Driving down freight emissionsEmissions from freight transport could stand in the way of Canada reaching its climate commitments

Blog - June 14, 2017 - By Eli Angen

Photo: pixabay.com

Other than wanting to not get stuck behind 18-wheelers on the highway, we generally don’t give trucks, or the cargo they carry, much of a second thought.  

However, a new Pembina Institute report shows that these trucks – and the goods movement in general — deserve a second thought, and more. Quite simply, freight – that includes by road, rail, ship or plane — makes our daily lives possible.

However, growing populations, urban sprawl, broadening global markets, and the prevalence of online shopping are all contributing to an increase in the carbon footprint of goods movement. The trucks picking up and delivering our goods make up nine per cent of Canada’s total emissions, and that number is projected to exceed passenger vehicle emissions by around 2030. If this startling trend isn’t addressed swiftly, freight could stand in the way of Canada reaching its climate commitments in the Paris Agreement.

Historically, freight hasn’t received the public and policy attention that a sector with growing emissions deserves. Our new report, State of Freight: Understanding greenhouse gas emissions from goods movement in Canada aims to change that. We map out the considerable climate impacts of the freight sector, what government policies and data are currently out there, and what solutions are possible – and in many situations, are already underway.

The federal and provincial governments are already moving on some solutions, such as carbon pricing. An effective and escalating carbon price signals that fuel costs are escalating for the freight sector, thus making energy efficiency technologies and fuel switching more appealing over time. There’s also a big role for municipalities, particularly around urban land use planning. Ontario’s Region of Peel is a great example of this. They’re one of the few Canadian cities with a dedicated goods movement strategy that also includes sustainability principles. Much of this is thanks to leadership at the top, and a supportive regional council.

Effective freight policies not only lower emissions, but also bring other environmental, health and economic benefits, including relieving road congestion, cleaner air, and more cost-efficient business practices.

Something else that was clear in our research is how critical a healthy freight sector is for Canada’s economy: in 2016, Canada’s exports and imports were valued at $521.3 billion and $547.3 billion respectively. However, as the report points out, we don’t need to sacrifice economic growth for environmental wins. A lot of the solutions we point to are focused on reducing the carbon intensity of fuels and not necessarily reducing the volume of goods moved. For example, the proposed federal Clean Fuel Standard would reduce the emissions intensity of diesel through blending of biofuels, and over time encourage switching to lower carbon fuels such as electricity.  It’s important to remember that companies already have a strong incentive to increase efficiency: it helps their bottom line and makes them more competitive.

The freight sector is complex and multi-faceted. It involves all levels of government, different departments within government, and a huge range of private sector actors. Therefore, making goods movement more efficient will take action and cooperation from everyone involved. We already know the solutions exist to address freight emissions. Now we need to see more public and policy attention and continued political will so we can tackle this important issue. 


Eli Angen

Eli is the Ontario regional director, with expertise in convening thought leaders, project management, and technical, strategic and economic analysis.


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