How does transport impact climate?
The transportation sector was responsible, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, for approximately 24% of global CO2 emissions. (1) The sector also emits other greenhouse gases (GHG) such as methane, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide as well as fine particles.
In 2016, road transport, including passengers and freight, accounted for 74% of the sector’s emissions. Air and maritime transport accounted for around 12% and 11% of emissions respectively and rail transport, which has low emissions, accounted for around 1%. (2)
What about freight?
Freight includes all goods transport, from long-distance transport to relatively short deliveries in the last mile – i.e. from the last point of storage to the final customer. Highly dependent on fossil fuels and made up of complex logistics chains, freight represents a major decarbonisation challenge. (3)
Freight accounts for 40% of total CO2 emissions from the transport sector. 70% of freight travels by sea, 18% by road, 9% by rail, 2% on rivers and 0.25% by air (4) – even though the latter is by far the most carbon intensive.
Why is freight a key issue for the aid sector?
International aid organisations are largely supplied from Europe and mainly by air or sea freight. Organisations use air transport heavily in emergency situations to transport equipment and products needed for operations, but also to transport perishable or sensitive products in a regular and safe way.
Freight transport is undergoing a transformation and various alternatives aimed at decarbonising the sector are currently being studied or tested. The solutions are technological and energy-related, but also structural and organisational.
Some solutions can be implemented by aid organisations. More systematic use of maritime transport, better planning of orders, development of decentralised storage capacities, choice of new routes or more frequent use of local purchases can optimise the entire supply chain, reduce distances travelled or avoid transport altogether. Furthermore, transport companies, as well as road, port and airport infrastructures, using alternative fuels or emission reduction technologies should be favoured.
Air freight emits 2.11 kg CO2e for a journey of 1000 to 4000 km and 1.29 kg CO₂e for a journey of over 4000 km (5)
The international maritime organisation called on shipping companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 (6)
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) set a goal in 2021 for the global airline industry to achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050. (7)
Is sea freight the best solution?
Today, there are no completely carbon-free long-distance freight transport modes. The best solution to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to minimise and optimise the use of international freight. The next step is to choose the mode of transport with the lowest environmental impact.
Since 2020, MSF France has reduced the volume of goods sent by air freight to increase the volume sent by sea freight.
Even if we must not ignore the greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants linked to maritime freight (sulphur and nitrogen oxides), this mode of transport remains one of the best environmental choices for long-distance freight.
#1 Choice of transport companies
Choose the most eco-responsible airlines or shipping companies, the most fuel-efficient or those using sustainable alternative fuels or technological innovations.
#2 Shipping freight
Favouring maritime transport, which emits less greenhouse gases, over air transport whenever possible. A precise and contextualised management of orders allows us to reduce the share of air freight in favour of sea freight.
#3 Order planning
Plan orders taking into account the entire supply lead time. Rigorous planning, made according to the context, will allow to rationalise the orders and to facilitate the recourse to maritime freight.
#4 Logistics hub
Develop logistics platforms and warehouses as close as possible to the operating sites and optimise the entire supply chain.
#5 Direct supplier deliveries
Increase direct supplier deliveries (from supplier to end customer) to avoid transit of goods through Europe.
#6 Refrigerated containers
Increase “direct supplier” deliveries (from supplier to end customer) to avoid transit of goods through Europe.
#7 Maintenance and repair
Use refrigerated containers which now allow sensitive goods to be transported by ship while maintaining a controlled temperature throughout the journey.
#8 Local purchases
Establish a local or regional repair and maintenance system for equipment by building human capacity in the field and selecting locally repairable items at the time of purchase.
#9 Alternative fuels
Favour local or regional purchases for certain products or items of equal quality to reduce the share of international transport.
#10 Technological innovations
Choose alternative fuels that emit less than the heavy fuel oil usually used for ships, kerosene for aircrafts, or diesel and gasoline for road vehicles.
Tools & best practices
To go further
- Transformation plan of the French economy, with a focus on freight (in French)
- GHG emissions from different transportation modes, by the French Government (in French)
- How can global freight reduce its ecological footprint?
- ICAO Sustainable Aviation Fuels
- GHG emissions inventory from ships, IMO, 2020 (in French)
Request carbon reductions at supplier level
(1) Tracking Transport, IEA, 2020. Read here.
(2) Transport et CO₂, Futura Planète, 2021. Read here
(3) Fret, The Shift Project, 2020. Read here.
(4) Transports mondiaux : émissions de CO2 en hausse, Planète énergies, 2020. Read here.
(5) Air freight emits 2.11 kg CO₂ e for a journey of 1000 to 4000 km and 1.29 kg CO₂ e for a journey of over 4000 km. Read here.
(6) The International Maritime Organisation has called on shipping companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008. Read here.
(7) The International Air Transport Association (IATA) set a goal in 2021 for the global airline industry to achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Read here.
Cover photo © Pixabay/Pexels.