Trucking In A Low Carbon Future

The ECOreport looks at a new International Energy Agency Report, the future of trucking in a low carbon world

By Roy L Hales

Trucks consume a fifth of the world’s oil. They also use half of the diesel. Unless actions are taken,  the demand from road freight is expected to grow 40% by 2050. A new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) examines trucking in a low carbon future.

Trucking In A Low Carbon Future

“Our study highlights the gains that are possible from tighter truck fuel efficiency standards and sets out other cost-effective steps to modernise freight transport,” says Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA.

The Future Of Trucks: Implications For Energy And The Environment describes policies that have the potential to reduce the “direct CO2 emissions from road freight transport … by 2.5 Gt in 2050, or 75%.”

The authors point to three areas where there is room for improvement.

Logistics & Systems Operations

Firstly, fuel usage can be reduced by streamlining freight logistics and systems operations.  Global Positioning Systems can find more efficient routes.  Real-time feedback devices make it possible to “monitor the on-road fuel economy of trucks.” More efficient data sharing and cooperation across the entire supply chain “make it possible to increase the volume or weight of cargo hauled” and “reduce the number of trips during which trucks are running empty.”

Energy-Efficiency Improvements

The greatest gains in GHG reduction can be made through energy efficiency measures. These include:

  • ” … the use of lightweight materials and improvements to truck engines, transmissions and drivetrains.”1
  • ” … A wide range of aerodynamic fittings (including everything from hoods and fenders, and bumpers and mirrors to larger fittings, such as aft box tapers, roof air fairing, aerodynamic tractor bodies, mud flaps, trailer tails, box skirts, cab/box gap fairings and box skirts) can reduce the drag coefficient, thereby reducing road load.”
  • ” … As much as 2.5% of the fuel consumed by road trucks may be due to idling operations. As such, this is an upper threshold on the potential fuel savings (energy savings are less).” 2

Alternative Fuels

A significant percentage of global emissions could be eradicated by adopting alternate fuels.

The authors consider several alternatives.

  • ” … Despite the lower carbon content of natural gas compared to diesel, switching to natural gas trucks results in only minor reductions in well-to-wheel (WTW) GHG emissions once issues related to methane are considered. These include methane’s high global warming potential (particularly in the near term) and leakage issues in production, processing, transmission and distribution.”3
  • ” … Within low-carbon scenarios in the long term, all biofuels, as well as renewable fuels from PtX technologies, will be constrained by limits on the sustainable supply of primary biomass”4
  • Though battery electric trucks have zero emissions, the high cost of  battery packs discourages companies from switching to both electric and hybrid electric fleets.5 The key to making them feasible may be reducing “battery needs through the supply of electricity to vehicles while in motion.”6
  • “If low-carbon hydrogen production is scaled up, meeting demand that is not only confined to the transport sector and despite drawbacks in terms of life cycle efficiency, more favourable prospects for cost reductions in fuel cell technologies are delivered thanks to successful technology deployment and the rollout of refuelling infrastructure. Hydrogen also has the potential to be used in fuel cell vehicles and emerge as an alternative to ERS for zero-emission long-haul road transport …” 7

If No Action Is Taken

The road to a low carbon economy is straightforward, but

” … if no action is taken, oil demand from road freight is projected to grow by 5 million barrels per day by 2050, or around 40% of the projected increase in global oil demand in that period. This growth is expected to lead to a significant increase in carbon dioxide emissions of nearly 900 million tonnes through 2050, or about the same level of emissions growth as from coal use in the power and the entire industry sector combined.”

Photo Credit: Hauling Hay on a foggy morning on Lower Lake Road, Klamath County, Oregon by Michael (a.k.a. moik) McCullough via Flickr CC BY SA, 2.0 License)


  1.  The Future Of Trucks: Implications For Energy And The Environment, International Energy Agency, p 10
  2.  Ibid, p 75
  3.  Ibid, p 85
  4.  Ibid, p 93
  5.  Ibid, p 96
  6.  Ibid, p 94
  7.  Ibid, p 126

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