What’s the Future of Green Transportation? | Ryan Allard for Project Drawdown
Now we're going to talk to Ryan Allard. Ryan is one of the world's leading thinkers about how transportation needs to change in order to address climate change. We were really lucky to have Ryan as part of the Project Drawdown team as one of our research scholars. Well, Ryan, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it. And I wanted to start off by asking you to think a little bit about kind of, you know, what are some of the biggest challenges facing us around climate change today? What are some of the things that kind of worry you when you think about this issue? Yes, thanks for having me on today, Jon. I think it's really about seeing ourselves as connected people, right? Because we think of, okay, we can take action in a certain way if we’re interested regarding the climate. But we
don't see how our actions affect other people and vice versa, right? So we know climate change is a global problem, and we think of countries and nation states taking action and individual companies taking action. But the need to have collaboration around them, between these different entities, is so important, and we don't always see that, you know. Once in awhile we see some big initiative to get that collaboration, to get better. And certainly what Project Drawdown is doing helps with that. So I think that's a big potential there for improvements, although we're seeing some sparks of progress there, which is great. Yeah, that's a really good point, because we need to find solutions together. There is no one, you know, country, no one agency, no one company, no one set of individuals that could possibly address this alone.
So one of the biggest obstacles we have is really about collaboration, I guess, and how we can work together to do something that's, ironically though, in all of our best interests to achieve. It's strange that we have such a hard time collaborating on something that's such a kind of obvious thing to do. And in terms of, for instance, when you look at, in the transportation space, specifically, you know, we – What's the dominant mode of transportation for urban environments? It's car, right? It's an individual. It's a particular environment you're recreating, on your way to work or wherever you're moving.
And that has an impact on other people, right? You cause traffic, you know. These days with COVID-19, most people are home, so it's a bit of a reprieve from that kind of congestion and the impact on the economy and society. But it really is about a personal choice that you make every single day of the year to go to work, or go travel, to play, whatever it is. And that impact has consequences on others.
So for instance, when we talk about behavior change, that's also about thinking about other people, you know. In some cases, at the same time as when you think about your own behavior, but also in other cases, it's maybe even before you think about your, your – the impacts of your own behavior, you know. So putting those two things together, even at that personal level is really important. Collaboration, it's all of that. Yeah, you raise a really good point, I mean, like. When we are driving in the highway or something like that, stuck in traffic. We always think, everybody else is the traffic. I'm not traffic. They're traffic. Well, wait a minute, I'm traffic to those people, you know? And so – They should all take the bus to allow me to drive and, like, use the road Yeah, exactly. There's an old, I don't know if you know, this guy named Yogi Berra, he used to say something like,
"Oh, nobody goes there anymore, because it's too crowded." It's a famous saying, but anyway. Well, why don't we start talking about like climate solutions? I mean, you're a world-renowned expert in a lot of these climate solution areas, so what I'd like to hear from you, in your own words, kind of like, what do you see as some really great opportunities for climate solutions? Some things that get you very excited, opportunities you see for even better developments in the future? Where would you begin? Where do you find the most optimism right now? Definitely electric vehicles. Electric transportation in general. You know, there's a lot of excitement there, and I think it’s, it’s, it’s – probably because two of the biggest drivers for any climate solution tend to be technology and markets, right? And it tends to be something that excites the private sector to get involved, regardless of any kind of government policy. And I think that's where you see that very clearly, right? So of course, Tesla is leading the way, but you have all other companies saying, "Oh, we need to get involved in this before we miss the boat,” right? So, there's all this excitement about not just the cars, but trucks, electric trucks. You're seeing excitement about
electric aircraft, you know, which is much further away, honestly. But you are seeing a lot of that excitement happening already which is really inspiring. I think that individual companies and individuals now see they're – they can see how they fit into that aspect of transportation and the climate, right? They can see themselves buying a car, they can see themselves being part of that supply chain. If it's, you know, dealing with a Tesla or any of those more legacy companies that are transitioning to electric, right? You hear companies talking about creating new facilities that are only for constructing electric vehicles. You have
huge investments in new battery systems, battery production systems. You have all the scaling issues, for instance, the Gigafactory, the Tesla, and how they want to do a lot more around the world. So the excitement is there, you know, and a huge community is created just about electric cars, electric vehicles. Which is good, but that's not the only thing, right? I think there's a lot of interest now, maybe pushed on by the, the COVID-19 pandemic, on having mobility where you're separated from people, right? So that brings up things like, okay, now, you know, maybe I want to walk, to go where I need to go, or I can take a bike, or I can take an electric bike, or whatever it is. But I'm doing it on my own, but without having to be in a vehicle
where maybe you're more at risk. Now, that might be a short-term trend, right? But we are seeing even before COVID-19, we've been seeing a lot of adoption of new, new urbanism, basically, in cities around the world where you look at more holistic mobility for people, right? So you're, you're traveling with shared modes, typically, which now would be a bit, you know, subdued because of COVID-19, but it's shared modes, it's using, you know, more biking, more active modes, where you're using your own body to get you there. It's healthier, there's more community inclusion, you know, it's a different trend, towards healthier community generally in cities, right? I think it's taken off more in other parts of the world than in the U.S., but the U.S. is catching on. Right?
So I think that's pretty exciting, because that's where we need to go to, right? We can't really live in a world with electric gridlock. We can electrify every vehicle on the planet, and we’ll still have congestion, and maybe gridlock in some parts. So I think those two trends are giving good signs, and I think generally the interest around transportation and urban, you know, improving the quality of urban life, in a world where we have climate change, is improving. I think that's really exciting. Yeah, that's a really good point, because, you know, we can electrify the current, you know, fleet of vehicles down the road and, okay, and even assuming we could, you know, do that all with renewable electricity, which will still be kind of challenging for early on. We're still going to have gridlock and terrible life experiences of people stuck in traffic and commuting all the time. That wouldn't really make that part of it better, but if we rethink, you know, kind of how cities are designed and how we get around, or whether we need to get around. The one thing is, sadly is kind of a, maybe a benefit of the pandemic lockdown is people have learned, "I can go to work on a screen. I don't have to physically move my body to another office to have a conversation with somebody.”
The videoconferencing is working really well. For some things – you can't replace everything, but it’s become a pretty good substitute. So in Drawdown, we've talked about that, and some of your research in this, you know, is part of the solution set there was, you know, telepresence, more, you know, better designed cities, kind of better bicycling, electric bikes are taking off all over the country, all over the world, and then electrifying vehicles. But we've got to think more holistically than just take a bad system and put a battery in it. That’s not the only th– you know, we can do better than that. Yeah, absolutely, I already think of you mentioned telepresence. I really like that one because it's not something that people consider a transportation solution, but it absolutely affects transportation, right? And that's something we have to look at in the modeling itself to figure out how you do that comparison, right? But there's a lot of research on telepresence, way before Project Drawdown, way before COVID-19, the interest was there.
But I think there was - there were attempts for companies in the past to transition their workforces to be telecommuting, yes? And it was, it was almost a wave, you know. It happened back in the early 2000s, you know, all this new technology coming out, people said, "Okay, let's do it on Skype," and back then there was no Zoom, right? So they would switch. But then many companies called back their workers, for some reason. In some cases, they thought that they weren't able to keep tabs on them to make sure they were working. In some cases, they thought the collaboration wasn't as engaging, wasn't as effective. In other cases they just wanted to be able to see people. Some people weren't enjoying the time alone at home, right? And even today, we see that with people saying they have Zoom fatigue. Or they have, you know, they don't like being at home
such a long time by themselves. So there is this, this issue where now the pandemic has forced us to do it again, to go back to the entire world of lockdown, working remotely. But there is a potential that some of that might recoil once we get, once we have a vaccine up and running, and we get out of lockdown, you know.
So there is a risk that we go back, you know, to where we were before. But there is a difference with this trend, I think, compared to what we saw in the 2000s which is that now it's global. Now, it's not just some advanced companies thinking "Oh, let's just try this out." Everybody has been forced to consider it and really weigh the pros and cons. So you have quite a few companies that may not have considered it in the past say "Well, now actually, it works for business for many circumstances." So we can see a trend there that is likely
to have more sticking power than in the past. That's really exciting. But as one point to make, on that note, the research before COVID-19 shows that telepresence has helped, but it does hurt in mobility in some ways. Meaning that it has reduced mobility, right, you can work from home, so you don't need to go into the office, but it has allowed you to feel that well, now I can go and do a trip for my, my kid, pick them up from work from their, from their school. I can go and do a few extra trips, you know, for other, my other errands I need to run. I can go do other things,
and in some cases that has increased the amount of vehicle miles on the road. Right, so there is a trade-off we need to be aware of there. Policy needs to be involved to make sure that we don't go too much in one direction. Right? Yeah, one of the things that was interesting about the lockdown, too, is that everybody was forced to go home, not just people who live far away, or people with maybe family to take care of. It's like even the managers, you know, from the CEO to the, you know, to every worker in the company, everybody was sent home. And so they're all experiencing it together, you know, it wasn't like us-and-them culture of like, the people who went to the office had one kind of work culture and everybody else was left out.
It's like everybody's experiencing the same thing. And every company, every organization, every school had to do it together. That never happened before, so maybe this will have at least some lasting value of, at least I hope, of maybe avoiding some of the unnecessary work travel. Especially like the, you know, God, I hated spending so much time in airplanes for my job, especially working on climate change. Seems pretty weird. Now, maybe we really don't have to as much. It'll be a lot easier to give a conference seminar, and the culture has changed,
maybe for the better, maybe for good, to get rid of some of that stuff. I can imagine a world where we have – that can lead to I suppose more – direct the world toward democratization, you know, you're breaking down the barriers of who can attend said conference, right? When it becomes standard for you to have an event and you have an enormous attendance virtually. Even if it's a physical event, it's going to be common now to have that be a significant portion of attendance. So I think that's great.
Yeah, that's good, it makes it easier for people with less money, people who have you know, families to take care of, it could help maybe – Or further away, right? Yeah, well, exactly, you know, help with internationalization and maybe more equity for more people to participate in these kind of conversations which is really cool. Well what are some of the other kind of really great trends you see in climate solutions? We talked about electrification, kind of urban design, telepresence. What are some other areas you think are pretty exciting? Yeah, I think – So we talked about aviation, right? Aviation vehicle efficiency improvement has been on the books for a while, right? Now, airlines have, you know, in the past, it was about a third of their cost, the operation costs, attributed to fuel costs, right? Now that fuel is more expensive, of course, they're going to...fuel prices, they were negative a bit of time. And it means that that component, assuming that, you know, demand for aviation is back to where it was, that could be much lower, much more subdued.
But there, there were already some steps in the right direction, although the steps weren't nearly enough, right? So there was some market-based approaches being considered such as the, the cost-share program, which is basically a market approach for reducing emissions in the aviation sector by adding costs to airlines, individual airlines and countries, emitting above a certain amount, right? So that, unfortunately, has seen a bit of a shake-up due to COVID-19, because, of course, the industry has plummeted in terms of demand recently, right? Slowly picking back up, but that's something that needs to be looked at in this new environment. But the trend before that was promising, right? It showed that not just adoption of technologies to improve efficiencies of the vehicles themselves, you know, wingtips, lighter materials, lighter – I thought, for instance, some students at – it might have been one of the major U.S. universities, maybe MIT or one of the others, where they designed a trolley cart that was much lighter than the more traditional ones.
Right? Which, of course, on a global scale can have an impact in terms of reducing the weight that these aircraft take up every time we fly, right? So you know, students are involved, companies are involved, you know, investors are really excited about it. That's a good thing. Now, the biggest impact definitely would have to be in biofuels. And we're seeing a lot of research there. So the exciting thing there is that you don't need to change aircraft too much. Basically, you have a fuel that replaces, more or less on a one-to-one basis, traditional jet fuel, jet air fuel. Right? Which is good! Does it mean that
airlines don't, from their perspective, they don't need to do too much change, they don't need to have too much of an investment in the vehicles. So that's good. There have been some teething problems, right? Getting supply, making sure it's consistent, and showing it is actually reducing emissions. Because you may be reducing the, some emissions in the development of the fuel, but when you look at the entire life cycle, you have to grow the fuel, and you have to process the fuel, you're losing some of the material during that process. When you do all of that, it might actually increase emissions. So you have to be very careful about all of those elements. So in some cases, it has been going in there, and that's been pretty exciting. Again, the industry is going through a bit of a change now, but there's a lot of excitement, even around battery aircraft, you know, some of the bigger producers, you know, Boeing and Airbus producing, or partnering at least with maybe start-ups or having some of the research units develop test aircraft, that are electrically powered, right? So there's really exciting stuff happening in this space right now.
Yeah, well let’s, let’s maybe recap what you just said about aviation, because there's a lot there to unpack for people viewing this. So first of all, you're saying like, you know, planes have just gotten more fuel efficient. I think they have more or less doubled their fuel efficiency in a short amount of time, faster than cars have, in some ways by making lighter materials, by packing us all on the plane a little bit more tightly, by making sure there are no empty seats and all that kind of stuff, making you pay for your bags and all this kind of thing. But even like small things. Like I know some airlines were like not painting, changing the paint on the outside of the plane. Doesn't sound like a lot, but when you paint, you know, a thousand airplanes a couple millimeters of paint, there's actually a fair amount of weight associated with that, and you fly it several thousand times. It's a little bit of efficiency, the little wingtips, too, that were added.
So there's maybe some more we can eke out on efficiency, but now we have to kind of think about switching fuels from a fossil fuel, like, you know, basically jet fuel, to something that is similar to jet fuel but made from the air essentially, by biology, a biofuel, like algae that can make, you know, turn into a biofuel. Or a synthetic fuel. There are chemical processes, you could pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and reduce it back down to like, through a Fischer-Tropsch reaction to something like kerosene, right? So, something like a jet fuel. That would be really beneficial to commercial and military aviation because there – you know, a lot of money is sunk into those airplanes already. And imagine a world where you can, you can do that, and even when you are processing the, the plant material to turn it into fuel, you capture emissions that would have been released, right. So you're able to reduce much more significantly
the emissions that would be created for that fuel. Right? So although when you're flying and you're using a fuel, you're burning and producing emissions, fine. But when you are processing, when you're growing, you're absorbing up carbon dioxide, you're sequestering it, right? When you're processing all those plants to turn them into fuel, you're also trapping the, the emissions that would have been released, right? So we gather the two ends and get to reduce those emissions which is really exciting. But the problem, like we see with other biofuels, like ethanol in the United States, for example, based on corn, it really depends on how you grow it, what are the inputs to growing it, the whole, you know, what we call the life cycle of growing a biofuel. Sometimes there are some sneaky little things that we have to take a hard look at. You mentioned batteries. The problem, I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, you know a lot more about this than I do. You know,
batteries are heavier materials to create the same amount of energy that jet fuel will be. The amount of energy in a liter of jet fuel is enormous. And to replace that, the chemical energy with a battery storing electricity would weigh a lot more with even today's technology of batteries and be pretty expensive. And then getting back, yeah, we need propellers, but you know, jet engines that are electric are just really pretty far away from today.
So do you really see electric planes as, like, a really viable option, or is it more just maybe local commuter planes? What I would say is it depends on your timeline, right? Climate changes are long-scale problems, long-timeline problems. We need to act as soon as possible, clearly, right? But aviation electrified is going to take some time for it to be a global, a high-impact global solution, right? But right now we, the aircraft that are in testing, and the ones that have actually done charter flights, they're still very small aircraft, right? But as you scale up the aircraft size to carry more people, the energy density and energy power needed go up very significantly, right? When you're moving a jumbo jet, you know, you're talking about, you know, thousands of pounds of people or bags, or equipment, just miles and miles of electrical equipment in the aircraft. All of that needs to be taken with you in flight. So the complexity increases quite significantly, and therefore, the power demands increase quite significantly. So we're not there yet. Right? And in case, in the event, or in the situation where we actually design and create an aircraft that can carry, let's say, you know, a medium-haul aircraft, right, we're talking maybe 120 people or so, when we get to that stage, we still need to go through a significant testing process, evaluation process, with all these global aviation bodies, right? The FAA, for instance. That is a radically new aircraft from what we have today. So that process needs to be, you know, we need to test every single thing so we see what happens in some of the aircraft today. That scares people, right?
I mean, rightfully so, people feel a bit afraid about flying. So we definitely need to go through an extensive process which will delay when that kind of aircraft can join the global fleet. And then when it's in the global fleet, it will take awhile before it gets diffused enough where you can actually, you know, book a random flight and have a chance of flying on an electric aircraft. So it will take some time. Best estimates I've seen are 2040 for medium-haul aircraft, a single aisle or, probably much longer before you get to a twin-aisle aircraft where you have your 10 people across or nine people across in each row. So until that
point, we can look at short-haul, like you said, right? So we're looking at aircraft that might take maybe 90, 100 people, 70, right? And you do have a lot of flights in that region, the, in the distance that you can take, you know, people with that capacity, right? So today, we look at what we call a hub-and-spoke systems or point-to-point system. These are the airline networks. So if you look at the map of what an airline, or the cities it connects, you might see a couple of hubs, right? So there we'll see many of the aircraft, many of the flights go through a particular hub, maybe New York, might be London, might be Paris, wherever it is, and that tends to be called a hub-and-spoke system, right? The hub is that big airport, and all the small airports are the spokes. But there's a trend now in the industry to get what is called the point-to-point system where I don't want to go to the big airport that slows me down, is more expensive, I have to wait in line. So people are willing to pay for those flights when you go directly to your destination. What that means then, is you
can end up using more aircraft, therefore more fuel or electricity, whatever the energy source is. But it also means you can use smaller aircraft, right, because you don't have as many people demanding these point-to-point trips. So in those cases, you might see a greater demand for something like regional aircraft, which is good. So you might have a balance, though, because although you have the use of more regional aircraft, you also have more aircraft and more flights in general. So the jury's out on whether that's going to be an increase or a decrease in energy consumption for airlines and emissions.
May I ask you a kind of a final question? It's like, what do you see as the, you know, kind of big obstacles to achieving kind of a sustainable, climate-friendly transportation sector? What are the pins we've got a knock down next? You know, you mentioned electric vehicles and maybe some electric aircraft, but what are some other things we have to kind of overcome to really get to that sustainable frontier? Right. Well, on the technology side, we have to look at all modes of transportation, right? So, as we said, we can't have everybody driving electric cars and say that we're sustainable. That helps, but it doesn't get us to where we need to go, right? We need to have people using mass, mass transit, people using bikes, using, you know, their feet, walking, etcetera, right? That requires a culture change in many parts of the world, right? It requires a culture change for the designers of cities, the urban planners for the, you know, the people that live in cities, for the people that supply the technologies, and that's not easy. Culture change does not happen immediately. Or zoning! Yeah. Absolutely. And when you look at the countries or the cities, especially, that are leading in that way, you know, we tend
to talk about Amsterdam, and you know and Copenhagen being bicycle cities, right? But in the-’70s, they had a lot of congestion. They were car-based cities, right? They had consistent policy over many decades, with a commitment at the highest level, the political level, to say "No, we want to convert our cities into the best places to live." Right? Not places for cars, cars will be supported, but the best places for people, because the cities are designed for people, right? So I think that culture change happens both at the level of individuals, and planners, as well as the politicians, the leaders to say, "This is very important for people, this is important for cities, we want to insist on this," right? Of course bring people in, bring in the CSOs, the community-based organizations.
Bring in the, the companies to bring those technologies, to bring the funding that's needed. But you need to insist that this is a change for the city for the better. Right? And now's a great time to do it because I think there is a trend, there's interest in it, right? Individuals, you know, young people are out protesting saying, "We need better, we need better from our leaders," right? So that is a key part of making that change happen.
You don't have to force it from the top down, it's not bottom up, it's everybody coming together. As we said in the beginning, collaboration, right? So that culture change is the key part of it. And I think the important thing, too, is to look at the – you have to balance the negatives and the positives. Or I like to say, the incentives and disincentives, you know. So when you look at what happened in London, in Stockholm, and in Singapore where they created what are called cordon zones, or congestion charging zones, or congestion reduction zones, basically, right, where in order for you to get into the city with your car, your private car, you pay a small fee every time you enter. And the idea is, you don't just want to charge people because you say you want to demonize the car. The idea is to balance the
costs that you are paying to use your car to be more in line with the societal costs. So what does that mean? Like we said, Jon, when you drive, you cause congestion for other people, right? You don't pay for that congestion. You only pay for the congestion that other people charge on you effectively, right? By them being on the road when you're on the road. But you don't pay generally for the air pollution you cause. You don't pay for the noise pollution you cause and all these other externalities. So the idea of a congestion charge is saying, well, we want to make sure you, you pay a fair price when you enter the city. It's a very high density area. There's a lot of demand for the street space. Make sure you pay a fair price, so when you
come in, you just make that balanced decision in your mind to use the car, or use the bus or the train or whatever other options you have. And that has been quite successful in these cities, so much so that now New York recently passed a law, or passed, I believe it's called a resolution, I forget the exact terminology, where they would put in congestion pricing in downtown, which is great because it is going to be the first North American city to do so, right? So culture change, very important, top all the way down to the youth, right? And definitely making sure we have a balance of what the costs are for your mobility as you move around your daily lives, as you're traveling, and as you're living. Right? So I think once you bring those two together, we can have significant impact on transportation and certainly in other sectors.
Yeah, well, I think we have to leave it there, but I love your point here that, I think, thinking of all this together, it's like we need some changes to behavior, of course, we need some changes to policy, and you know, how we kind of, you know, think about how we invest in transportation and all the factors, environmental, health, mobility costs, all that, and changes in technology, of course, in how do we even power ourselves and get around this, you know. This kind of thing. So, you know, those three working together can affect, you know, really tremendous change, if they work synergistically which is going to be the point. And as we began, you know, thinking about this, it's really going to require a great deal of collaboration across everybody working together to make this happen, so. Well, thank you so much, Ryan, this was really, really fantastic. Thank you very much for being part of this.