The need to reduce energy consumption, cut pollution and fight climate change while also making transportation systems more efficient is becoming an ever greater challenge, requiring closer cooperation among shippers, carriers and the builders of highway infrastructure.
And it’s a challenge not limited to the U.S. The International Transport Forum (ITF) is now holding a series of online debates in preparing for its global meeting – “The Transport Sector and Climate Change” – in Leipzig, Germany on May 28-30, where transport ministers from some 50 countries will gather with industry leaders and top researchers to discuss problems and solutions.
“The transport sector is responsible for a significant and growing share of greenhouse gas emissions and most indications are that transport activity and emissions will double or more in the next 30 years,” said Jack Short, ITF secretary general. “On the other hand, political objectives have set global emission reductions of the order of 50% by the middle of the century. The stark conclusion is that we do not have the policies in place or planned that can stabilize, let alone reduce, transport emissions.”
Going hand in hand with pollution reduction efforts is the need to reduce the transportation industry’s energy consumption – energy that, in the form of oil, is getting extremely expensive. In the U.S., petroleum represents 97% of all fuel consumed by transportation, according to the Department of Energy, which includes the diesel burned by trucks, trains, and ships, as well as aviation fuels and gasoline for cars.
The rapid rise of oil prices to over $120 per barrel this year is affecting the U.S. trucking industry’s ability to sustain itself from a business perspective, much less attempt to increase pollution reduction activities. According to the American Trucking Assns. (ATA), trucking companies are on pace to spend $141.5 billion on fuel this year, some $29 billion more than in 2007 and $89.5 billion more than in 2003.
“Our industry can’t simply absorb this rapid increase in fuel costs,” said Mike Card, a state vice president with ATA and president of truckload carrier Combined Transport. “We must pass some of these costs through to our customers, which ultimately translate into higher prices on the store shelves.”
In testimony before Congress, Card called for more incentives to speed the introduction of auxiliary power units (APUs) to reduce main engine idling, establish a 65-mile per hour national speed limit and greater fiscal support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program. Not only will such efforts reduce pollution, they could also help carriers survive the impact of high fuel costs, he noted, adding that his 400 truck
family-owned company expects to spend more than $21.7 million on diesel fuel this year, a 26% increase from 2007.
The issue is that “sustainability” efforts take time to develop in trucking – and the high cost of fuel doesn’t allow for them to take root, Bruce Stockton, vp-maintenance for Con-way Truckload, told FleetOwner.
“It’s a very complex problem,” he said. “For example, it took us 2.5 to three years to convert our entire fleet of tractors to [fuel saving] wide-base tires, so it takes a lot of time. The big struggle for many fleets right now is that they can barely afford fuel, let alone re-investing in new trucks over the next several months that are more fuel efficient.”
And while adjusting truck engine governors downward can reap big fuel savings in a hurry, that’s not a fast process either, said Stockton. “It took us from November 2007 until April this year to turn our trucks down to 65 mph,” he said. “If we could’ve done that somehow via our onboard communication system, that would’ve been a huge fuel savings to us on a faster basis.”
Even highway construction is becoming part of the sustainability discussion going forward, as traffic congestion leads to more fuel consumption and thus more pollution.
According to a report from the Portland Cement Association (PCA), traffic congestion in the U.S. wastes three billion gallons of fuel and contributes 27.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, with the overall economic impact of traffic delays adding up to $80 billion per year.
U.S. population increases will put even more pressure on roads and highways by the year 2032, adding an estimated 49 million drivers and 58 million vehicles to America’s highways – meaning wasted fuel from traffic delays will more than double, to 6.5 billion gallons, with carbon dioxide emissions increasing to 60 million tons. PCA’s report projects that without improvements to U.S. roads and highways, wasted time and higher transportation costs will result in a cumulative economic impact of $150 billion annually.
“What gets lost in the debate over high fuel prices and suspending the gas tax is infrastructure spending – and how it affects highway capacity, traffic congestion, fuel use, and even carbon dioxide emissions,” said Brian McCarthy, PCA president & CEO. “In addition to focusing on the vehicles on the highway and [fuel] in the tank, we need to expand our focus on the highway itself.”