Plastic, cars, and the oil and coal industry have been denounced as the bringers of the next apocalypse. But still one of the largest spewers of harmful emissions is continuously avoided for the lifestyle it provides. The transport of goods and services from and to all corners of the globe is one of the most rapidly growing sectors even in this time of turbulence. Development in technology that travels across geographical borders has made the world a smaller place. No longer restricted to the goods of our immediate vicinity, we can get fresh produce out of season at home by transporting it across continents straight to our local shops and homes. There’s 24/7 digital access to German manufactured appliances, clothing fabricated in the eastern hemisphere, and American brands that have become household names. But for all that stuff to get to our local store or even our front door, they have to be shipped, flown, and driven along tracks and roads for thousands of miles, chugging out millions of tonnes of noxious gases along the way.
In the UK, some 90% of our goods are imported. When a store orders from a stock list or you tap the delivery button from the sanctity of your own home, an extended supply chain of couriers, port managers, customs clearances, pilots, captains and drivers are set into motion between the manufacturing warehouse and your closest distributor. Every journey to accumulate more stuff in our homes or stomachs contributes to a massive chunk of the 15% of greenhouse gas emissions from transport each year.
The predominant freight transport across borders is shipping. Transporting 90% of the worlds traded goods, merchant ships carry not only electrical appliances, cars, and foodstuffs, but also crude oil, chemicals and natural gas. Due to relatively moderate speed and navigation, shipping is by far the most efficient form of transport, yet its contribution to global pollution is considerable. For all their slow chugging, the over 50’000 ships on the world’s seas are solely responsible for almost 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions due to cheap, thick, and heavily polluting fuel, belching more polluting fumes a year than Germany in 2016. And aside from effusing 1 billion tonnes of gases per year, transport agencies actively make ecologically adverse decisions to save more cash. Many ships run with little to no cargo on board because it’s cheaper to have them moving than static in port. What’s more, shipping agents manoeuvre sea routes to avoid emission control areas in which strict regulations are employed to minimise certain greenhouse gases.
But time is running out for these quick budget savers. In April this year, the International Maritime Organisation ruled that it will cut 50% of greenhouse gas emissions from the industry by 2050. Though the promise has been challenged for being unfeasible within the time limit, the growing green innovation industry is prepared for the task at hand. In 2009, a solar-powered container ship made its maiden voyage, as did the worlds only engineless sailing cargo ship, Tres Hombres, that transverses the seas only by the wind in its sails. More futuristic designs have come forth, combining the perfect conditions of renewable energies at sea, with rigid sails lined with solar panels, masts that capture the ocean wind, and turbines that harness the energy of the sea motion below. But given the swathes of capital invested into a ship, and the 25 year lifetime of traditional fleets, shipping agents will be resistant to the sea change.
Our obsession with convenience, however, is limitless, and if goods won’t arrive soon enough, don’t make it to the docks in time, or have a short lifespan, we fly it in. Two tonnes of freight transported across 5’000km, the distance of the Atlantic between London and Quebec on a small container ship produces 150kg of carbon dioxide equivalent gases. The same journey and load by air racks up a stupendous 6605kg of atmosphere clogging fumes. The highly polluting industry of air travel is well known and campaigned against, so it comes as no surprise that this is the most polluting form of cargo transport on earth. Thankfully its expense and limited cargo space mean it is more often used as a contingency. There have been talks for decades for a greener adaptation of air travel, from Richard Branson posing with a coconut ten years ago in a PR stunt that promised planes would soon be powered by biofuels, to the idea of a solar-powered aircraft. But experts still claim that we are still very far away from greener future in the skies.
However, they reach the designated continent, the transport of goods after they reach the dock or airport is an intensive journey. Though emissions from land-bound transport are lower by the type of fuel used, the sheer amount of travel conducted on rail and road contribute vast amounts of co2 to the atmosphere. Trains are relatively economical, capable of transporting up to 18 billion net tonne kilometres tonnes of cargo in 2016, their limited variance from a schedule, set speed and route means that load sent along a track is not a carbon-intensive journey. Due to rail freights low impact, European nations set strict weight limits on goods transported by road to encourage rail freight. Sweden legally obliges couriers to carry the vast majority of products by freight train, bolstering their #1 spot on the Climate Performance Index this year.
But limited by the map of rail tracks along the country, other nations are still beholden to road travel to get to the designation in land. 85% of freight in the UK is moved at some point by truck, even if the cargo has been previously shifted by train, to get the product to its final destination. Transporting 1.45 billion tonnes of goods across the UK, heavy goods vehicles racked up almost 19 billion kilometres up and down the country last year. And this is only set to get more intense since last year the government announced a cut £4m of subsidy for rail freight, destined to put another 190,000 extra lorry journeys a year on the road. The UK has a particularly keen attitude to road transport; we’re known for transporting train carriages on the road because it’s cheaper than moving them on the tracks they’re designed for. By comparison, European nations like France and Germany ban truck transport over the weekend to cut emissions from goods transport.
There are fledging schemes in testing that aim to automate aspects of freight automobiles. Transmitters that tell the driver the status of the upcoming traffic lights, so they know to speed up or slow down to streamline journeys. Communication devices that regulate the speed of all lorries on the road, lining them behind each other to reduce drag. These systems work well in nations that they are being tested in, like in the United States where trucks are obliged to stay in the slow lane to reduce traffic. But in the UK, where lorries play a slow game of leapfrog up and down motorways, it seems that reducing drag is not a primary concern.
The convenience of deliveries is only set to get more amiable as companies like Amazon push their cheap next day delivery services at just £7.99 a month, and Argos become the first UK company to offer same day delivery. But these expedited deliveries straight to your door come at substantial environmental costs. A next day or 2-day delivery means that vans are set off on the road half full, as opposed to waiting to fill up cargo space. Without efficiently using up available space, there are more courier wagons on the road.
Our obsession with more goods faster is putting extreme load on the planet. While we’re being encouraged to take public transport more often to limit our emissions, the products we consume are racking up our carbon footprint. Even those who engage with greener companies from abroad, whether it’s organic or packaged without plastic, or 10% of profits go to supporting rural communities, facing a long journey and emissions it seems we cannot pick just one issue to focus on. We all need to engage not only with the contents of our goods but also how they’re brought to us.