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Could Trucking Reach Net-Zero Emissions By 2050?

While it may seem like a tall order, reaching net-zero carbon emissions from heavy-duty and heavy-industry transport sectors is feasibly and financially possible by 2050, according to a new report published by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC). The report, titled “Mission Possible,” looks at the possibility of reaching net-zero carbon emission from sectors that might not typically be looked at for such an endeavor.

Industries the report took a closer look at included trucking, cement, steel, plastics, shipping, and aviation. Added together, these industries represent 30% of all energy emissions today, a number which could rise to 60% by mid-century as other industries lower their carbon footprint.

Report Details

The comprehensive new report was developed with contributions from over 200 industry experts over a 6-month consultation period. The report’s findings demonstrate that a full net-zero decarbonization is technically feasible with current technologies, though there are some that have yet to reach commercial readiness.

How much would it cost to reach a net-zero emissions level? In what may be surprising to some, not much. The report states that the total cost to the global economy would be less than 0.5% of GDP by mid-century and could possibly be even less by 2050, thanks to technological advances in the mitigation of carbon-intensive materials. Greater logistics efficiencies and modal shifts could also reduce carbon-intensive transport footprint.

The numbers are spelled out in the report:

  • Migrating to sustainable steel would add $180 to the price of a car.
  • Migrating to green shipping would add less than 1% to the price of an imported pair of pants.
  • Migrating to low-carbon plastics would add one cent to the price of a bottle of soda.

Where heavy-duty trucking is concerned, electric trucks and buses, whether powered by battery or hydrogen fuel cells, will likely become cost-competitive before 2030. In shipping and aviation, liquid fuels are likely to remain the preferred option when it comes to long-distance travel, but there is no reason why they cannot be transferred to bio or synthetic fuels.

There are essentially three steps that must be taken to ensure that the transition is not onerous:

  1. Improved energy efficiency
  2. Greater logistics efficiency
  3. Modal shift

There has been increasing problems with air pollution in countries around the world, with China and India being two large examples. In places like these, the decarbonization of heavy industry and heavy-duty transport is critical to not only reducing emissions but improving the health and quality of life for citizens. State-of-the-art technology and shifts in the way business gets done can help make this a reality.

By more efficiently using materials and increasing recycling in a circular economy, primary production emissions can be reduced by as much as 40%. Developed countries have the greatest opportunity where reductions in plastics and metals are concerned. Yet, to reach full decarbonization, a portfolio of technologies and methodologies will need to be employed. The level to which this will occur will also vary depending on location and available local resources.

Looking at the Specifics

The specific areas of the economy that the report looked at provided detail into how these changes will be implemented. Direct and indirect electrification using hydrogen as a fuel will play a big role in many sectors of industry and transport. This will lead to a sharp increase in power demand, growth that represents 4 – 6 times the current requirement today of 20,000 TWh and around 100,000 TWh by 2050.

It is expected that hydrogen use in transport will increase by orders of magnitude by 2050. There are two routes this could take. One, is through electrolysis, which is a method that will dominate in the long term. The others are steam methane reforming and carbon capture and storage.

Bioenergy and bio-feedstock is also expected to play a large role in several sectors, but it will need to be very tightly regulated by state and federal governments to ensure there are no adverse environmental impacts, such as deforestation. Its use should also be focused mainly on priority sectors where there are alternatives that are available, but costlier. Examples of these would be in aviation and plastics.

When combined with use or storage, carbon capture technology will be required to capture process emission from cement and may be one of the most cost-competitive methods of decarbonization for sectors in several regions. As with bioenergy, this sector will need to be tightly regulated to ensure safety and permanence.

So, which industries will present the greatest challenge to decarbonization? The first is plastics, mainly due to end-of-life emissions, cement, because of process emissions, and shipping, mainly because the industry is quite fragmented and the cost of decarbonization is far higher within this modality.

The ETC also outlined its support of the objective of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius delivered by the IPCC. While the commission openly states that meeting the goal will not be easy, they do send a clear signal that it is possible. There are specific policy levers that they point to where progress can be made.

First, a tightening of carbon-intensity mandates on industrial processes will be required. Heavy-duty transport and the carbon content of consumer products will need to be addressed. Adequate carbon pricing will also be a requirement. This is an area where there is great inconsistency across countries. There will need to be an international agreed-on pricing system, differentiated by sector and put into place with downstream consumer products in mind.

Secondly, governments will need to encourage a broad-based shift away from a linear economy to a circular one, mainly through regulation and materials efficiency and recycling. There also need to be a greater investment in green industries, whether through greater support of research and development efforts, deployment support, or a public procurement program that supports greater demand for sustainable products and services.

Finally, the public/private collaboration necessary to build an entirely new energy and transport infrastructure must be enhanced. We currently live in a political environment where doing anything on infrastructure is met with extreme difficulty, but that paradigm must change for us to make any progress in moving to a full decarbonization by mid-century. To read the ETC full report on decarbonization by 2050, simply follow this link.

Fortunately, both industries, investors, and advocates agree and are anticipating a profound transformation in how the transportation sector operates. As innovation and investment increase by leaps and bounds, it is only a matter of time before roadmaps are developed, collaborations are enhanced, and projects working towards net-zero carbon emissions reach critical mass. We can see the proof today, just look at companies like FedEx.

FedEx Takes Steps to Greater Efficiency

FedEx recently announced that they improved fuel efficiency by 2.9% in the fiscal year 2017. This puts them closer to reaching their corporate goal of a 50% increase in fuel efficiency by 2025 over 2005 levels. In 2017, this reduction translated into $51 million in fuel savings and a decrease in 219,714 metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions. The news was released in FedEx’s annual sustainability report.

FedEx has been working hard to reach its goal, also recently announcing that they reached 37.9% of their goal with eight years remaining. They have been working hard to implement initiatives for fuel-efficient truck driving and investing in technologies that enhance fuel efficiency and decrease overall fleet fuel usage.

The company has made progress in reaching the goal by implementing a diverse fuel strategy that includes everything from diesel to propane autogas and natural gas. Still, the company still reported that gasoline emissions and emission from cleaner-burning fuels increased in 2017 as they continued shift in away from diesel for fleet use. As an example, emission from vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas increased to over 7,600 metric tons in 2017 from only 1,000 metric tons in 2005.

In addition to diversifying their fuel sources, FedEx has taken delivery on their first fuel cell-powered electric delivery van, which will be used in New York and deployed on a standard delivery route. Called the E-GEN delivery van, the vehicle is powered by a ProGen hydrogen engine and has a range that exceeds 160 miles per delivery cycle.

The ProGen fuel cell provides a massive increase of 166% over standard battery power. During the first six months in operation, the vehicle is expected to amass more than 27,000 miles of on-road driving, which will provide an excellent proof-of-concept for the vehicle. The only problem with implementation of vehicles of this type is that it requires a Plug Power hydrogen fuels station, which the infrastructure does not exist for currently.

Still, FedEx is not the only company taking these steps. As more companies begin to make transitions like these, expect to see industry move ever-closer to the goal set out by the ETC. Although 2050 may seem like a long time away, time flies. 

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