This post is an article just published to Inside Waste magazine. It provides a synopsis of some of my recent research in delivering a project for the South Australian Freight Council. Written as an easily read piece for a trade magazine, the below is not comprehensively referenced, but my work for the freight council most certainly was!!! It should also be noted that nothing below should be inferred as a position by the South Australian Freight Council. It is my musings that have arisen from the research. Please let me know if you need a reference or clarification.
When we talk about green or sustainable transport, how much do we think about the trucks, trains, ships and planes that deliver everything other than people? Is it possible to achieve something that could be considered “green freight”?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, it is a challenge for several decades. Fortunately, we can begin to see a pathway to that future right now. Let’s consider our trucks, and the specific challenge of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
In Australia, road freight moved 83 billion tonne kilometres (tkm) in 1990/91, and 191 billion tkm in 2007/08, more than doubling in less than 20 years. The sector is forecast to treble in size to 2050. So how can we achieve bottom line reductions in greenhouse gas? There is a range of approaches that can be effective. Meeting the goal of green freight is likely to require all of them to be implemented, in a logical sequence over time.
Firstly, there is the (seemingly) simple application of larger vehicles. Over the period 1990–2011 the freight task for rigid and articulated trucks increased by 140%, but the total fuel cycle emissions increased by only 65%. How? By using bigger trucks. Bigger trucks are more efficient per unit of freight. There is considerable scope for this trend to continue with novel road combinations, but there are barriers too. Without access to the “last mile” to the destination, or some efficient means of transfer, long haul will stay off the more efficient bigger trucks and on larger numbers of smaller ones. These challenges will require some very grown up conversations among stakeholders.
Secondly, there are multiple small changes that deliver appreciable reductions in fuel consumption. The behaviours that are collectively known as “Eco-Driving” are the central energy reduction initiative of freight giant Linfox. They have trained over 1,000 drivers and report nearly a 30% improvement in transport energy efficiency. Those savings are worth serious dollars. The challenge for the industry here is cultural; introducing, embedding, maintaining and these behaviours more broadly such that Eco-Driving simply becomes “driving”.
Tyres are another place where the rubber hits the road in energy efficiency. Nitrogen refilling delivers 70% less rolling resistance compared to air filled tyres. They leak much less, maintaining better inflation, giving longer tyre wear, and cutting fuel consumption to the value of around $8,000 per year for a large truck. Low profile tyres deliver similar levels of savings.
Taken together, the potential for fuel reductions from a range of powertrain and vehicle technologies, all of which are deliverable now, could deliver an aggregate improvement of 50% fuel consumption reduction in large trucks! Suddenly, we are talking about fuel savings worth millions of dollars per year to large operators. (Note to blog version: that particular finding is drawn from a major study by the US National Academy of Science).
Could such an outcome ever be achieved in the real world? Consider the case of particulate pollution. The Euro 1 standard for heavy vehicles, introduced around 1996, had a permissible limit of particulate matter of 0.36 g/kWh. The most recent Euro IV standard (with which Australia is considering harmonisation) will permit just 0.01 g/kWh! Would we have believed in 1996 that regulation could press industry to deliver a nearly 97% reduction in this pollutant from the point source in less than 20 years?
This is a powerful lesson. There will always remain uncertainty about how manufacturers will respond to tightening regulation, and how costs of solutions may (hopefully will) fall in response to new demands. But the particulate example shows we can expect just a little bit of the magic of innovation to occur in that uncertainty. Those setting global standards should feel confident to replicate this model in an effort to slash fuel consumption from trucks over the next two decades.
As they use less fuel, we can also look to use different fuels. SITA Environmental Solutions has a new fleet of kerbside collection vehicles powered by compressed natural gas. It gives quieter operation with 30% less greenhouse gas from the tailpipe. Murray-Goulburn Cooperative has converted its prime mover fleet to LNG, reducing fuel consumption significantly with a very rapid payback. Ron Finemore Transport has taken to using a 20% biodiesel blend with clear origins from local waste tallow. This type of biodiesel can be deployed with confidence of genuine emission savings that are not outweighed by upstream production or processing. As Finemore says, “we have never had an issue with the product and never changed a fuel filter”.
But there may be an anchor on the good news: congestion. Fuel consumption for vehicles is estimated to be nearly double under congested conditions compared to free flowing conditions. Forecast increases in both freight and passenger vehicle travel means congestion threatens the notion of sustainable transport.
Planning and committed long-term investment will be required. Existing road space needs to be freed-up for the higher value activities undertaken by the freight industry. That can only occur by providing an ever-improving experience of public transport and active transport options (walking and cycling) that makes personal vehicle use the occasional choice instead of the everyday one for most people, most of the time. Routes for road freight will need to be better designated, enhanced and protected. In such tight funding times, more Australian cities will need to take a more economically rational approach to road space and treat it as the increasingly scarce resource it is. That means systems like congestion charging and tolling to fund new infrastructure.
It’s clear that while implementing these opportunities, freight will remain responsible for significant greenhouse emissions. But help is at hand. The market in voluntary offsetting is now resurgent with the National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) and the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI). NCOS provides guidance for measuring organisational emissions and achieving certification for carbon neutrality. CFI provides assurance of high quality, locally sourced carbon offsets, many of which are providing new income sources to Australia’s regions. An opportunity exists for partnerships between freight providers, with emissions that are tough to shift, and farmers and other regional businesses that can offset these emissions while regenerating the Australian landscape. Transforce is the first Australian freight company to be NCOS certified carbon neutral, and supporting local Australian projects with their purchase. It’s a great selling point for being part of a more sustainable supply chain.
But the end game remains: a wholesale substitute for fossil diesel, which currently fuels around 99% of the road freight task. The best contenders currently may be algal biofuels. But synfuel production from seawater using the plentiful clean power that a nuclear reactor can provide is a genuine possibility, currently under investigation by the United States Navy. Either way, the scale is daunting and the initial efficiency drive will be essential. If we achieve a 70% reduction in fuel consumption per unit of road freight by 2050, the total fuel requirement will be less than today, despite the trebling of the overall task. If we slacken off and only get 30%, the eventual substitute will need to provide double today’s consumption levels.
We can act now to maintain downward pressure on fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in dozens of ways, most of which improve business bottom lines. We can drive the net greenhouse impact to zero by partnering the road freight sector with the re-emergent voluntary carbon market in Australia. We can take a more rational approach to our road space. We can support multiple pathways for the development of substitute fuels. The road to sustainable freight is not an easy road. But it’s an exciting one.