Green freight delivers the goods

by CCAC secretariat - 24 October, 2019
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Global Green Freight Action Plan is helping to update the creaky industry that transports goods around the world by making it more efficient, better for the environment, and less expensive.

Humans today are bound by the millions of products zig zagging across the world every minute. On any given day, a consumer in the United States may pick up gardening tools manufactured in rural China, while someone in the Dominican Republic buys the building blocks of a bed from Sweden, while a person in Kenya puts on a sweater hewn at a factory in Thailand. Increasingly––particularly in the United States––those products arrive within days, even hours, of being ordered. These staggering conveniences often occur at no cost to the consumer––at least, that’s how it can seem.

Products wind across the world thanks to a shadow skeleton of trains, boats, planes, and trucks called global freight. This industry runs almost entirely on fossil fuels, the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Freight’s actual cost may be remote but that doesn’t make it less severe.

Freight transportation constitutes 8 percent of global CO2 emissions today, which is expected to increase by 157 percent on the road and 77 percent over the water by 2050. Experts predict that the movement of goods may triple or quadruple in the next few decades.

“You have a sector that is relatively impactful for climate change but is not yet enough on the radar of the government or the multinationals who hold the key to do something about it through policy or through buyer awareness,” said Sophie Punte, the Executive Director of Smart Freight Centre. “Freight is the orphan of climate action.”

Indeed, less than a third of countries mention freight in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are national plans that explain how they plan to reduce greenhouse gases and by how much.

Luckily, things are changing. A growing number of Green Freight Programmes are helping to update a creaky industry by helping companies understand and reduce their emissions while improving efficiency and decreasing costs. 

It’s why the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) developed the Global Green Freight Action Plan, bringing governments, private sector companies, and civil society together to make freight more efficient, less costly, and better for the environment. The CCAC is working to ensure that green freight programmes that already exist are collaborating and that they include the effects of short-lived climate pollutants, such as black carbon.

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Freight's frightening turn

Green freight aligns well with the CCAC’s goals to reduce short-lived climate pollutants because it isn’t just bad for the climate, it’s bad for business and for human health.

The diesel used for trucks and the heavy bunker fuels used in marine shipping are leading sources of black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant that has a global warming potential 460-1,500 times higher than CO2. It also sticks to ice and snow, accelerating the melting of glaciers and ice caps.

The fumes that diesel trucks spew are also linked to heart disease, lung cancer, and pulmonary disease making them responsible for years of life lost. These effects are typically much worse on the usually poor communities that live along highways, railways, and ports. Shipping related pollution is estimated to cause over 100,000 deaths annually.

On top of all that, it’s inefficient. Fuel constitutes up to 30 percent of operational costs in the freight sector. In countries with lower labor costs that import fuel, those numbers can jump to 60 percent. Today, a lot of that fuel is wasted on inefficient practices like roundabout routes, shipping half-empty containers, and poor driving.


Green freight’s nuts and bolts

Despite these challenges, there are relatively simple ways for freight to become greener and more efficient.

For road freight, companies can reduce fuel use through measures such as outfitting trucks with better tires and aerodynamics, installing diesel particulate filters, and training drivers to use techniques like maintaining a steady speed without braking suddenly. Many of these measures make trucks more efficient and safer to boot. When road freight can be avoided, rail freight can be 2 to 5 times more efficient. For water freight, companies can pack cargo containers more efficiently and plan so that partially-filled containers are never shipped. Both types of freight can optimize the routes they’re taking to ensure the shortest distance. 

Despite these win-win interventions, green freight has moved slower than other areas of climate action.


Why freight is such a tough nut to crack

Manufacturers are the ones shipping goods to customers around the world but they hire freight carriers to get them there. With hairline margins, freight carriers rarely have the time, resources, or knowledge to calculate the best route, update their equipment, or pack containers as efficiently as possible.

“They’re in survival mode, they don’t have the time or the money to invest in innovating systems and equipment that have persisted for decades,” said Punte. “The sector cannot do this alone.”

The outdated industry is also expanding rapidly thanks to staggering uptakes in online shopping, accounting for 14.1 percent of retail sales worldwide. In 2016, 1.66 billion people were shopping online. By 2021, it’s expected to be over 2.14 billion.

“Online shopping has definitely changed the game for all and consumer’s preferences have changed to expect shorter and shorter delivery times,” said Leticia Pineda, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “When this is achieved by moving freight over long distances and at faster speeds, it has negative impacts that include adverse effects on climate and public health and higher energy intensities.”


CCAC helps freight deliver

These challenges are why CCAC’s support of green freight tools and methodologies is so important.

One of these is the GLEC Framework, the only globally recognized method of calculating emissions across all modes and logistics sites to help companies understand exactly how and where they’re emitting greenhouse gases. Another resource is the Freight Assessment Tool, which helps countries understand where they can most effectively intervene to reduce emissions which has already been implemented by Vietnam, China, Brazil, and Argentina. 

“Every decision we make has an impact, and it’s hard to understand this impact (good or bad) if we don’t have clear information and data to make that assessment,” said Leticia Pineda, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation of the importance of information gathering. “We cannot improve what we don’t measure.”


Leading the SmartWay

SmartWay is a leading green freight programme in North America. Through it, the United States Environmental Protection Agency assesses the performance of  thousands of freight carriers as well as giving them access to technology solutions to help make them greener.

The Home Depot Inc., the largest home improvement retailer in the world and the third-largest importer of container cargo in the world, is part of the SmartWay programme. The International Council on Clean Transportation and SmartWay traced Home Depot’s product journey in one of the first studies to look at emissions and operational best practices in a real world supply chain. 

The Supply Chain, Goods Movement and U.S. EPA SmartWay
The Supply Chain, Goods Movement and U.S. EPA SmartWay
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From 615 factories in China, Home Depot’s products pass through one of the busiest ports in the world in Shenzhen, where over 25 million units of cargo passing through in 2017, before traveling 12,000 kilometers across the Pacific to arrive in the ports of Los Angeles. From there, products are distributed to over 2,000 stores in the United States. 

The study found that current green freight best practices could reduce CO2 emissions by 27 percent. Further improvements could reduce more than 65 percent of the supply chain’s CO2 emissions. For the segments of the supply chain on land, current best practices allow for 41 to 63 percent reductions of local pollutants and for water, local pollutants could be reduced by 23 to 24 percent. If more aggressive measures are considered, reduction could reach over 90 percent for land emissions and 80 percent for water.


Green freight goes global

Over the past decade, partially as a result of CCAC’s support, green freight programmes are proliferating.

A Green Freight Strategy was implemented along the Northern Corridor which flows through six African countries (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo). With over 30 million tons of cargo, a rate that is growing at about 10 percent annually, this is the busiest corridor in East and Central Africa.

Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina have also already undertaken green freight assessments and green freight programmes are expanding  in Asia, Europe and Latin American. Awareness of the problem is also increasing: of over 100 leading multinationals that use freight, 33 percent surveyed reported on logistics emissions in 2015. By 2018, that number had increased to 43 percent.

Today’s world is more connected and convenient than ever before, but that comes at a price. “It’s not free as consumers are often told, it’s costing us the planet,” says Punte.

Green freight just may be the savings the planet needs.