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BNEF Pioneers 2021 - net-zero challenges

Other innovations

Call for project closed the 19 Feb. 2021

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Subject of the call for project

Every year, the Pioneers program identifies the most impactful and original technology innovations for advancing the low-carbon economy. 

In 2021, BNEF analysts have identified three global net-zero challenges to focus on and will award the Pioneers prize to innovators with scalable, impactful and equitable solutions to these challenges.

Earnings and benefits

In 2021, BNEF analysts have identified three global net-zero challenges to focus on and will award the Pioneers prize to innovators with scalable, impactful and equitable solutions to these challenges.

Description of the call for projects

2021 net-zero challenges

While we welcome applications that demonstrate climate-tech innovation of all types, we have chosen three specific net-zero challenges to focus on in 2021.

  • Challenge 1: Managing and optimizing long-haul freight : 

    The transport sector was responsible for 22% of global CO2 emissions in 2020. A significant portion of these emissions come from road, maritime and airborne freight – areas with few near-term decarbonization options. The problem of decarbonizing long-haul freight is compounded because up to 40% of miles traveled are ’empty’. We need to find innovations to manage payloads better, match supply and demand to reduce empty miles, eliminate bottlenecks and route congestion, decarbonize cold-chain transit and protect perishable goods. These could range from IoT software to quantum computing, better forms of city planning and new cold storage materials.
  • Challenge 2: Advancing materials and techniques for sustainable products : 

    From concrete to steel, plastics and electronics, everything we use has a carbon footprint. Creating these products generates about 20% of global emissions and there are currently limited decarbonization options. Making high-quality, functional, carbon-neutral goods will involve innovations in materials and feedstocks, manufacturing techniques and product configurations. Designing for decarbonization can include creating products that are stronger, lighter, easier to repurpose or recycle, and longer lasting.
  • Challenge 3: Monitoring and understanding our changing planet : 

    Humanity has emitted over 1,500 gigatons of carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution, raising the atmospheric CO2 concentration to over 410ppm. To tackle climate change we must understand more about greenhouse gas emissions, as well as how the natural systems around us absorb them. New innovations must help us understand more about our planet’s carbon cycle and enable us to better monitor carbon sources and sinks. Innovation gaps include accurate detection and tracking of greenhouse gasses, monitoring and managing the carbon systems within our sea, forests and lands, and technologies that can identify and predict planetary changes.

Beyond these three challenges, we will select a wildcard as our tenth Pioneer. This winning entry can address any issue that helps the world decarbonize and we encourage submissions for all climate-tech solutions that lie outside of the three challenges outlined above.


BNEF Pioneers have historically been early-stage startups. This year we are expanding our criteria to take applications from:

  • Early-stage companies: Climate-tech companies that can be for-profit or non-profit, private, public or subsidiaries.
  • Pilot projects and joint ventures: Any innovative pilot projects or joint ventures working on net-zero challenges.
  • NGOs, laboratories and innovation communities: NGOs, university or state-sponsored labs, and any other innovation groups creating net-zero products or technologies with commercial implications.

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