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Transport industry decarbonization decarbonisation
Global | Brussels

Mind that step

30 Nov 2018

As we gear up for this year's UN climate change conference in Poland - COP24, Matthias Maedge, IRU’s lead in Brussels, explains the complexities facing the industry in its bid to decarbonise. We need to step up to the challenge intelligently, and with awareness of the full impact of different options.

There is no question that we need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we pump into the world’s atmosphere. Transport provides around 23% of all CO2 emissions and, while road transport is only a part of that, we can do more.

Commercial road transport operators also have an inherent interest in reducing their fuel consumption: it currently accounts for 30% of their costs.

Geopolitical instability, oil and price fluctuations provide added reasons to invest in finding alternative fuel solutions.

What are the numbers?

At this point, I could start going into statistics. We could rehearse historical trends. We could go into the fine detail of how much carbon dioxide, and other pollutants, a particular truck produces per kilometre, depending on the weight it’s pulling. 

We could also go into projections: exactly what impact those emissions have, what the world’s temperature will be in X years’ time, based on current carbon dioxide emissions levels, and therefore what impact each action will have. 

The problem with this approach is that you become stuck either in fine detail or in the heated debate about anthropomorphic climate change. The bigger picture is where we have started: we need to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. The related big question is, of course, how?

Sadly, there is no simple or quick answer, especially in the context of growing demand for road transport.

Well or tank?

We firmly believe the discussion should be around well-to-wheel, not tank-to-wheel. What does that mean?

Let’s start with tank-to-wheel. It’s tempting to fall into the trap of, for example, thinking electric vehicles are the perfect solution. They produce no tailpipe emissions, they’re quiet, they’re efficient. 

But that ignores a large chunk of the equation, which is where well-to-wheel comes in. What is the manufacturing cost, both financial and environmental? The current generation of batteries uses rare earth minerals that need to be extracted from vulnerable landscapes that provide habitats for vulnerable species, for instance. 

What impact do reduced range and increased re-fuelling times have on the end cost for the customer? Are enough charging stations available, for example on new routes in remote parts of the world? How clean is the electricity production? Do you want your truck powered, ultimately, by an old-fashioned coal-fired power station? 

And while electric vehicles may be a great solution for some shorter trips, the size of batteries is currently preventing them from being a serious solution for long-haul transport.

With current technology, a 12 tonne battery would be needed for long-haul journeys but this would reduce the payload so much that it becomes commercially unfeasible. A combustion engine using bio or e-fuels (gaseous and liquid) is currently a more viable and greener choice for heavy vehicles.

Stepping up to decarbonisation

Vive la revolution?

So let’s not look for a silver bullet, because it doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to have a discussion around incremental change with the right solution for each context. Evolution not revolution. For example, for some time the road transport industry has made significant progress in lowering pollutant and CO2 emissions by investing in operational efficiency, new energy efficient technologies and lower carbon fuels. Pollutant emissions have been reduced by 98 per cent over the past two decades – mainly due to vehicles getting better.

There’s still a long way to go, of course. The point is that it isn’t just about eye-catching new technologies, but about the hard graft of finding the balance between what is technologically doable and what is financially viable. If you’re operating on a two per cent margin, which is the industry average, you just can’t afford to add cost. We have to be realistic and pragmatic.

At the moment, both electric and hydrogen fuel cell heavy duty vehicles are, effectively, on the drawing board. There seems little question that, depending on the nature of the operation, they are the future. But they aren’t the present yet. It is too early to build regulations and standards around these technologies, yet there is a lot of political pressure to do so.

A premature shift to unproven technology will be very damaging to the road transport industry, and therefore to trade, which in turn will have a direct impact on society. 

In the meantime, we need to work with what we’ve got. Conventional engines blending diesel with advanced biofuels, or natural gas vehicles (including blending with biomethane), offer the best current options to cut CO2 and pollutant emissions. Governments shouldn’t forget about these quick wins and should make sure operators and manufacturers are encouraged to invest in these technologies and fuels. 

We need to move goods and people to keep our economies moving and, ideally, growing – goods transport volumes are only rising. This isn’t just about the survival of our industry – it is about the survival of communities, economies – and the lifestyles we have become accustomed to.

The industry is working hard to develop operational efficiencies.

The use of high capacity vehicles (HCV) offers significant opportunities for reducing CO2 emissions: two HCVs can carry the same load as three regular trucks, using less energy and reducing congestion. 

Optimising logistics and supply chains also helps. Improving load factor optimisation, digitalisation and more use of collaborative transport platforms reduce carbon dioxide emissions, as do the adoption of intelligent transport systems and driver assistance technologies, reducing maximum driving speed, implementing more relaxed delivery windows and introducing carbon footprinting to track, and therefore reduce, fuel consumption.

Increasing the use of passenger transport is another step.

A full bus provides a lot less pollution per person than someone driving their own car.

There is plenty we can do to shift demand to collective transport. It can make a huge difference and that’s before any new technologies are taken into account.

We’ll get there

The road transport industry is committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, to help produce a sustainable future for our planet. However, the answer is not necessarily the latest, shiniest technology – even the best of these can be enemies of the better purpose. We can and we will step up to decarbonisation, but we cannot put trade at risk.