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How much carbon does the transportation industry emit annually?

AskWaves explores climate impact of the transportation sector

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The almost exclusive reliance on fossil fuels to power vehicles, vessels, trains and aircraft puts the transportation industry on a collision course with regulators around the world seeking to slow climate change from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

FreightWaves and Commercial Fleet data recently estimated that one truck has the same carbon footprint as 14 people in a year: 223 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. 

But what about the entire transportation industry?

Transportation was responsible for 8.26 gigatons, or about 26%, of CO2 emissions globally in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency. That is equivalent to running more than 37 million trucks for a year.

In the U.S., passenger and freight transportation was responsible for an even larger portion of the planet-warming GHG emissions in 2018: a total of 28%, or 1,870 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

Freight is a large piece of the pollution puzzle

The International Transport Forum said that international trade-related freight movement is responsible for about 30% of all transport-related CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. Freight accounts for more than 7% of global GHG emissions. 

“The line of sight for getting to net-zero is not as clear” for the freight industry because more environmentally sustainable strategies are not always as readily available,” Lila Holzman, senior energy program manager at As You Sow, told FreightWaves. As You Sow is a nonprofit organization that promotes corporate environmental and social responsibility through advocacy and legal strategies.

Decarbonizing the freight industry requires an intentional approach to the research, transition and adoption of green technologies, she said.

Turning climate awareness into climate action

Many companies are setting ambitious GHG emission-reduction targets and goals for net-zero emissions by 2050. Deutsche Post DHL Group recently released a comprehensive sustainability plan that includes an $8.25 billion investment in green technologies. It is one example of global companies taking on climate change.

Each mode of transport can increase efficiency and reduce GHG emissions. 

Trucking can adopt alternative fuel vehicles powered by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells or biofuels.

Air cargo can use sustainable aviation fuel and invest in more efficient aircraft.

Maritime can switch to low-sulfur fuels, install scrubbers and use shore-to-ship power.

Rail can leverage automation for optimal efficiency.

“There is consensus around the need for net-zero emissions globally by 2050,” Holzman said, but even companies that commit to this goal still have a lot of work to do.

To speed up the emission-reduction process, California put regulations in place that require the sales of all medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to be zero-emission vehicles by 2045, and several states are following California’s lead. The EU regulations require a 15% reduction in emissions for large trucks from 2025 on and a 30% reduction in emissions from 2030 on. Noncomplying fleets will face hefty fines.

The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the importance of resilient, sustainable supply chains and how much time and coordination it takes to get toilet paper on store shelves. 

The pandemic drastically impacted global energy demand and CO2 emissions in 2020. The Global Carbon Project predicted that, instead of increasing as previously expected, CO2 emissions would decrease from 36.4 gigatons in 2019 to 34.1 gigatons in 2020 because of the lockdowns and economic recessions worldwide. 

Every sector was impacted, but the largest portion of the 7% decrease in CO2 emissions came from fewer cars and trucks on the road between March and June 2020.

The reduction of CO2 emissions in 2020 already is reversing, however, as global economies ramp up due to COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Every industry, including transportation, will have to adopt more sustainable practices in order to reduce emissions in 2021 and beyond.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.