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CO2 emissions

Roeth: Cutting emissions isn't entirely up to trucking but we can make a difference

Jan. 17, 2024
For CO2 emissions to decrease rather than increase, the trucking industry needs to do more.

Late last year, the Global Carbon Project announced its estimates for worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. The news was not great. According to the group’s Global Carbon Budget, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels will have increased 1.1% in 2023 over 2022 levels, reaching 36.8 billion metric tons.

However, this data offers some good news, as it indicates a slowdown in the upward trend of increasing emissions. To meet the 1.5°C of warming by 2030 or so, we need to see a decrease in CO2 emissions, not just a slowdown in their growth. The trucking industry is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions, although great strides have been made to reduce tailpipe emissions. And we continue to do so by offering fleets various powertrain options.

Work is still being done to help fleets get more miles from each gallon of diesel fuel. While many fleets have optimized their vehicle specs for efficiency, some fleets and owner-operators still haven’t invested in things like aerodynamic devices for both the tractor and the trailer, low rolling resistance tires, idle reduction solutions, speed control management, etc. For instance, they haven’t optimized their engine parameter settings for fuel economy nor trained their drivers to operate their vehicles with fuel efficiency in mind.

See also: Increase fuel efficiency through aerodynamics

Beyond improving diesel truck efficiency, some innovative fleets are deploying alternative fuel vehicles. This includes battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, compressed natural gas, and other renewable fuels.

We’ve learned that there is no single answer for fleets trying to lower emissions. In a way, the trucking industry has been spoiled for the last several decades because most fleets have only dealt with one type of powertrain. I think those days are gone or soon will be. For the immediate and midrange future, many fleets will have trucks with various powertrains in their operations; powertrain selection will be based on the duty cycle and what makes the most sense in each use case.

This will require a shift in mindset and additional training for drivers, technicians, and dispatchers. But I don’t see any of these challenges as insurmountable. The trucking industry has proven its resiliency time and time again. I don’t expect this latest challenge to reduce the amount of CO2 emissions to be any different than other challenges the industry has faced.

Some fleets are on the leading edge of the move to cleaner freight, and they’re already sharing what they’ve learned—the good and the bad—with other fleets to help them decide which powertrain options are best for them.

Trucking does not bear the entire burden for CO2 reduction, nor is the U.S. alone in addressing this issue. After all, the report was about global emissions. Still, trucking firms in the U.S. can help make a difference by optimizing existing diesel trucks and looking for alternatives to diesel in applications where it makes sense. 


Michael Roeth has worked in the commercial vehicle industry for nearly 30 years, most recently as executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE). He serves on the second National Academy of Sciences Committee on Technologies and Approaches for Reducing the Fuel Consumption of Medium and Heavy-Duty Vehicles and has held various positions in engineering, quality, sales, and plant management with Navistar and Behr/Cummins.

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