Home / Chroniques / Why we need to decarbonise freight transport, and how
π Industry π Planet

Why we need to decarbonise freight transport, and how

Aurélien Bigo
Aurélien Bigo
Research Associate of the Energy and Prosperity Chair at Institut Louis Bachelier
Key takeaways
  • Transport is the main CO2-emitting sector: it accounted for 31% of French greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.
  • Between 1960 and 2017, CO2 emissions from freight transport increased 3.3 times.
  • The national low-carbon strategy has generated 5 actions to taken in order to decarbonise transport of goods, such as moderating transport demand.
  • The objective is to move away from oil by 2050, which accounts for 90% of the sector's energy consumption.
  • If a break with current trends is not made, the share of freight transport in transport emissions could increase further.

Freight transport: 10% of French emissions

France has set itself the goal of achiev­ing car­bon neu­tral­i­ty by 20501, and trans­port is the main sec­tor emit­ting them. Before the Covid cri­sis, which severe­ly dis­rupt­ed the sec­tor, it account­ed for 31% of the coun­try’s green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions in 2019. This fig­ure only con­sid­ers direct emis­sions from vehi­cles on the nation­al lev­el, exclud­ing inter­na­tion­al trans­port2.

Although it is not always easy to make a pre­cise dis­tinc­tion between pas­sen­ger and freight trans­port in the sta­tis­tics, freight accounts for almost a third of trans­port emis­sions – around 10% of total French emis­sions3. Tak­ing into account inter­na­tion­al trans­port, freight trans­port emis­sions are dom­i­nat­ed by road trans­port, with heavy goods vehi­cles in first place (60%), fol­lowed by light com­mer­cial vehi­cles (LCVs; 16%), then ship­ping (14%), dom­i­nat­ed by inter­na­tion­al mar­itime trans­port, and then air trans­port (10%)4.

Green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions from trans­port in France by mode, 2019. All GHG; includ­ing inter­na­tion­al trans­port; CITEPA data; LCV = light com­mer­cial vehi­cles; 2WD = motorised two-wheel­ers.

5 levers to decarbonise transport

The French nation­al low-car­bon strat­e­gy (SNBC) cites 5 actions to reduce trans­port emissions: 

  • Mod­er­a­tion of trans­port demand.
  • Modal shift towards less emit­ting modes.
  • Improv­ing vehi­cle occupancy.
  • Reduc­ing vehi­cle ener­gy consumption.
  • And final­ly, the decar­bon­i­sa­tion of the ener­gy used.
The 5 levers of the nation­al low-car­bon strategy.

These levers should make it pos­si­ble to achieve the objec­tive of com­plete decar­bon­i­sa­tion of domes­tic freight trans­port by 2050. This requires the com­plete with­draw­al of oil from heavy goods vehi­cles, com­mer­cial vehi­cles, freight trains and riv­er trans­port boats with­in 27 years. This is a major chal­lenge, giv­en that oil still accounts for more than 90% of the sec­tor’s ener­gy con­sump­tion and that the sec­tor’s emis­sions are strug­gling to fall at the moment.

Past trajectories dominated by demand

Between 1960 and 2017, CO2 emis­sions from freight trans­port increased 3.3 times. It is pos­si­ble to break down this evo­lu­tion into 5 explana­to­ry fac­tors5. It appears that trans­port demand was the main fac­tor explain­ing the upward (and some­times down­ward) trend in emis­sions. Demand is mea­sured in tonne-kilo­me­tres and has increased both because of the increase in the vol­ume of goods to be trans­port­ed and the increase in the aver­age dis­tance trav­elled. Over­all, demand has increased by a fac­tor of 3.4, with peri­ods of decline fol­low­ing major eco­nom­ic crises (oil shocks, 2008 cri­sis etc.).

Between 1960 and 2017, CO2 emis­sions from freight trans­port increased 3.3 times.

This increase in demand has been dri­ven by road trans­port, which has seen its modal share rise from 34% in 1960 to around 88% since the mid-2000s, to the detri­ment of rail and water­ways6. The modal shift fac­tor has thus had a strong upward impact on emis­sions (mul­ti­plied by 1.95).

The last three fac­tors have been decreas­ing. The aver­age vehi­cle load has improved for all modes, with a shift to high­er capac­i­ty trucks, trains, and ships (fac­tor of 0.66, with an impact of ‑34% on emis­sions). The greater weight of these vehi­cles may have lim­it­ed the gains in ener­gy con­sump­tion per kilo­me­tre trav­elled, which nev­er­the­less amount­ed to ‑10% over the peri­od. Final­ly, the car­bon inten­si­ty of the ener­gy used improved slight­ly (-16%), main­ly due to the devel­op­ment of bio­fu­els at the end of the 2000s, a decrease that appears to be rather arti­fi­cial when we look at the com­plete life cycle analy­sis of their pro­duc­tion7.

These major trends were sim­i­lar in oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries8. The pre­dom­i­nance of demand in the evo­lu­tion of emis­sions, the major role of road trans­port, as well as insuf­fi­cient gains in the organ­i­sa­tion of logis­tics and tech­ni­cal progress to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce emis­sions in recent years are all evident.

Evo­lu­tion of CO2 emis­sions from domes­tic freight trans­port from 1960 to 2017.

The potential of the 5 levers by 2050

The decom­po­si­tion of emis­sions into five fac­tors can also be used to study the poten­tial of the dif­fer­ent levers in achiev­ing the cli­mate objec­tives. This is sum­marised in the graph below, with the con­tri­bu­tion of the five levers for the SNBC by 2050 com­pared with oth­er sce­nar­ios pub­lished up to 2019 and the ADEME Transition(s) 2050 scenarios.

Demand was pro­ject­ed to increase by 40% by 2050 in the SNBC pub­lished in 2020. This is more than the aver­age of the trend sce­nar­ios, while oth­er sce­nar­ios pro­ject­ed decreas­es of around ‑30% for the aver­age of the 4 most ambi­tious sce­nar­ios on the lever. Thus, the SNBC appears to be very unam­bi­tious in terms of mod­er­at­ing trans­port demand, despite the impor­tance of this fac­tor up to now. How­ev­er, the reduc­tion in demand can also facil­i­tate a sig­nif­i­cant modal shift from road to rail and, sec­on­dar­i­ly, to water­ways, exceed­ing the ‑20% poten­tial reduc­tion in emissions.

The trend is still towards a slight improve­ment in the aver­age vehi­cle occu­pan­cy rate, but the mar­gins for progress in rela­tion to the trend appear to be more lim­it­ed here than for the two pre­vi­ous levers: the SNBC was par­tic­u­lar­ly ambi­tious here. The reduc­tions in vehi­cle con­sump­tion approach ‑20% by 2050 in the aver­age of the trend sce­nar­ios and can approach or even exceed a divi­sion by 2 in the most opti­mistic sce­nar­ios. These effi­cien­cy gains are obtained in part through the hybridi­s­a­tion or elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of vehi­cles, or some­times also through very opti­mistic assump­tions on the progress of ther­mal engines, as is the case in the SNBC9.

Decom­po­si­tion of CO2 emis­sions of freight trans­port sce­nar­ios up to 2050 Analy­sis of 15 sce­nar­ios10; aver­age of the 4 trend sce­nar­ios in red, of the 4 most ambi­tious sce­nar­ios by fac­tor in green; SNBC in blue.

Final­ly, decar­bon­i­sa­tion appears lim­it­ed in the trend sce­nar­ios, and very strong in the car­bon neu­tral­i­ty sce­nar­ios (espe­cial­ly the most opti­mistic ones on tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments). This sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence shows how far we must go to get out of a trend that is far from being in line with our cli­mate objectives.

Decarbonisation more difficult than for passengers?

Pas­sen­ger and freight trans­port have sim­i­lar­i­ties in terms of decar­bon­i­sa­tion issues: they often share the same infra­struc­ture (for trans­port modes and ener­gy), can call on the same five levers, have had sim­i­lar trends in their past evo­lu­tion, and are dom­i­nat­ed by road trans­port in terms of prac­tices and emissions.

How­ev­er, beyond what is trans­port­ed (peo­ple or goods), a major dif­fer­ence also con­cerns the main play­ers in the sec­tor, which are more dom­i­nat­ed by com­pa­nies for goods trans­port. Opti­mi­sa­tion of trans­port costs and cer­tain decar­bon­i­sa­tion levers have already been more pro­nounced in this sec­tor than for pas­sen­gers, lim­it­ing, for exam­ple, the gains to be expect­ed from the fill­ing of vehi­cles (unlike cars, which are very lit­tle filled on aver­age). The scope for reduc­ing vehi­cle ener­gy con­sump­tion is also less than for pas­sen­gers. Final­ly, the decar­bon­i­sa­tion of vehi­cle fleets is much less well under­way for heavy goods vehi­cles than for cars, with still con­sid­er­able uncer­tain­ty as to which engine(s) will be pre­ferred in the future.

There is there­fore a great risk that the share of freight trans­port in trans­port emis­sions and even in nation­al emis­sions will increase in the com­ing years and decades if a break with cur­rent trends is not made.

This arti­cle is the first in a series of 4 arti­cles on the ener­gy tran­si­tion of freight trans­port. After this intro­duc­to­ry arti­cle, the fol­low­ing three arti­cles will dis­cuss tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments to decar­bonise freight trans­port, the poten­tial, and dif­fi­cul­ties of using the modal shift lever, and final­ly the issue of demand moderation.

1This is the objec­tive set by the nation­al low-car­bon strat­e­gy (SNBC): https://​www​.ecolo​gie​.gouv​.fr/​s​t​r​a​t​e​g​i​e​-​n​a​t​i​o​n​a​l​e​-​b​a​s​-​c​a​r​b​o​n​e​-snbc. Achiev­ing car­bon neu­tral­i­ty requires divid­ing green­house gas emis­sions by 5.2 between 2021 and 2050 and increas­ing car­bon sinks to achieve a bal­ance between emis­sions and absorp­tion.
2Emis­sions account­ing only takes into account direct vehi­cle emis­sions for the trans­port sec­tor, with­out tak­ing into account emis­sions relat­ed to ener­gy pro­duc­tion, con­struc­tion and main­te­nance of vehi­cles and trans­port infra­struc­ture, which are in oth­er sec­tors or are some­times import­ed emis­sions. The main sta­tis­tics also gen­er­al­ly do not include inter­na­tion­al mar­itime and air trans­port.
3Fig­ures from the CITEPA Secten report: https://​www​.citepa​.org/​f​r​/​s​e​cten/. Freight trans­port accounts for 30% of nation­al trans­port emis­sions and 9.4% of total nation­al emis­sions, all sec­tors com­bined; adding inter­na­tion­al trans­port to the cal­cu­la­tions increas­es these fig­ures to 32% and 11.1% respec­tive­ly.
4Emis­sions from LCVs are count­ed as 60% for pas­sen­gers and 40% for goods (see page 69 of Bigo’s the­sis, 2020); for ship­ping, riv­er freight trans­port and the « Mar­itime » cat­e­gories (inter­na­tion­al, domes­tic and fish­ing ship­ping) are count­ed as goods, and the « Oth­er ship­ping » cat­e­go­ry (plea­sure boats and oth­er small boats) is count­ed as pas­sen­gers; for air trans­port, the break­down is made on a pro rata basis by weight, con­sid­er­ing that a pas­sen­ger and his lug­gage rep­re­sent 100 kg (method­ol­o­gy often used).
5The break­downs and main fig­ures for 1960–2017 and the sce­nar­ios for the peri­od up to 2050 are tak­en from the the­sis « Les trans­ports face au défi de la tran­si­tion énergé­tique. Explo­rations between past and future, tech­nol­o­gy and sobri­ety, accel­er­a­tion and slow­ing down », avail­able at this link: http://​www​.chair​-ener​gy​-pros​per​i​ty​.org/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​t​r​a​v​a​i​l​-​d​e​-​t​h​e​s​e​-​d​e​c​a​r​b​o​n​e​r​-​t​r​a​n​s​p​o​r​t​s​-​d​i​c​i​-​2050/
6Between 1960 and 2017, the modal share of rail fell from 56% to about 10%, and that of inland water­ways from 10% to about 2%. See page 58 of the the­sis.
7In emis­sion inven­to­ries, the use of bio­fu­els is con­sid­ered neu­tral and is not count­ed in the trans­port sec­tor, as the CO2 emit­ted dur­ing their com­bus­tion is cap­tured dur­ing plant growth. Con­sid­er­ing the life cycle analy­sis but also the pos­si­ble land use changes linked to their pro­duc­tion, bio­fu­els used in France in 2017 had how­ev­er a car­bon inten­si­ty sim­i­lar to oil (see page 65 of the the­sis). The emis­sions reduc­tions grant­ed to it are there­fore large­ly arti­fi­cial.
8See the analy­sis on the Ener­da­ta web­site, car­ried out with Ari­ane Bous­quet, Lau­ra Sudries and Bruno Lapil­lonne: https://​www​.ener​da​ta​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​e​x​e​c​u​t​i​v​e​-​b​r​i​e​f​i​n​g​/​t​r​a​n​s​p​o​r​t​-​c​o​2​-​e​m​i​s​s​i​o​n​s​-​t​r​e​n​d​s​.html
9In the SNBC, the con­sump­tion of the fleet of heavy diesel vehi­cles is reduced by 38% per kilo­me­tre trav­elled, even though these vehi­cles car­ry 24% more weight and effi­cien­cy gains are increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult and cost­ly to achieve with com­bus­tion engines.
10Of the 15 sce­nar­ios stud­ied, 10 date from before 2019 and were stud­ied in the the­sis, to which the ADE­ME’s Transition(s) 2050 sce­nar­ios pub­lished at the end of 2021 were added. The scope here excludes LCVs (con­trary to the same sim­i­lar scheme on page 123 of the the­sis) to facil­i­tate com­par­i­son between sce­nar­ios.

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter