The road to reality for decarbonisation

The road to reality for decarbonisation

Secretary | International Road Transport Union

The road transport industry is the lifeblood of the global economy. From the food we eat to the clothes we wear – even the medicine that keeps us alive and healthy – almost everything that keeps our society prosperous is transported by road at some point during its journey into our homes.

And as one of the cheapest, most efficient and flexible methods of transporting goods, the sector is only set to grow over time. According to the latest ITF Transport Outlook report – published in May – by 2050 demand on freight and passenger transport will more than triple. This growth will be driven primarily by higher demand for goods in boom economies, particularly in Asia.

But this growth poses serious questions, because despite playing a crucial role in driving all economies, road transport is an industry facing significant uncertainty and disruption. 

Prioritising decarbonisation 

The biggest issue in the medium and long term is the need to decarbonise, with commercial operators now asking themselves how they can marry their important role within global trade networks with the responsibility to play their part in cutting global CO2 emissions. 

Governments around the world are watching and starting to impose stricter targets as climate change becomes more pressing with every passing year. In April, the European Commission approved a reduction on truck emissions of 15 per cent by 2025, rising to 30 per cent by 2030. In June, the UK – seeking to become a world leader among developed nations on reducing emissions – announced it would commit to reaching a ‘net zero’ target by 2050 – not just for vehicles but for the entire country.

Road transport is fully onboard 

Operators are committed to playing their part in meeting European and global emissions reductions goals. IRU plays a leading role in liaising between its members and the wider industry and those that regulate road transport.

Last year, IRU and its members came together to create IRU’s Decarbonisation Vision, which affirmed the sector’s desire to make sustainability a key part of its future and to put it on course to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement. The vision highlights five key pillars to focus on in order to pave the way for full decarbonisation of the road transport sector.

Firstly, we agreed we must improve fuel efficiency, by increasing the uptake of newer, greener fuels, but also investing in methods to make existing fuels more efficient. This includes improving engine models, waste-heat recovery and improved aerodynamics. 

Secondly, there are technology-driven operations changes that can be made, such as load factor optimisation and collaborative transport platforms. These could contribute to CO2 savings of 10 per cent in the EU alone.

Thirdly, we can scale up eco-driver training to gain additional CO2 savings of eight per cent, making sure that every person driving a truck or bus in Europe is aware of their environmental responsibility and how best to optimise their work in the interests of a low-carbon future. Better infrastructure and traffic management will enhance further these driver-led efforts.

Then we must consider alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas, and further in the future, hydrogen and liquid and gaseous fuels from synthetic and renewable sources. More research is needed, as well as new thinking on the infrastructure needed for operators to use alternative fuels. These innovations will allow us to reduce emissions while we make the long-term transition from fossil fuels to fully renewable energy sources for all vehicles. Combined with improved fuel efficiency, this has the potential to save a further 10 per cent of CO2 emissions.

Finally, we will focus on promoting a strong collective transport system across our member base. By improving the functioning of road transport as a global logistics chain, we can reduce the need for private transport and offset the increasing number of trucks on the road. As a striking example, if every bus in the UK took just one more car driver as a passenger, up to 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could be saved per year.

Working together to affect change

Reassuringly, many of these efforts represent changes we can make in the short and medium term with relatively little investment. However, to get anywhere close to becoming a zero-carbon industry, the road transport sector will need a complete global fleet overhaul. But this will take a very long time, especially for large long-distance transports, and it will take an awful lot of money. Speaking realistically, this level of investment is currently way beyond what most – particularly smaller – operators can afford.

When considering targets, therefore, policymakers need to make decisions based on evidence. If we are to meet the demands being placed on the industry by consumers around the world, road transport needs help in order to decarbonise while continuing to grow. But growth will be impossible as long as the operators face the burden of unrealistic target compliance; a factor which hinders all prosperity.

Road transport is committed to modernisation, but it cannot do it alone. The industry needs an enabling legislative, business-friendly environment which encourages both growth and decarbonisation. It needs real business incentives to expedite the penetration of the latest technologies and practices. 

Business growth and looking after the planet are not mutually exclusive. Yes, we must be ambitious and achieve the maximum we possibly can. But we must come together to set realistic targets including making improvements to fuel efficiency through new vehicle technologies; promoting the wider use of alternative fuels; encouraging measures to improve logistics operations; scaling up eco-driver training; and driving the shift from private car use to collective transport. And if we work closely together as an industry, and with the public sector, we will be able to achieve them.