traditional counterparts.

But the big question is, are they actually making a difference? Critics have raised growing concerns about the lack of follow-through on companies’ stated ESG commitments. According to one analysis, investors who signed on to the UN’s investment principles didn’t actually improve the social and environmental performance of their holdings, but instead “use the PRI status to attract capital without making notable changes to ESG.”

So, what can be done to make ESG a more effective and trusted investment tool, and to ensure greater accountability for corporate climate commitments? Here are four key ways:

Better define what qualifies as “ESG”

ESG remains a confusing field, in part because of the lack of uniform definitions and clear metrics. In a recent survey of institutional investors, three-quarters of respondents highlighted a lack of clarity around ESG terminology in their organizations. Without a standard framework for prioritizing among different environmental, social, and governance issues, ESG is a bit of a free-for-all. Managers of several ESG funds have been called out recently for putting “shiny green labels” on what were essentially index funds, heavy in tech stocks and crafted to deliver strong returns over the long term.

In a recent survey of institutional investors, three-quarters of respondents highlighted a lack of clarity around ESG terminology in their organizations.

A big question is, who should really make the cut for inclusion in an ESG fund? Some managers argue that any company that meets certain ESG measures (as defined by the fund) should be allowed entry. The largest U.S. ESG fund, the $25 billion Parnassus Core Equity Fund, concentrates its assets in 40 large cap stocks, relying on metrics such as whether a company has committed to decarbonization. The fund excludes fossil fuel producers and any energy companies that lack a comprehensive carbon-fighting plan. But many of the companies it does include—such as the ag equipment manufacturer Deere & Co., Microsoft, and recently Amazon—have “passed the test” simply because of their ambitious low-carbon commitments on paper, despite these companies’ massive climate footprints.

The catch-all nature of today’s ESG market means that many of the smaller companies that are actually going the extra mile on climate (and that really need the investment boost)—like cutting-edge clean energy start-ups—are being flooded out. Despite its low-carbon intentions, the Parnassus Core Equity Fund has no direct investments in publicly-traded solar companies or other renewable energy producers because, it argues, they aren’t big enough or mature enough to meet its investment criteria.

More transparency = more accountability

A key way to hold companies accountable to their professed ESG principles is to require them to publicly report on their social and environmental impacts, using clear, standardized, and easy-to-understand metrics (on carbon emissions, gender diversity, etc.). That way, investors can know if adding an ESG fund to their portfolio is actually making a difference. With no standardized ESG reporting requirements, it’s a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse, since companies themselves decide what social/environmental data to disclose (if any), which can result in self-serving reporting.

Some argue that the same process that’s currently used in corporate financial reporting (requiring it to be transparent, standard, mandatory, and audited) should also be applied to ESG commitments. Recently, the world’s “Big Four” accounting firms took a step forward by recommending a common set of ESG metrics for companies to add to their existing financial reporting, and, so far, around 61 companies have agreed to use it. But it’s only a voluntary measure. A far bolder step would be for companies to explicitly commit to becoming certified benefit corporations, which requires stating in their charter their aim of balancing profit with a specific public benefit (a key B Corp example is Patagonia).

Give climate-friendly funds the priority they deserve 

Because climate change has become the defining issue of our era, some analysts argue that’s it’s time to give priority attention to investments that are specifically climate-related. In other words, fund managers should stop lumping in the “environmental” component of the ESG triumvirate with the “social and governance” principles, since they’re a different kind of beast. Climate change in particular deserves its own investment narrative because it has existential impacts and involves a much higher degree of risk than, say, issues like how much a CEO is paid, or the gender mix of a corporate board.

Because climate risk “is impossible to segment across markets and cannot be diversified away,” it has unique implications for how a company’s assets are valued as well as for portfolio diversification, notes Swasti Gupta-Mukherjee, a professor of finance at Loyola University — Chicago. Climate change can impact the physical assets of companies and often results in direct costs, such as damages caused by storms or wildfires. According to Barron’s, as many as 60 percent of companies in the S&P 500 Index hold assets with high exposure to at least one type of physical climate-related risk. This is just one among many reasons to dedicate funds solely to climate-related investments, Gupta-Mukherjee says.

Collectively hold corporations’ feet to the fire

Ultimately, we all have a role to play in making sure companies uphold their ESG commitments—even those of us without large investment portfolios. As consumers, we can make it clear that we expect companies to take a stand on social and environmental issues, as this could make a difference in shifting corporate behavior. As employees, we can also demand more from the companies we work for (whether through protests, walkouts, or just making our values clear). People power can have a significant impact, especially as overall interest in companies’ environmental impacts has grown.

In this context, it would be foolhardy for companies to ignore ESG trends, warn investment managers Michael O’Leary and Warren Valdmanis. They note that as the expectations of company stakeholders have changed, people are “demanding more than hollow marketing and happy talk,” and, as a result, “companies that don’t adapt will find themselves at odds with their customers, employees, investors, and regulators.” Through clearer definitions, more stringent reporting, a dedicated climate focus, and public pressure, ESG investing can become a more effective tool for supporting the kind of sustainable and inclusive future we need.


New comic: Generation Electric

April 12, 2021

While we usually tell our stories with words and video, we decided to draw one out. Below is a preview; head here for the full comic.

Head here to finish reading!


Beyond EVs: more ways to tackle transportation emissions

April 7, 2021

This article is from the April 7, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

We talk a lot about electric cars (for good reason), and how electrifying transport will help us slash the relentless rise in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Electrification is a critical piece in solving the climate puzzle, but it’s important to remember that we can’t just “electric car” our way out of the climate crisis and call it good.

A quick look at the numbers reveals the immense challenge we face. Globally, the transport sector—mainly road, rail, air, and marine transport—accounts for around a third of the world’s final energy consumption and for nearly a quarter of energy-related CO2 emissions. Still today, we depend on oil and petroleum products to meet a whopping 95 percent of our transport energy needs. Despite the important shift toward electric mobility, so far only around 1 percent of transport activity worldwide is powered by electricity (most of it non-renewable). Put simply, the transport sector is a huge fossil fuel guzzler, and we need all-hands-on-deck to mitigate its growing impact.

There’s literally no way to get to a livable, low-carbon, clean energy future without making changes to how we move ourselves and our stuff around. But at the current pace, any improvements we’re making in vehicle efficiency are more than offset by increases in the overall volume of travel, and in growing sales of larger, heavier vehicles (like SUVs). To get to zero emissions, we need to move faster in tackling the highest-emitting culprits, including privately owned cars and heavy-duty trucks, as well as aviation and shipping.

So how do we do it? Here are some of the promising “other” ways to address rising transportation emissions, many of which complement the electric revolution.

How to approach things: “Avoid-Shift-Improve”

A helpful way to bucket the many ways we can tackle transport emissions is the Avoid–Shift–Improve framework. The idea is to prioritize those strategies that “avoid” the need for motorized travel to begin with, followed by measures that support the “shift” to less carbon-intensive modes (public transit, car- and ride-sharing, walking and biking, and low-carbon freight). As much as 40 to 60 percent of the needed emission reductions can be achieved through “avoid” and “shift” strategies, including policies that limit vehicle traffic (like road pricing) and that incentivize travelers to use more efficient transport (such as creating low-emission zones in city centers). The rest of the cuts can be achieved through critical “improve” strategies, like efficient vehicle design and clean energy tech (including electric mobility). According to Project Drawdown, electric cars are the second most impactful strategy in transportation—after public transit—to slash carbon emissions.


bike and pedestrian lanes in New York City

Planning sustainable cities and managing transport demand

Key to supporting the types of “avoid” strategies that lead to reduced motorized travel is better city planning and building more livable urban communities. Here, the focus is less on supporting the movement of vehicles, and more on improving access for both people and goods through smart urban design and land use. Solutions include: remote work and carpooling; “multi-modal” planning (offering an integrated network of transport options); “complete” streets that support safe access for users regardless of how they’re traveling; and transit-oriented development and 15-minute cities, which reduce travel distances by integrating people, buildings, services, etc. All of these efforts would incentivize people to avoid driving and enable them to have cheaper, easier, and safer access to alternative transportation modes like public transit, biking, and walking (thus supporting the “shift” measures that are also needed to reduce emissions).


electric public transit bus

Rejiggering urban mobility through public transit

Critical to the shift away from high-carbon transport is building more high-quality public transport, which can move people much more efficiently than private cars. This includes more efficient (and increasingly electrified) urban rail, i.e., subways and streetcars, as well as cost-effective bus rapid transit, or public buses that travel in dedicated lanes so they can maintain a timely, set schedule. According to Project Drawdown, prioritizing public transit can bring about the biggest emission reductions from the entire transportation sector by 2050. Unfortunately, public transit is on the decline worldwide (and COVID-19 hasn’t helped), even though the benefits are clear: fewer road accidents, more equitable access to transport, and overall reductions in both congestion and emissions.

More efficient cars and trucks

Also key to reducing emissions from transportation is improving the efficiency of all those gas vehicles that can’t immediately be electrified, especially passenger cars and heavy trucks. To maximize emission reductions, countries need to adopt stricter fuel efficiency standards for internal combustion engine vehicles, and eventually to phase out these vehicles altogether in favor of electric and other vehicles that have zero tailpipe emissions. In the U.S., heavy-duty diesel vehicles account for only around 4 percent of vehicles but consume more than 25 percent of all fuel. Options for boosting efficiency include retrofitting fleets to be more aerodynamic and to use anti-idling and automatic cruise-control devices, as well as designing new zero-emission models. Overall, Project Drawdown lists “efficient trucks” as the third biggest transport-related solution for reducing emissions. However, improving efficiency alone won’t cut overall energy use in transport. 


jumbo airplane jet flying in cloudy skies

Tackling aviation emissions

Another biggie is tackling air travel. Pre-COVID, commercial passenger and freight aviation contributed around 2.8 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions, and emissions from air travel were rising rapidly. Project Drawdown lists “efficient aviation” as the fourth biggest transport-related solution for cutting emissions; however, the soaring demand for air travel has offset overall gains in efficiency from innovations like improved engine designs and lighter-weight materials. Additional solutions for reducing aviation emissions include retiring older aircraft, using fuel-saving practices, and scaling up the use of sustainable aviation fuels (as the newly unveiled Aerion AS3 airliner aims to do). Shifting consumer behavior (i.e., flying less) is also key to emission cuts: in Europe, rising climate awareness has led more people to replace short-haul flights with trips via high-speed rail.


container ship sailing

Super-efficient shipping

Anyone who followed the recent saga of the Ever Given, the massive container ship stuck for nearly a week in the Suez Canal, has an inkling of the enormous scale of maritime shipping, which accounts for more than 80 percent of global trade by volume. Shipping currently contributes around 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but its climate impact continues to grow. Solutions for decarbonizing shipping include developing more energy-efficient vessels (with better hydrodynamics and fuel-saving designs), using slower operating speeds, and switching to low-carbon fuels (like biofuels or electricity-based hydrogen). In 2018, the International Maritime Organization adopted a goal of at least halving shipping’s emissions by 2050 (from 2008 levels), but progress in this area remains slow. 


High speed train in Japan

Revolutionizing rail

Last week, President Biden released a massive infrastructure proposal that included a call for an $80 billion investment in U.S. passenger rail. This would be a win-win and reflects the growing global interest in rail transport, including both high-speed inter-city rail and rail freight, which has much lower emissions and energy use than road freight. Globally, rail is the most energy efficient transport mode, and railway emissions have actually declined as train designs have improved and as more rail corridors are powered by electricity. Rail is by far the most electrified transport mode (at around 40 percent), with a growing share of this electricity coming from renewable sources. High-speed rail is considered a key solution to shift passengers away from air travel, since it’s around 3.4 times less polluting than flying.


Moving forward

Reducing transport emissions is a massive challenge, and it’s clear that transitioning to low-carbon transport requires a multi-pronged suite of improvements. It’s not just about electrification, cleaner fuels, and vehicle efficiency, but also about how we build our cities, manage transport demand, and improve overall access for people and goods. In other words, the broader “avoid” and “shift” measures are equally important as technology-based “improve” strategies, and they need to be prioritized as such. Electrifying transport will only be effective if it’s understood to be part of a broader shift toward more efficient, integrated, and low-carbon ways of moving both people and goods around the planet.