Since global warming reared its ugly head almost four decades ago, we have been scrambling to turn back the clocks. Earth’s average temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the past century and is projected to rise another 4°C or 5°C over the next hun-dred years. And the preponderance of evidence says it’s human. But do we stop to think as we drive to work each day in the comfort of our individual cars, or when we fly off to far-flung lands for our well-deserved summer break?

Transport accounts for half the global oil consumption and nearly 20% of world energy use, of which approximately 40% go into urban transport alone. And the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects this figure to double by 2050, despite ongoing vehicle technology and fuel-economy improvements. While increased mobility brings many benefits, the staggering rate of escalation creates new challenges, not least the amount of CO2 emissions discharged into the atmosphere.

Freight is great… or is it?

But that’s the least of our worries. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), of the 28% of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the transpor-tation sector, approximately 30% is freight-related. Freight is at the root of our economy. Along with the growing volume of global business, international transport has become more and more important in worldwide deliveries. In today’s fast-paced, dynamic marketplace, billions of tonnes of goods are shipped around the globe to meet consumers’ seasonal tastes and demands.

Speed to market is crucial, especially with perishables. How else would we get our pineapples from Central America, avocados from Israel and sundry Chinese imports? In order to accommodate this growth, the world would need to add nearly 25 million paved road lane-kilometres and 335 000 rail track kilometres, not to mention 45 000 km2 to 77 000 km2 of new parking spaces to allow for vehicle stock growth – an infrastructure that is expected to cost as much as USD 45 trillion by 2050.

But CO2 emissions are not the whole story. Air pollution from trucks, ships and airplanes is a growing concern in developing countries and one of the main environmental killers. Fuel use and environmental impact from freight movement is high because of vehicle, vessel or engine size, distances covered, the age of the vehicles and ships, and their poor state of repair. These parts of the world are also famously slow at adopting clean fuels and modern technologies. Soon, it seems, getting goods across the planet to sustain our global lifestyles will leave us all choking!

All this has got the freight sector thinking and many stakeholders are investing in strategies to reduce their transportation footprint. Yet despite the greening of freight transport in the last few years, the energy use and associated carbon emissions have been growing faster than in almost any other sector.

Why? Because what freight really needs is a sound, reliable way of calculating and reducing CO2 emissions along its supply chain. Government, industry-led and commercial initiatives have been addressing these issues in recent years. But while they provide a valuable starting point, they stumble over potential inconsistencies in approach in terms of the comparability and accuracy of the carbon footprint. For example, which greenhouse gases should be taken into account? And should emissions from particular supply chain elements be included in the calculation?

Action is urgently needed for a methodology to quantify and report freight emissions that is applicable to all modes and regions within the transport supply chain.

The road to reduction

Freight is at the root of our economy.

The Smart Freight Centre, a global non-profit organization dedicated to greener freight trade, is actively looking for ways to reduce emission intensity and increase fuel efficiency. Curbing carbon emissions requires the concerted action of government policies, industry-led initiatives for meeting emission reduction targets and civil society lobbying for cleaner freight transport.

Yet the answer is not that simple. As Sophie Punte, Executive Director, Smart Freight Centre, explains: “An important underlying factor is the complexity of the freight sector itself as an interlinked yet fragmented supply chain covering different modes and regions, and therefore transcending the influence sphere of individual countries and companies.” As a result, various methodologies have been developed in parallel by individual companies, countries and associations covering separate modes of freight transport. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and this proliferation of isolated initiatives, much of which have been carried out without open discussion and cooperation, has only confused the market.

Cutting down on confusion

Today, freight forwarders are served by a bewildering array of methodologies. As Alan Lewis, Operations Director at Transport & Travel Research Ltd., a consultancy company specializing in the field of transport policy research, confirms, “There has been an enormous amount of activity surrounding the carbon footprint of freight transport, covering areas such as methodology, calculation tools and the development of programmes to encourage emissions reduction.” Yet at this time, only Europe has a supply chain emissions calculation and SmartWay, an EPA programme that once focused chiefly on road and rail, has more recently been developing modules for other modes.

On the international scene, efforts have focused essentially on the development of ISO/TS 14067 for the carbon footprinting of products. Dr. Klaus Radunsky, who developed the document and contributed to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explains : “as things stand at the moment, there is no specific quantification rule for any modes of transport except aviation”. He agrees there is a need for coherent and harmonized methods in the quantification of CO2 emissions for freight transport.

To add to the confusion, market-driven partnerships such as the Clean Cargo Working Group, IATA's Air Freight Carbon Footprint, EcoTransIT and NTM are pushing for more sustainability with emissions calculation methodologies, tools and services that are effective but often mode-specific and too specialized to have a broad scope. Add to this all the bespoke company systems and national initiatives, and you have a dumbfounding mix of methodologies.

Closing the gap

Action is urgently needed for a methodology to quantify and report freight emissions.

Despite recent efforts, there still remain a number of gaps when it comes to coverage from a geographic, supply chain or technical perspective. None of the global standards truly address the full range of issues that must be taken into account when considering the international and multi-modal nature of many modern supply chains. Instead, Lewis notes, they provide general guidance which is only partially relevant to the transport element of a product life cycle, and of too high a level to be useful for consistent, detailed calculations.

Additionally, there is a need for a more consistent approach to the metrics that are used to describe these calculations and for default emissions factors where measured data is unreliable, or simply not available.

Radunsky believes the answer lies in harmonization. As transport frequently crosses borders, international consensus is of utmost relevance and could significantly contribute to efficient and effective GHG management.

A framework for freight

The Global Logistics Emissions Council (GLEC for short), a recently formed industry-led initiative co-ordinated by the Smart Freight Centre, provides a good starting point, drawing on input from a majority of the established regional and modal initiatives, including the above-mentioned market-driver partnerships. This will soon be complemented by the new ISO International Workshop Agreement (IWA) for freight transport, which kicked off in July 2014. Providing an open platform for industry, government and civil society to rally round and discuss current practice and the outputs from ongoing initiatives such as GLEC, the IWA will focus on one particular aspect : the need to work towards harmonized methods for coherent quantification of CO2 emissions in freight transport.

This is no trivial task as it requires pooling together all existing experience and methodologies, but it is expected to lead to an action plan assigning roles, responsibilities and time scales among a group of stakeholders with a view to developing a harmonized and workable standard for the future.

As Punte explains, the GLEC provides two things: a framework for one universal and transparent methodology that everyone can buy into, and a broad sketch for developing and deploying the framework of this methodology. The IWA document will build on this and other work to create broader stakeholder support for a universal methodology, without duplicating or replacing existing efforts.

One size fits (almost) all

An important underlying factor is the complexity of the freight sector.

So where do we start? Punte has the answer: “As freight is a commercial sector, it is important to let industry take the lead and develop a framework that works for them.” Future standards need to build on the vision developed and ratified by industry and other stakeholders at the last workshop of the European COFRET project for freight footprinting, which took place in October 2013.

The GLEC Global Framework for Freight Emissions Methodologies is being shaped by industry to provide a credible framework for shippers and logistics/transport providers. Crucially, it will have global application spanning all modes and supply chain elements so that terminal and warehousing emissions can be included on a comparable basis. The IWA can help by bringing in the views of legislators, NGOs, policy makers and academia, thus ensuring the framework is acceptable to all stakeholders.

Sounds good in theory, but with freight being carried across road, air, rail and water, different methodologies are often needed to measure the carbon footprint of the various modes. At the very least, an international framework will ensure that regulations already governing transport at a global level (such as air and sea transport) are captured within the calculation methodologies. A general standard, while not perfect, will help us get that little bit closer to our goals.

With respect to these goals, Lewis and Punte concur. Ultimately, providing reliable benchmarked calculations with sufficient geographic coverage should help businesses move goods in the cleanest, most effective way possible, selecting fuel-efficient carriers and modes, reporting emissions and identifying the most viable technologies and strategies for emission reductions. And while we wait for that to happen, let’s all think twice about tucking in to another juicy pineapple.