What is the impact of freight and shipping on the environment?

In light of the damning IPCC report on the impact of climate change policies, many of us are being forced to have a rethink about how we can operate in more sustainable ways.

With that in mind, we’ve been thinking about emissions from specific industries, what these industries are doing to improve their sustainability and what more do they need to do to actively combat climate change.

So, for this article, we’ve looked at the impact of the freight and shipping industries on the environment.

Emissions from trucks carrying freight

According to statistics from Our World in Data, the transport industry is responsible for around one-fifth of the world’s CO2, with road travel accounting for three-quarters of emissions from the industry.

Of the three-quarters that come from road travel, passenger vehicles contribute 45.1% and 29.4% comes from trucks carrying freight.

Since the entire transport industry accounts for 21% of total emissions and trucks carrying freight account for 29.4% of emissions from the transport industry, trucks carrying freight are responsible for around 6% of total CO2 emissions.

We spoke to Pol Sweeney, VP Sales & Country Manager at Descartes Systems, a logistics technology platform designed to optimise the logistics industry, about what could be done to address emissions from the sector.

He commented: “2% of road traffic in the EU is trucks, but these account for 22% of CO2 emissions. So, whatever you can do to reduce truck activity, the benefit of this will be ten-fold in terms of the reduction of emissions.

“The primary solution would be to have fewer trucks and use EV vehicles, but you could also have your trucks drive fewer miles and be more efficient when delivering. In other words, get a higher return on the miles driven.

“This all comes down to are you using effective routing optimisation for your fleet. Are you accounting for the road and rail networks and traffic pattern? Can you avoid rush hours, school pickups and roadworks?

“Doing this can reduce the amount of time trucks are on the road and increase the density of deliveries and stops they are doing, which can create 15-20% more efficient journeys, which is what we’ve typically seen for our customers.”

“If you can reduce truck time on the road by 10%, this is the equivalent of taking one car off the road.”

The environmental cost of addressing the UK HGV deficit

In the UK, there is currently a HGV driver deficit of around 100,000, which has led to empty shelves across the country. The government has proposed various initiatives to address this deficit, but one major drawback if these initiatives are successful is the cost to the environment.

One of the temporary regulations exercised by the government is increasing the legally permitted number of driving hours, which means lorries on the road for longer.

Hypothetically, if the UK government does manage to completely eradicate the driver deficit, there will be 100,000 more HGV lorries on the road.

And as they plan to eradicate the use of diesel HGVs by 2040, almost 20 years from now, any new HGVs on the road will almost certainly be of the polluting variety too. Therefore, meaning a significant rise in emissions from the sector.

“Addressing the driver shortage needs a multi-faceted solution”, continued Pol. “Finding a short-term pool of drivers and encouraging them to come to the UK may be a solution, but if you’ve got a scarce resource, make sure you use that resource in that optimal fashion.

“Don’t send your drivers out to drive for an hour longer than they need to because you could be turning a 9-hour day into a 10-hour day and doing that means you’re increasing the amount of driver hours needed by 10%.”

“If you can optimise the routes that these drivers are sent on, you’re going to get 10, 15, 20% reduced need for driver hours. This would reduce the driver deficit from say 50,000 to 45,000.”

Emissions in the shipping industry

According to a 2019 report by the Financial Times, the shipping industry is responsible for between two and three percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This is around the same amount of total CO2 emissions that Germany, Korea, Iran and Canada are responsible for.

In January 2020, the International Maritime Organisation introduced regulations that lowered the maximum allowed sulphur exhaust of ships from 3.5% to 0.5%. With 174 member states, including the UK, these regulations have the potential to significantly lower emissions from the sector.

We spoke to Jacob Armstrong, Sustainable Shipping Officer at Transport Environment, a Brussels based NGO campaigning for greener transport in Europe and beyond about whether these measures had been effective:

“Not much has come out in relation to changes from air pollution deaths because of these changes. But it’s hard to make a comparison as 2020 was such a special year, for reasons that probably don’t need to be enunciated.

“There are also minor issues of enforceability, but as ships are banned from carrying high sulphur fuel, emissions are definitely lower.”

In July 2021, the European Commission also adopted a series of legislative proposals for how it plans to achieve climate neutrality in the EU by 2050, which included a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

These proposals include revising several parts of EU climate legislation, such as the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), Effort Sharing Regulation, transport and land use legislation, meaning further regulations on emissions from the shipping industry should be imminent.

“Regarding the proposals made by the EU in July, there are three interesting proposals concerning the shipping industry”, continued Jacob.

“Firstly, shipping currently doesn’t pay anything for its emissions, and it pays very little tax, so it has very little incentive to improve. However, the EU has a carbon trading scheme, and the shipping industry is going to be placed into it.

“This is good news as it means the industry will finally be paying something and shipping fuels will rise, which will bridge the gap between the very cheap, very dirty fuels and the cleaner ones.”

“Natural gas is another thing that shipping companies who are talking about becoming greener say they are doing. In shipping, natural gas is often called an alternative fuel and low-carbon fuel, but natural gas is essentially methane and we’ve all read the reports on this.

“So, you need governance to say, let’s stop greenwashing, we have to do the right solutions and we need the right investment in the right places.”

“The EU has proposed that the ETS regulations will apply to most ships coming into Europe. One proposal was that half the emissions of the ships coming into Europe are the EU’s responsibility and the outgoing ships are the responsibility of the country whose ships are departing Europe.

“The idea behind this port-state control law is the hope of creating a global regulation on shipping and now the US, China and other countries need to follow suit.

“But if we do this in the EU, countries do often follow suit.”