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Inside Hewlett Foundation’s plan to electrify all road transportation by 2050

EVs charging in New Delhi, India

The Hewlett Foundation’s plan to electrify all road transportation by 2050 focuses on four major regions: India; China; the U.S.; and Europe.

Pradeep Gaurs

Foundations, celebrity philanthropists and tech giants alike have announced plans this year, with grand sums of money attached, to combat climate change. What caught my eye about the Hewlett Foundation’s recently announced zero-emissions strategy is the specific focus on road transportation decarbonization. 

The goal: eliminate the use of the combustion engine in personal vehicles and the trucking industry by 2050. The foundation hopes that by accomplishing this in four regions — the United States, China, India and Europe — enough global momentum will be achieved to stop the heating of the atmosphere.

I sat down with Anand Gopal, who heads up the Hewlett Foundation’s clean transportation grantmaking, to dig deeper into the plan. A former research scientist in clean energy and transportation at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Gopal has a grant-making philosophy that focuses on electrifying the global economy quickly, resiliently and reliably with clean power.

Here are some notable learnings from his interview with GreenBiz:

  • The Hewlett Foundation (HF) has been a long-term, large funder in clean transportation since 2008. Since its inception, the focus has been on trying to build strong international policies in favor of green transport. In the past, the strategy was around minimizing pollution through reducing the demand for miles, energy and engine efficiency, and mobility pricing. Only recently has a vision to achieve zero emissions become clear through electric vehicles, thanks to advancements in battery technology.
  • HF focuses on road transportation electrification, instead of more broadly incorporating air and marine. The foundation believes this focused strategy will yield benefits to people and diversified communities by mitigating the worst effects of climate change while improving air quality and health and creating jobs. Hewlett focuses solely on road transportation (passenger and freight movement) because it represents nearly 80 percent of transportation emissions, which theoretically presents the greatest opportunity for success using philanthropic funding. Gopal said, "We realized that we're in a pivotal moment, in the next five or six years, which is a make-or-break for climate. We need to do everything we can in this period, to be able to tip the market, super fast."
  • Who gets the money? A brief 101 on climate funding and the grantee process. Although HF makes a lot of direct grants to NGOs, it also works through grantee partners, which receive money from endowed foundations such as the HF. Re-granting partners in the U.S., Europe, China and India (such as the European Climate Foundation, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation and the Energy Foundation) cover their own individual geographic regions, while multinationals such as ClimateWorks Foundation cover cross-geographical work.
  • How can $210 million per year, spread amongst various organizations, really make an impact? When I balked at this number, Gopal clarified that philanthropic capital looks for points of leverage to unlock the money needed for larger investments into building charging stations, consumer financing and everything else. A main point of leverage is the regions of focus need the ability to regulate vehicles and focus on vehicle standards, similar to how the United States sets transportation emissions standards. If those targets and regulations are strengthened, then "we basically are unlocking the market for private finance and capital flow," he said.
  • How does the plan address the grid that will need to support EVs? Many philanthropic organizations have been funding a lot of initiatives related to the power-sector side, in terms of cleaning up power generation, and will continue to do that. Fortunately, Gopal said, solar and wind energy are cheaper than coal everywhere and the prices are dropping in India and China at much faster rates than in the U.S. and in Europe. Therefore, primary funding from HF in the power sector goes to help these international governments meet their own goals of decarbonizing the power sector.
  • What is HF’s strategy different from what other foundations are doing? Gopal pointed to two primary differences. The first is the strategic focus on bringing together a broad coalition of diverse actors to accelerate change in the transport sector. HF wants to empower a wide variety of diverse groups, following the belief that local communities have the best strategy on how to work with their own governments. The second reason is its focus on job creation. Gopal stated that there is "an incredible opportunity for most countries to focus in on this transformation while also building out domestic manufacturing and other supply chains that will be incredibly beneficial in terms of not only job creation but the nature of those jobs — they will be a lot less dangerous and a lot less hazardous for workers." 

Lastly, Gopal emphasized that The Zero Emission Transportation Strategy was created and completed in consultation with the foundation’s extensive grantee network. 

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