The Fuse

Acting While We Talk: Freight Efficiency Improvements Benefit People and Planet

November 13, 2022

By Christine Weydig

The UN Climate Summit—COP27—currently underway in Egypt is a mammoth climate gathering where lots of committed people discuss a lot of complicated things. Top of the agenda this year are topics like financing climate change mitigation and adaptation – with a specific focus on “loss and damage” funding for countries already bearing the brunt of climate change.

I join tens of thousands of sustainability professionals in Sharm el-Sheikh to make progress on these complex matters and talking about the need for accelerated action. As we talk, we need immediate action not only on the climate emergency, but on overlapping and interconnected crises. Geopolitical events, economic pressures, and energy and food security concerns must be addressed as we chart the course on our climate goals.

Challenge is also opportunity, and the urgent need to contain rising energy and commodity costs in the near term may give us the motivation we need to use existing technology and implement policies that would vastly improve the efficiency of our transportation systems for goods. These improvements, though ready-now and needing relatively little capital investment, are often overlooked as stakeholders like those at COP hotly pursue the big, long-term decarbonization solutions we need—like financing for commercialization and scaling of renewable energy, low-carbon fuels, and carbon removal technology, that are necessary but may still be years from commercialization.

Even one of the hot topics at hand – loss and damage for those bearing the brunt of climate change – intersects with the need to improve supply chain resilience for critical goods, as it is often these same populations that are adversely impacted by rising costs for energy and transportation of food and other commodities.

Freight Efficiency Achieves Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Delivers Needed Assistance

One example of action we can take immediately that will advance energy, food, and geopolitical security, as well as meaningful climate benefits, is digitalization of the freight system.

The Coalition for Reimagined Mobility found that if existing technology is deployed to modernize and standardize freight data exchange across the value chain—including shipping companies, ports, trucks, rail, and other stakeholders—the freight sector would cut carbon emissions by 22%.

It would also reduce the industry’s dependence on oil, making it less subject to the whims of oil-rich bad actors, and lower the cost of shipping by approximately 6% simply by eliminating systemic inefficiencies that exist because these systems haven’t been updated in decades, even centuries. Lower transportation costs mean lower costs to the consumer.

Real-time data exchange in the freight sector not only has the immediate benefit of cutting carbon emissions and pollution with relatively little capital investment, but it also means that shipping companies can respond immediately to disruptions in the supply chain, getting vital goods like food, medical supplies, and fuel, to their intended destinations faster and more cost-effectively in the face of severe weather events, geopolitical conflicts, or other unforeseen problems. This is not only about addressing the needs of those disproportionately impacted – lack of vital goods worsens geopolitical security for all of us.

The importance of doing all we can to make our freight systems more resilient, sustainable, and flexible has been driven home by the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine, both of which have disrupted major shipping routes and supply chains.

As the impacts of climate change and an increasingly volatile geopolitical environment continue to challenge the movement of vital goods, increasing the efficiency of our freight systems will be a matter of life and death for millions of people.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has highlighted how global food, energy, and economic crises and related price spikes will exacerbate global hunger and poverty, and maritime transport can help mitigate these impacts. Ocean shipping carries more than 80% of global trade—including critical food, energy, and medical supplies—that less developed countries depend upon.

We have the resources and governing infrastructure to make this happen, and we can start with coordinated action in the U.S. and EU to foster and require freight data exchange across the value chain. We can create a flexible blueprint to help more vulnerable countries bridge the digital divide and improve the movement of essential goods in and out of their ports while also significantly reducing carbon emissions and oil dependence, globally.

Let’s accelerate our hard work on developing the essential long-term technologies and markets to decarbonize the global economy, but we must also seize opportunities that advance our climate goals and protect vulnerable communities now.

Christine Weydig is the Executive Director for the Coalition for Reimagined Mobility (ReMo).