Traffic ahead: Navigating the road to carbon neutrality

Anthony Y. Ku, Chris Greig, Eric Larson

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The journey to carbon neutrality will require trillions of dollars of capital investment over many years. Analytical models based on foresight offer guidance, but an overreliance on them can lead to a myopic focus on a single pathway. Some argue that the solution is to develop higher-resolution models, fed with increasingly granular data. Here, we note that real-time feedback is an important and underappreciated complement to this approach. We discuss how nations and corporations are currently embarking on the energy transition with the equivalent of a high-level map. The ambition is clear, but there is a lack of confidence in the best route. Routing options and conditions are changing rapidly. We outline the features of a navigation app for the energy transition that offers real-time, actionable guidance for the energy transition would be hugely beneficial. The essential function of such an app would be to collect, secure, process, and present data in a way that can support decisions by relevant actors. Such a capability would require three essential elements: route topology awareness with high-resolution details of the benefits and costs of different decarbonization options; data platforms that provide insight into the real-time situation; and trade-off tools that readily convey accurate, up-to-date, and easily-interpretable estimates of switching costs. These elements exist at varying levels of maturity, and improvement and integration is needed to deliver the utility and convenience of a road travel app. This Perspective draws on our collective experience mapping paths to carbon neutrality for the Princeton Net-Zero America study and one of China's largest energy companies (China Energy) to develop the idea of navigation apps for the energy transition. Starting with a resolved accounting of CO2 emissions, we illustrate the importance of accounting for differing motivations and leverage among actors. We discuss the essential features of a navigation app and show how progress in these areas can help address bottlenecks in large-scale clean energy deployment. We conclude with a call for increased collaboration with tech companies to accelerate development of these capabilities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number102686
JournalEnergy Research and Social Science
StatePublished - Sep 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Nuclear Energy and Engineering
  • Fuel Technology
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


  • Carbon neutrality
  • China
  • Decarbonization
  • Infrastructure
  • Net-zero
  • Transition
  • United States


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