Almost 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions pumped into the atmosphere by the US comes from the transport sector. Ships, railways, lorries, cars, airplanes, buses and taxis all contribute, spewing harmful gases, helping to fuel global warming and polluting the local air, particularly in cities.

Right now, moving ourselves around, along with all the things we make, grow, buy and consume is bad for our heath, and the health of the planet’s life support systems. 

Read: Can restoring grasslands help restore the climate?

Globally, the picture’s about half as bad. Around 14 per cent of emissions come from transport, with GHGs mostly coming from the burning of fossil fuels to power engines. In fact, nearly all (95 per cent) of the world’s transport energy comes from fossil fuels, namely gasoline and diesel.

But, while air transport contributes about 10 per cent, and shipping is between two and four per cent, depending on the sources, it is trucks and large vans that produce the majority (83 per cent in the US) of transport-related emissions right now.

Plus, the situation is getting worse. According to Transport & Environment, emissions from heavy-duty vehicles (HDV) jumped 36 per cent between 1990 and 2010, and are set to continue growing for the foreseeable future. In fact, unless action is taken HDV emission will increase to more than 40 per cent of road transport CO2 across the European Union (EU).

Of course, the continued rise in online shopping is exacerbating the problem, with more and more of us asking for everything – from our weekly food shopping, to our impulsive, late night Amazon buys – to be delivered by van or truck (for now…). According to Forrester, online retailing is set to exceed the $520 billion barrier in the next two years, with global online sales growing three-times faster than GDP.

In the US – where big trucks, delivery vans, and other HDVs make up seven per cent of all vehicles on highways, yet consume more than 25 per cent of the oil – the first-ever GHG and fuel economy standards for trucks took effect in 2014. It is a similar story in China, Canada and Japan.

However, the EU has been slower to react. There is a limit of 95 grams of CO2 per kilometer (g/km) by 2021 for cars and vans. But, so far, there is no equivalent legislation for trucks. This is largely down to calls by manufacturers to resist targets – on the grounds that the different shapes and sizes of trucks make a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to limiting CO2 emissions difficult.

That will soon change though, with the European Commission currently speeding up analytical work on design options for standards for HDVs. A public consultation is on its way that will prepare the ground for a legislative proposal. Plus, according to a report by the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT), truck fuel consumption has stalled for decades, with manufacturers focused more on performance enhancements and engine power, and less on cutting fuel use and the associated GHGs.

The electric truck is coming soon. At least that is what Roger Nielsen, president and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America has said. Speaking at the recent North American Commercial Vehicle Show he said: “If I brought out my crystal ball, I’d say [it will be here] sooner than you think. There are definitely use cases where it makes sense… in light duty, in medium duty. There will be use cases in heavy duty very soon.” 

Tesla will unveil a prototype Class 8 truck later this year, while Nikola Motor is working on a hydrogen-electric model. Daimler has been first out of the blocks with an electric model, the eCanter. In the UK, Dearman Technologies is working on a very interesting engine that runs on liquid air. Particularly interesting for cold-chain vans, carrying chilled food.

In the meantime, a wealth of existing technologies can play a role in cost effectively boosting truck fuel efficiency, including better diesel engines and transmissions, improved aerodynamics and tyres. There are hybrid systems that improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles in stop-and-go operation and some of the world’s biggest companies have invested heavily in driver training to reduce idling and get heavy-footed drivers to think more carefully about the fuel they are burning unnecessarily.

In North America, Run on Less, is a new cross-country road show like no other. Recently, it showed that efficiency technologies, available on the market today, can go above 10 miles per gallon. (Impressive for a truck, and higher than the +9 mpg goal set by hosts Carbon War Room). The campaign points out that, if the 1.7 million trucks on North American roads today made the same efficiency mods as the trucks in the roadshow, they’d save 9.7 billion gallons of diesel fuel, $24.3 billion and nearly 100 million tons of CO2 each year!

Tevva Motors is one of myriad tech firms to have sprung up, interested in solving the truck efficiency conundrum. CEO Asher Bennett says that his business is able to produce “the world’s greenest trucks” thanks to a patented (and fairly complex) “range extender technology” which can see a 7.5 tonne truck powered by a lithium ion battery. 

Virgin Unite, Carbon War Room, Run on Less

Already working with UPS, DHL and Kuhne + Nagel, Tevva can make sure vehicles recharge on-the-go so the battery never runs down to zero. By the end of this year, its vehicles will be able to drive zero carbon, from Los Angeles to San Francisco without stopping to charge.

Of course, another option is to get trucks off the road entirely. Pauline Dawes promises that her range of SOMI Trailers are able to take one in four lorries off the road – eliminating half a million truck journeys a day in the US – just by making use of the space between the wheels of a traditional trailer. Her specially designed and patented trailers, featuring air-bag lifted decks, utilise the extra space to carry 31 per cent extra pallets of goods. “In a trailer, you are fighting for millimetres. I see this as being the new standard for trailers all over the world,” says Dawes. Walmart, Nestlé and Marks & Spencer have completed successful trials and the business is currently on the look out for licensing partners. Hopefully more businesses that use freight will follow.

Analysis carried out by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) suggests that wide scale adoption of all of the idea and technologies which are available now could almost double the fuel efficiency of most commercial vehicles by 2030.

As the cost of adopting such technologies falls, and legislation catches up and starts to take a hold, logistics chiefs will be left with no choice but to fall in line for the benefit of their bottom line and the wellbeing of Planet Earth.

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