Our Path to Net Zero and the Role of Transportation

During Earth Summit 2021, we invited experts and leading innovators to discuss the developments, opportunities, and current limitations of artificial intelligence (AI) in our Air track. The two exciting conversations were ‘The Path to Net Zero: Cleantech through the Lens of Impact and ‘Sustainable Transportation: Moving Toward Cleaner Vehicles and Better Mobility’. This article discusses the how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology can provide opportunities in sustainable transport and our path to net zero.

In the best-case scenario, even if all countries worldwide met their current greenhouse gas reduction goals under the Paris Agreement, there’s still a 95% chance that Earth will warm to levels greater than 2°C, which will cause catastrophic outcomes. We need to work together collectively and move faster in order to reduce the intensity of these impacts. Our panelists agreed that we need to direct our attention toward clean energy and greenhouse gas emissions reduction across all industries.

Three key areas of technological impact to focus on to best tackle climate change: 

  • radical efficiency, 
  • decarbonization, and
  • greenhouse gas management

Each of these represents a complex ecosystem of technologies and a multi-faceted array of interests. The urgent implementation of these pillars is necessary to stall the worst impacts of climate change by achieving an emissions point of ‘net zero’ – the rate at which we are removing as much greenhouse gas emissions as we are contributing to the environment. 


Radical efficiency is essentially doing more with less; it’s redesigning systems or products that produce greenhouse gases as a by-product. This involves behavioral and structural changes, such as humans not consuming as many products or wasting food, making vehicles lighter to use less fuel, and ensuring buildings are more energy efficient when heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning.  

Unfortunately, as highlighted on the panel for The Path to Net Zero: Cleantech through the Lens of Impact, it is now too late to make any real impact using this pillar - ‘radical efficiency’ - and thus, our biggest hope for reducing climate change would be to invest time and resources into decarbonization and greenhouse gas management.


Decarbonization involves transitioning away from fossil fuels to cleaner fuels like electricity and hydrogen. We can achieve this by using vehicles that operate on renewable resources such as personal electric vehicles (EVs) and hydrogen vehicles, and shared autonomous EVs. 

However, transitioning across to cleaner fuels comes with some challenges for consumers and policymakers. For example, on a consumer level, the challenges include having access to the charging stations, driving range limitations, and delays with charger congestion. Further to this, consumers may be hesitant to purchase a renewable-powered vehicle as it is difficult to analyze the benefits and inconveniences when comparing hydrogen vehicles and EVs. 

“The infrastructure is the biggest challenge today and that has to be solved via a combination of grants, incentives, programs.”
- Dr. Rajit Gadh, Professor at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science from UCLA

At present, we have governments investing in transportation; however, the expenditure needs to be more diverse to invest in innovation, future technology, and planning. Along with the environmental benefits, there are some great economic side effects from establishing future technology transportation. Transitioning long-haul heavy trucks across to electric or hydrogen power will require a great amount of infrastructure to be developed. If governments invest in truck charging stations at various transportation routes, there can be tremendous opportunities for business growth and job opportunities. These charging stations will become rest points for truck drivers, allowing cafés, restaurants, and general places to reside to be established. This is particularly beneficial as transportation routes are often aligned through ‘disadvantaged areas, and the resulting economic growth would benefit these communities. 


Greenhouse gas management involves removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in order to reduce our future impacts. To sufficiently avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, carbon needs to be taken out of the air on a grand scale, ideally at a level of “five to 20 gigatons a year within about the next 10 years” stated by Johanna Wolfson, Principal at Prime Impact Fund.

Carbon can be removed from the air by natural approaches, such as forestation and soil sequestration. Alternatively, there are technological methods, such as capturing air with ‘synthetic trees’ and enhanced weathering – this involves provoking a natural reaction between minerals and carbon dioxide. Of course, greenhouse gas management also includes managing other gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. We need to consider managing methane, which is released from permafrost and is also a by-product of agricultural industries, and nitrous oxide, which is released by the overuse of fertilizers. 


Two key messages emerged during both of these panel conversations. Firstly, it was clear that there is not a single solution nor a single answer to solve the problem of greenhouse gases. As a global community, we should explore and invest in all possible technologies, rather than limiting ourselves to just one; for example, investing and innovating in all modes of transport, whether they be personal EVs and hydrogen vehicles or shared autonomous EVs.

Secondly, policymakers and those involved in innovation and technology need to work together, rather than relying on the other to be ready. We need to ensure that the technology is prepared so that policy can be implemented swiftly and more efficiently. A classic example has advanced technology in economic carbon capture, which would make it easier for policymakers to implement ‘economical’ carbon pricing. Alternatively, policymakers need to be forward-thinking – laying down the foundations, so to speak – and preparing for a technologically advanced future in decarbonization and carbon emissions management. 

However, in regards to investing and policymaking, it raises the question, what do we prioritize?

“We want to be a little bit strategic about staging (our priorities). Generally, we’d like to go in the order of efficiency, then decarbonization, then greenhouse gas management because that efficiency stretches out over time and makes the other two (pillars) easier”
- Jessy Rivest, Vice President and General Manager of Cleantech Business at Xerox PARC.

Based on the discussions through our panels, it is clear that our approach to create real, effective change should involve immobilizing investors, policymakers, and innovators to work quickly in the space of efficiency to give us the best chance to reduce the impacts of climate change before implementing decarbonization and greenhouse gas management approaches.

Success requires coordination in policy, business, and innovation. The catastrophic impacts of climate change are looming; our ability to reduce these impacts rests on each of our shoulders in our capacity to work quickly, and openly with each other. 


The Path to Net Zero: Cleantech through the Lens of Impact

Guest Speakers: Alex Kizer, Senior Vice President of Research and Analysis at Energy Futures Initiative Jessy Rivest, Vice President and General Manager of Cleantech Business at Xerox PARC Johanna Wolfson, Principal at Prime Impact Fund Moderator: Lara Pierpoint, Director of Climate at Actuate

Sustainable Transportation: Moving Toward Cleaner Vehicles and Better Mobility

Guest Speakers: Dr. Colin Sheppard, Chief Technology Officer at Marain Dr. Rajit Gadh, Professor at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA; Founder and Director of UCLA SMERC and WINMEC Dr. Kalai Ramea, Research Area Manager at Palo Alto Research Center

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