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Alan McKinnon – Professor of Logistics


Current issues in logistics and transport

Restraining freight traffic growth – a decarbonisation option too far?

During a panel discussion on the decarbonisation of transport at the recent Transport Research Arena conference in Vienna I said something that provoked significant reaction. Basically I argued that if the forecast growth in European freight traffic materialises, we will not be able to achieve the required reductions in freight-related CO2 emissions just by cutting the carbon intensity of freight movement (i.e. g CO2 per tonne-km). This challenged the claim made by the EU Transport Commissioner, Violeta Bulc, in her introductory speech at TRA that it would not be acceptable to restrain traffic growth. In essence this was a reiteration of the long-held view of the European Commission that ‘curbing mobility is not an option’. So why do I believe that at some point this view may have to be revised?

First, if you accept the EU traffic forecasts and exclude the traffic restraint option, the carbon intensity of European freight transport would have to plunge by over 80% between 2015 and 2050. This would require what the Dutch research institute TNO has called a ‘factor 6’ improvement in ‘carbon productivity’. In a recent presentation I indicated what this would mean in practical terms by showing how all the main freight transport parameters would have to be stretched to deliver an improvement of this magnitude.

One scenario would involve a 30% modal shift from road to rail, a 20% increase in routeing efficiency, 30% higher load factors, 50% greater energy efficiency and 50% less carbon content in the energy used by the freight sector. Any of these targets would be very ambitious, even over a 35 year period. Expecting them all to be achieved, as a Factor-6 improvement would demand, is, to put it mildly, scarcely credible.

Nor do we actually have 35 years to transition to this very low carbon freight transport system. We should not be thinking simply of hitting an annual CO2 target by 2050. It is the accumulation of CO2 emissions from freight transport between now and then which matters. In my new book on Decarbonising Logistics, I construct two emission reduction profiles for EU freight transport both leading to a 60% reduction by 2050 but emitting widely varying amounts of CO2 along the way. In one scenario freight emissions don’t peak until 2030 and then drop steeply. In the other they peak now and descend at a rapid but more feasible rate. In the latter scenario, a third less CO2 is emitted over the 35 year period – bringing freight more into line with the carbon budgeting calculations emerging from climate science.

So aiming to achieve the Factor 6 reduction by 2050 would be much too leisurely. The drop in total emissions needs to happen quickly, so quickly in fact that one cannot rely on reductions in carbon intensity alone to shoulder this decarbonisation responsibility.

The same applies, even more forcefully, at a global level. This was revealed by last year’s Transport Outlook report from the International Transport Forum. According to my calculations, its ‘low carbon’ scenario for 2050 would see the average carbon intensity of freight transport at a global level dropping from 27g CO2 per tonne-km in 2015 to 8g CO2 per tonne-km in 2050. But this huge reduction would, in carbon terms, be almost completely offset by the forecast tripling of total tonne-kms over the intervening period. In fact, if this forecast proved accurate, global freight-related emissions would decline by only around 12% in absolute terms. Although no sectoral carbon reduction target has yet been set for freight transport at a global level, one can comfortably assume that a 12% reduction would be peanuts relative to what will be required.

So one arrives at the conclusion that something must be done about the underlying growth in demand for freight movement. If, as I discuss in my new book, we may be over-estimating future freight traffic growth then the required reductions in carbon intensity would be lower and the case for ‘curbing mobility’ weakened. But this case will, nevertheless, remain strong and should at least be on the political agenda at national, EU and global levels.

Posted in Discussion | 3 Comments

3 Responses to Restraining freight traffic growth – a decarbonisation option too far?

  1. Robert DeDomenico says:

    The highest cost, energy intensity, and emissions production in freight distribution is the “last mile”. Costs rise to thousands of dollars per ton-mile, specific energy intensity to millions of BTU’s per ton-mile, and emissions proportional, when what is possible is $2 per ton-mile, one thousand BTU per ton-mile, and proportionally lower emissions. How is this possible? Right size the vehicles, optimize the choice of resistance reduction, and assemble the correct technological approach. Distribution by flying drone is the wrong approach. Sidewalk robots are wrong. Uber delivery is wrong. CargoFish is the right approach.

  2. Dave Mullaney says:

    If the proposition of curbing freight transport activity is difficult in the EU, it would be near impossible in the US and completely impossible in developing, export-oriented economies like China for whom goods transport is a sine-qua-non in their development/poverty alleviation plans.

    Enhanced efficiency in loading and routing of trucks, modal shift and incremental gains in efficiency, in the best of cases, could only cancel out the carbon impacts of increasing demand. Furthermore, those are finite efficiency resources whereas people’s demand for goods transport seems to be on a never ending growth trajectory. The only even theoretically viable pathway I can see to the long term decarbonization of logistics is through electrification of trucking and a renewables dominated grid. For that to happen, all roads run through battery chemistry.

    If I was a betting man, I’d put my chips a strategy that focuses on batteries that delivery greater energy density at lower costs while being charged on a solar/wind grid than one that seeks to curb people’s desires buy more stuff and get it faster. The realist in me, however, recognizes that any strategy to deeply decarbonize goods movement in the near term would be a monumental undertaking.

  3. Jack Semple says:

    Alan, There are many aspects to freight carbon and it is good to keep all options in the debate. One curious point that has come to my mind several times recently is the striking difference between HGV GHG emissions for the EU, at 25% of all road transport, compared with just 16% for the UK. In both cases, HGVs are said to have 5% of total mileage. How is the EU figure, including UK, 50% greater than that for the UK alone – and are there some lessons to be learned?

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© Professor Alan McKinnon 2024

Kuehne Logistics University


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© Professor Alan McKinnon 2024


Kuehne Logistics University




Contact me

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Web design by Wordspree