The Challenge of Decarbonising Freight Transport

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The Challenge of Decarbonising Freight Transport

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The Challenge of Decarbonising Freight Transport 

Guest Contributor: Pat Daly- Alba Consulting

Meteorological data from recent years indicate that six of the warmest years on record have occurred since 2015 and it is generally accepted by governments and the global scientific community that the climate is changing at an increasingly rapid pace around the world due to greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

Consequently, what is being called for now is a complete transformation of our economies to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 as highlighted by the recent climate report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The EU has now set this target in law.

To put that in context, what is required is a reduction of net equivalent carbon emissions from about 51 billion tonnes per annum globally today, to zero, in less than three decades. This is a massive challenge and one that is going to affect every country, every sector, and every individual business, starting right now.

To have any hope of meeting the target, global greenhouse gas emissions which are currently growing at a rate of 1.1% per annum will need to start to decline from 2025 onwards.

Realistically, this peak and reduction within these timeframes will only be achieved if the green premiums – that is the differences in price between conventional energy sources and alternative, green, zero-carbon solutions – fall to near zero, while at the same time matching or exceeding the conventional sources in reliability and convenience.

To put some figures on all of this, the transportation sector accounts for about one-fifth of the global total emissions or about 10 billion tonnes annually. This breaks down by mode as follows:

Cars and Buses           4.5 billion tonnes

Aviation                        1.2 billion tonnes

Trucking                       2.9 billion tonnes

Shipping                      1.1 billion tonnes

Pipelines                      0.2 billion tonnes

Rail                              0.1 billion tonnes

As regards freight transport specifically, the current emissions in grammes of carbon dioxide per tonne-kilometre [g/CO2/t-km] by transport mode are as follows:

Light Duty Vehicles – Commercial (Van)           500 to 1300

Heavy Duty Vehicle – Medium                            170 to 500

Heavy Duty Vehicle – Large                                 70 to 190

Diesel Freight Train                                              20 to 55

Electric Freight Train                                           5 to 20

Container Ship – Coastal                                    20 to 45

Container Ship – Ocean                                     10 to 25

Long Haul Cargo Aircraft                                  400 to 950


While a modal shift from road to short sea shipping and road to rail will make, and already is making, a contribution to short-term emissions reductions. This may buy some time, but it will not be sufficient to reach the ultimate long-term goal of net-zero.

The fact of the matter is that the net-zero goal will only be achieved through the development and mass deployment of low and zero-carbon alternative sources of energy to power our trucks, boats and planes.

Unfortunately, given current battery technology, electric vehicles for freight transport are only suited to light-duty operations working over short distances such as urban retail deliveries. Electric vehicles are unlikely to offer solutions for heavy-duty freight vehicles operating over long distances for the foreseeable future due to the weight and bulk of the batteries required.

More promising perhaps are alternative, low- and zero-carbon, drop-in, liquid fuels such as advanced or second-generation biofuels and electro-fuels which use electricity generated from renewables such as wind and solar to produce hydrogen by a process of hydrolysis to make hydrogen-based liquid fuels suitable for vehicles. There has been good technical progress with these technologies already, but much work still needs to be done to reach scale and reduce the green premium to zero and achieve mass adoption.

Technologically, this will be difficult but achievable with the right policies and incentives. What might prove far more challenging than the technological hurdles, are the economic and political implications of the transition that lies ahead, not least the issue of the huge hydrocarbon reserves still in the ground becoming obsolete stranded assets with little or no value to their current owners.

Freight transport is going to be one of the most challenging sectors of our economy to turn green in the coming years and there is no doubt but that there will be myriad twists and turns along the way with much uncertainty, disruption and eventually, we hope, breakthrough.

Inevitably, there will be winners and losers on this journey and how we manage that process will determine the success or otherwise of our endeavours over the coming years and decades. This transformation will have major strategic implications for all businesses that own and move freight by any mode of transport and consequently business strategies will require constant review and revision as things move forward.

Patrick Daly is an international supply chain expert in logistics and channel management. Global conference speaker, author & broadcaster hosting Dublin South FM’s Interlinks programme on globalization, international business and supply chain.



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