Climate action should transform freight and logistics, but are we prepared for it?

This article first appeared in the Irish Times on 25th May 2023 as

When he is not chastising economists for their obsession with economic growth, President Higgins regularly invokes the work of Zygmunt Bauman, a leading theorist of the 20th century. Bauman is noted for his observation that modernity has fundamentally altered social relations by turning us into a society of consumers instead of producers. He coined the term “liquid modernity” to capture the way that globalisation and capitalism has reshaped (and compressed) time and space with seamless supply chains and transport logistics. Starting with the site of resource extraction, stuff is mined from the Earth and trucked to the factory (or factories) where it is processed, perhaps a number of times, into a commodity after which it is shipped further to a wholesaler and onwards to its final retail destination. It is extremely rare for raw materials to be grown, processed, packaged and sold all in one location.

Absurdly, more processing is equivalent to more “value added” somewhere in the supply chain, regardless of the toll on human health and the environment (which speaks to the very point President Higgins was making about the limitations of GDP growth as an indicator of human wellbeing). Palm oil for instance is found in up to 50% of the packaged goods we find in supermarkets, from pizza to shampoo to biofuels and animal feeds. Its production and export involves vast distribution and processing networks that are largely invisible to the consumer, whose gaze is directed instead at glossy advertisements that tap into our desire for status, satiety and comfort. 

According to the IPCC 6th assessment report published last year, road transport counted for nearly 70% of global transport related emissions with about 30% of this figure coming from freight. The problem is that due to rising consumer demand, this figure is set to rise even as countries start electrifying their transport fleets and investing in new rail infrastructure. Furthermore, emissions from the road freight sector are still increasing despite improvements in the energy efficiency of trucks. Electrification of road freight is far behind that of passenger cars, with light and medium electric trucks only recently emerging from the demonstration stage. Road electrification can take the form of a charging rail built into the road pavement, run along the side of the road, through overhead power lines – similar to electrical infrastructure used for rail – or at recharging facilities at stations along the route. But you are unlikely to see any of these facilities in Ireland anytime soon. Last year the NTA published a series of reports into sustainable freight within the Greater Dublin Area but while it highlighted the importance of charging facilities for trucks, no such infrastructure is planned and the emphasis of the strategy appears to be on the use of compressed natural gas and biofuels rather than shifting to rail freight or electrification in the short term.

The IPCC report assessed the deployment of charging infrastructure at truck depots, freight distribution centres and ports as critical to encouraging a transition to electric heavy goods vehicles. But the government’s Climate Action Plan (2023) does not include any definite plans to roll out charging infrastructure for electric trucks and instead pins its hope on the sector shifting a “significant proportion” of new freight vehicle registrations to zero-emissions (ZE) vehicles by 2030.

Without any charging infrastructure planned, these “zero emission” trucks will likely be running on biofuels such as hydro-treated vegetable oil (HVO instead of electricity. Biofuels can be made from used cooking oil, by-products of vegetable oil processing, and fatty wastes from animal industries, but about 50% of the fuel comes from palm oil, production of which has driven deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. Many experts question whether there is enough supply of genuine and sustainably sourced waste feedstocks to meet the growing demand for biofuels.

Quite apart from the challenge of decarbonisation, we also have a major congestion and air quality problem with the volume of diesel goods vehicles clogging our towns and cities as more and more retailers move to online and delivery business models. Vans can be seen delivering packages 24/7, but what one person considers excellent customer service another could rightly judge as a wasteful use of scarce resources. Merely switching to electric vans will not achieve the goal of reducing the total energy and environmental impact of freight – business models and associated logistics need to change as well.

Reductions in freight demand won’t happen by themselves. They need to be planned for by localising the production and storage of goods with shorter trip distances and a high utilisation rates for vehicles, coupled with new approaches to the “last mile” deliveries using ultra-light weight vehicles, cargo and e-bike deliveries.  Thankfully we have a home-grown example to learn from. An Post has over 1,000 EVs and 155 e-trikes delivering the nation’s letters and packages since 2020. 

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