Sustainable Transportation to Pave the Way Towards a Cleaner, Greener and Inclusive Future with Richa Sahay

April 20, 2022

On March 8, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. From February 28 to April 6, Invest Ottawa, alongside dozens of strong local, regional, and national collaborators, marked the 4th International Women’s Week: IWW 2022.

Across industries spanning tech, entrepreneurship, academia, research, media, investment, smart mobility, cybersecurity, and beyond, IWW 2022 addressed the critical opportunities and challenges facing women leaders. Each event supported a shared goal to expedite change and move the dial to build a collaborative and inclusive community of women leaders from all walks of life to impact our economy and society significantly.

Concluding a series of impactful IWW 2022 events full throttle with women driving smart mobility innovation

As progression is made towards a future that is connected, autonomous, electrified and shared, and a safer, cleaner, and greener world with safer roads, road users, and sustainable transportation, cities and energy, it will take the development of a robust, diverse and inclusive talent pipeline.

But did you know? Women only comprise 22% of the transportation workforce, while less than 3% are in a CEO position. Research also shows that diverse and inclusive teams and companies achieve greater productivity, performance and profitability, especially when the leadership team is diverse.

On April 6, we went head-on and full throttle with smart mobility leaders from Ottawa, across Canada, the United States, and worldwide at the IWW 2022: Women Driving the Smart Mobility Revolution event, hosted by Area X.O, operated by Invest Ottawa and Women in Automotive Technology, Silicon Valley. Women leaders driving the smart mobility revolution joined us to address smart mobility challenges, global market opportunities, and the need to drive diversity, equity, and inclusion in the smart mobility landscape.

Moderated by Tech Reporter and CBC National Columnist Manjula Selvarajah, Richa Sahay, climate action leader with the United Nations in NYC, joined us for an engaging opening keynote fireside chat, providing views of her own on what’s needed to achieve sustainable transportation, net zero goals, and how women in smart mobility can play a role. She sets the stage for an impact-driven event that engages women in smart mobility on topics from technology and innovation to global markets, investment and policy.

Featured on the Ultimate List of Women Transportation Leaders, Richa sets the industry decarbonization agenda for the Secretary-General of the United Nations as part of the Climate Action Team that influences the key political and strategic considerations for heads of states and CEOs. Known for her voice on sustainability and as a featured expert in Forbes, Fortune, Fast Company, NPR, and other global media, Richa served as the former Lead of Automotive, Supply Chain and Logistics Industries at the World Economic Forum.

Keep reading to learn:

  • What’s needed to meet Net Zero goals
  • The need for investments in the private sector around renewable energy
  • How sustainable transportation is important to achieving decarbonization and a cleaner, greener future
  • How women can play a role in electric mobility and reshape the shared mobility narrative
  • The impact of climate change on women
  • Ways building a robust, diverse and inclusive talent pipeline can address challenges in sustainable transportation and climate change

Walk us through your career journey. What drew you to this intersection of automotive and climate action?

I am an expert on the Climate Action Team for the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, United Nations. I spend most of my days leveraging the Secretary-General’s political capital and platform to draw attention to how grave a situation we are in. I motivate and influence leaders and heads of states to do more. A lot of my work is research and being able to write speeches that will change peoples’ minds and hearts.

My journey towards sustainable mobility was a bit of an unconscious one, but I believe I’ve been working towards this all my life. I was born in New Delhi and was raised in Manila, Philippines. I spent most of my young adult life in New York City. Growing up in India and the Philippines, I saw and understood this desire to mark your success by buying a luxury vehicle and consuming luxury products. But something about that reckless overconsumption didn’t sit right with me.

So I came to New York to study and did my master’s at Columbia University. I studied how economic growth and the relationship with emissions growth can be reversed. I researched with the US Environmental Protection Agency and then came to the World Economic Forum where I spent most of my time there.

One of my first projects on the mobility team was to set up a project in India to accelerate electric mobility there. You can turn a large country around through smart policymaking, incentive, and investments. I distinctly remember being at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in a small room of CEOS that were all men. I had to present and persuade these CEOs to partake in a coalition to accelerate EVs in India. It was a daunting moment, but those are the moments you have to step up. Today, we now have a lot of investments in charging infrastructure due to the coalition.

Since then, I was brought onto this team where I engage more with governments, whereas previously at the World Economic Forum, I did a lot more with the private sector.

What is the impact climate change will have on women?

Research shows that marginalized communities and vulnerable people are most likely to have the greatest impact due to climate change. Specifically, 80% of people displaced today due to climate change are women. And 70% of 1.3 billion people living in poverty conditions are women.

When you think about sectors like agriculture, 50-80% of food production is done by women, and only 10% of land is women-owned. Women are already marginalized and in a vulnerable state in sectors that will be affected by climate change. And likely, their existing marginalization keeps them from being able to adapt as climate change shifts in very unpredictable ways.

Another important issue to raise, especially in poorer parts, is that domestic violence and sexual intimidation also spike due to climate change. The unpredictability of climate change will affect those who are more vulnerable. If women are not in leadership roles, how will we redirect the ways companies should perform in a climate crisis scenario? It’s deeply important for women’s engagement in this challenge. We need those vulnerable to have a say and a seat at the table.

We know we have to make bold changes to meet net zero goals. What could those transitions look like?

Canada’s warming is twice the global rate in all the countries, and it’s three times more in the North. This has to be addressed very quickly. It isn’t a country-by-country issue but truly an intergovernmental challenge requiring collective action but, to some extent, differentiated responsibilities.

Emerging markets need to take a step forward. The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report came out, and climate scientists are warning that if we don’t shift the way we are acting now, we will be more than double the 1.5°C degrees, which was the goal set at the Paris Agreement.

By 2030, we need to reduce carbon emissions by 45% to keep the 1.5°C degrees alive. The upside to this is that it is possible because technologies are being invested, and the investment rate in solutions has risen. The awareness level has increased as well. Actions need to happen now for us to be set up in 2030. The long-term view with short-term action is something that our world is struggling with. I think we can reduce 45% of emissions by 2030 to keep us in the safe zone of a 1.5°C degrees increase in global warming since industrialization.

What would you like to see the private sector do in support of these goals?

The private sector can play a huge role, and we cannot meet these goals without the private sector. First and foremost, we need to triple our investment in renewable energy. Five to ten years ago, solar and wind prices were multiple numbers higher. Now, it’s at a place where you could almost see parity between the cost of solar and wind to fossil fuels.

The shift in speed towards renewable energy needs to triple, which does not mean just taking the extra money and putting it into renewable. It also means moving away from fossil fuels and coal. It’s a political issue, and it isn’t easy. Thousands of people’s lives and generations of coal miners rely on this industry that has kept them afloat. So the transition must not be abrupt and equitable for those affected. I’m heartened that there is a lot of great road mapping and solutions put in place, and I think it’s a political will to be able to go out and convince the populace that this is the right way to go about it.

How important is the transition to sustainable transportation solutions to achieving these goals?

Transporation is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle, which is why I became so entrenched in the climate change issue with the penchant to do something about it. For example, 25% of global CO2 comes from transportation. The IPCC report says that we should see a 50% increase if we don’t move away.

There’s also immense innovation in transportation, especially in the road transport and public transport space. The interest in this space is humongous, and we can see that the cost of batteries is getting slashed over the years. Suppose I were to signal where more investment needs to go. In that case, I’d say it should be in the shipping and aviation industry sectors where more money needs to go into producing ammonia and synthetic fuels that can replace fossil fuels. These fuels are not cheap, but they need to be for them to be used, so greater demands need to be driven towards them.

You mentioned that electric vehicles are infused with a sense of femininity and that this may have hurt the electric car movement in the early days. What do you mean?

There is a lost history of electric vehicles. In 1897, there was movement from horse carriages to automotive, and the best-selling car was an electric vehicle. The Electric Vehicle Company in the United States was briefly the largest automotive manufacturer. The history of EVs goes way before petrol and gas-guzzling cars. Because there were still issues about the battery range (as seen today), very strong petrol and gas lobbying tried to defame EVs.

As gas-powered vehicles started to rise, the connotation of electric vehicles became one of a woman’s car. A woman’s car and EVs were associated with providing short trips back in the day. They were lightweight and not complex; reliable but not powerful. And interestingly enough, Henry Ford gave his wife an electric vehicle and not even one of his Model T vehicles. There was a desire to limit independence by giving women electric vehicles. As a result, EV companies could not keep up with petrol-powered cars and the demand for EVs was limited to women. There were only about 10%, at best, of women drivers.

In 2003, a few innovators figured out that you can recharge a battery, and that’s when electric vehicles started to make a comeback. This story shows how far back and how deeply entrenched it is in societal norms. We need more women in the EV space so that this male-dominated sector doesn’t set the path for what is to come.

What is the role women can play in automotive and electric mobility?

I don’t think there is one answer, and my answer changes by the day. We need to debunk women’s association with the automotive sector as being equipped only to be in sales and advocacy. We must think of women beyond these two roles. There are currently so many powerful women in transport who are engineers or in the shared mobility space, such as Pamela Fletcher and Robin Chase, to name a few.

There are so many incredible examples of leaders changing and rethinking how mobility should be done. I believe that the role of women is to challenge the existing narrative that vehicles need to be owned by one person or that one internal combustion engine should be replaced directly with one electric vehicle.

If we want more women in this sector, where and how do we start to make changes to bring more women in?

Forums like the 2022 International Women’s Week are incredibly important to know that there are women standing in front of CEOs, telling them what they should be doing right, and acting as leaders in this space. These forums also allow women to hear from one another.

Women also need to advocate for one another more vocally. To prepare for our International Women’s Week discussion, I had to deeply research the names of different women leaders and engineers in this space, but I should not have had to do that. Women’s names should be at the tip of everyone’s tongue, and more media around bringing awareness. To expand on my earlier point, we must acknowledge that women are not just in sales, HR, and advocacy positions but also great engineers, product managers, CEOs, and leaders.

Investors also need to make sure that the companies they invest in have female leadership and, just as importantly, women on boards. We need diverse perspectives and people with different viewpoints that will rethink the smart mobility revolution. It is not a lack of talent but a change in the perspective of what women can do in this sector.

What things do you see that get you excited and optimistic at the intersection of climate change and automotive?

I’m a big proponent of leveraging and refocusing investments into inherently good technologies for the planet. I’m excited to see how many innovators have come into this space trying to shift the way we produce and consume energy. What inspires me is that the new generation of innovators doesn’t see mammoth industries as impenetrable but rather a way to challenge these sectors by coming up with more net zero materials.

We’re still quite far away from completely transforming our energy planning. We need to think not just about incremental changes but transformative changes. For example, we must think about the building, steel, cement, and transportation sectors as one integrated system that needs energy to create sectoral synergies. I’m starting to see a lot of that kind of cross-sectoral thinking.

Additionally, after Uber and Lyft, there have been many types of car-sharing platforms. I appreciate the platforms that recognize in some parts of the world, like Saudi Arabia and others, where women are not allowed to or cannot move around easily. It’s nice to see innovators addressing a very specific and difficult societal issue and coming up with solutions for carpooling, specifically for women. These simple solutions have gone far to address a variety of issues.

If you were to leave us with one call to action today, what would it be?

The challenge with humanity is that it has been myopia, with myopic gains and short-term gains. Think of everything you do every time you sit in a private vehicle, consume, get deliveries to your house or use plastic. And then think of those who are very far away, living in the Maldives or elsewhere, and the impact your action has on them. It might be a short-term gain for you to have convenience, but it severely impacts others afar. So my call to action for all is to internalize the awareness that your action can be somebody else’s problem when it comes to climate change. We have to think for others and not for ourselves.


Listen to the recorded session of the IWW 2022: Women Driving the Smart Mobility Revolution on our YouTube Channel, along with other inspirational IWW 2022 events.

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