Logistics expert: Deep transport emissions reductions possible, urgently needed

Professor Alan McKinnon [Photo: EURACTIV]

This article is part of our special report Playing the emissions counting game.

Transport is widely accepted as a very difficult sector to decarbonise but one of the leading experts on all things freight and transport explained to EURACTIV.com how and why it needs to be done.

Alan McKinnon is a professor of logistics at Kühne Logistics University, Hamburg.

What are the specific challenges for the logistics sector?

It’s generally acknowledged that logistics is going to be an extremely hard sector to decarbonise for three reasons basically. One is because all the forecasts suggest that the amount of freight is going to increase hugely in the coming decades. It’s also a sector that is very heavily dependent on fossil fuels. And the third thing is that it’s also a sector which is highly fragmented composed of lots and lots of small trucking companies for example. And so getting the message across to them on the need to achieve deep carbon reductions is quite a challenge.

Is there reason to be hopeful though?

One of the encouraging aspects of the subject is that there are many things that organisations can do to cut carbon emissions from your logistics operations. One thing they can do is just try to rationalise systems and reduce the amount of freight transport. They can also try to move as much freight as possible by lower carbon transport modes like rail and water. They can try to use their assets better by filling the vehicles. They can improve the energy efficiency of their operations in various ways and then finally they can switch across into lower carbon energy sources away from fossil fuels. And if you factor all of those things together I think we have a reasonable prospect that we’ll be able to achieve deep reductions in emissions from logistics.

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How does this all relate to climate change and investment?

It’s estimated that logistics accounts for around 10% of energy-related CO2 emissions worldwide. So it’s a significant contribution to climate change. There are various targets for reducing that figure. We are building up our knowledge on how we should be doing this in a way that’s cost-effective. Clearly, we want to focus on those measures which don’t require too much investment. But there are still, unfortunately, a lot of uncertainties about the right decarbonisation pathways that we should be following for particular transport modes like road freight. We’re not sure to what extent we should rely on biofuels as opposed to hydrogen as opposed to batteries. So there are still research challenges there to be to be met before we get a good understanding of how we should be decarbonising logistics.

Where do we start though? How do we actually decarbonise the sector?

Before we can decarbonise logistics we have to have a good understanding of where the emissions are actually coming from and where the hotspots are and where we should be focusing our attention. An early stage in the process is to quantify the emissions and a big contribution that LEARN is making as a project is improving our capability to measure emissions. And also to train companies and organisations how they should be doing these calculations as well, also identifying areas that are in need of future research to build up an understanding of where the emissions come from.

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How pressing is the need for action?

I think one of the important points that companies have to grasp when they’re decarbonising the logistics is the urgency with which they will have to do it. The climate science now suggests that we’ll have to achieve deep reductions in emissions worldwide but in a very short time scale. Unfortunately, many companies are still preoccupied, understandably, with shorter term commercial goals. So the issue really is how we impress upon the current generation of managers that they have a once in a generation opportunity to achieve these deep reductions so that we don’t suffer excessive climate change.

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