Tackling climate change in road freight

Written by: Bonne Goedhart, 27 August 2019.
Bonne Goedhart is Jr. Program Manager at Smart Freight Centre. He manages Smart Freight Centre’s efforts to reduce the environmental impact of trucking globally.


Climate change: freight and logistics

While writing, part of the Amazon in Brazil is set on fire for agriculture, urban expansion, illegal mining and subsequently faster transportation of those goods [1]. Growing, maintaining and developing rain forests are crucial elements in our battle against climate change. Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) are confirmed to be “one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2°C” [2]. Other measures are related to the fast reduction of GHG emissions, decreasing fossil fuel use and increasing effective use of natural resources.

But, what are the effects of climate change for my generation and especially for the fossil fuel dependent freight and logistics industry?

Extreme weather and increasing freight demand

In the news, we often read about the effects of climate change on rising sea levels, increasing global average temperatures, and the declining artic sea. NASA states that “2016 was the warmest year on record, but also eight of the 12 months that make up the year — from January through September, with the exception of June — were the warmest on record for those respective months” [3]. I personally believe that potentially the biggest impact of climate change on our freight and logistics system will be extreme weather events. During the last months, the Netherlands and Europe had severe heat waves, flooding and extreme downpour mostly due to the effects of our changing climate. Not only did the continent that I live on experience extreme weather events, the United States, Latin America, India and parts of Africa did too [4]. You can imagine that extreme weather puts an immense amount of pressure on current infrastructure whether road, rail, sea or air. Also, the increased financial costs of changing routes, rise in idle times or cancelling shipments has an impact on business and the economy [5]. Combine this with an ever-increasing freight demand, it’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels and you have one of the hardest industries to decarbonize.

Finding solutions: Decarbonizing Logistics

In 2018, prof. A. McKinnon published the book Decarbonizing Logistics [6], where he formulates the strategy to decarbonize freight and logistics and calls upon businesses who are the crucial element in the highly commercial sector. Smart Freight Centre (2018) [7] summarized McKinnon’s solutions and found that freight and logistics companies can combine 5 different decarbonizing actions:

  1. Reduce Freight Transport Demand
    2. Optimize Freight Transport Modes
    3. Increase Asset Utilization
    4. Improve Fleet Efficiency
    5. Reduce Carbon Content of Energy

Combined these solutions can reduce GHG emissions within the sector by 80% in 2050.

Road freight challenges

With 62%, road freight is the biggest contributor to the sectors’ GHG emissions [8]. It is arguably the toughest mode of transport to decarbonize, because it is fragmented and lacks capacity. As an example, Motortransport in the UK published the overview of the UK commercial vehicle industry in 2016 [9] and report that around 90% of the transport companies have 10 or less vehicles. 52% of the companies have 1 or no vehicles at all. This means that there are a lot of companies transporting goods, but it is not centralized and therefore fragmented. Also, since globalization, we have sourced our products from all over the world. Therefore, products are transported in each single country of the world. You can imagine the different challenges road freight operators have in the Andes or outback Australia.

Leadership for sector change

To change the sector, we need leadership from business executives and a clear climate strategy that looks beyond a handful of solutions. This means that as a business, you should not put all of your eggs in one basket, only by combining different measures you’ll be most cost and energy effective. Within the trucking industry we have a tendency to bet all of our money on the electrification of Heavy Duty Vehicles. As a measure of its own I firmly believe that electric trucks or hybrid trucks will be the future. However, it is too risky to rely on electrification alone. In his book, prof. McKinnon mentions 4 solutions a trucking company can implement today:

  1. Using technology to improve the fuel consumption of trucks
    2. Operate trucks more fuel efficient
    3. Switching trucks to lower-carbon fuels
    4. Electrification of the truck fleet

Action for a sustainable future

Climate change puts a lot of pressure on our current freight and logistics system. It is in our vital interest that businesses take leadership and implement a climate strategy to tackle the problem. As a company that owns trucks or uses them for your transport it is time to set a strategy and take action. Do not only do it for commercial sense, but also for the next generations to come. Check out our efforts on GHG emissions reduction in road freight. Click here.

About the author
Bonne Goedhart is jr. program manager at Smart Freight Centre. He manages Smart Freight Centre’s efforts to reduce the environmental impact of trucking globally. He holds a MSc. in business management and environmental management from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In 2018, he was part of the Dutch Sustainable 100. He is 26 and lives in Amsterdam.

[1] Rainforest Alliance, 2019. https://www.rainforest-allianc...
[2] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). 2017. Natural Climate Solutions.
[6] McKinnon, A. (2018) Decarbonizing Logistics; distributing goods in a low -carbon world. Konan Page Limited.
[7] Smart Freight Centre. (2018). Solutions based on McKinnon; Decarbonizing logistics.
[8] International Transport Forum. (2019). Transport Oulook.