Sustainability in Trucking: What’s Working, What’s Not, and What’s Next

Published February 8, 2023

by Matthew Komorowski, Product Marketing

Domestic trucking emitted 420m metric tons of CO2 in 2020 (7% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions). This volume of CO2 would fill over 2.2bn 53-foot dry vans (5m if compressed to the density of sequestered carbon). These emissions won’t meaningfully decrease until mid-to-long haul trucks are powered by electricity and other alternative fuels. As we work towards this future, we can help flatten the curve today by staying focused on proven and repeatable steps towards decarbonization.

Energy-Related Emissions of CO2 by Economic Sector
(Billions of Metric Tons)

Transportation became the leading source of CO2 emissions in the United States in 2017 after emissions in the electric power sector declined substantially. Within the transportation sector, about 25% of emissions are from medium and heavy-duty trucks. Source

What’s Working

Reducing empty miles. At any given time, over 30% of trucks on the road are pulling an empty trailer. This inefficiency is caused by a lack of coordination across the industry — most shippers and carriers take a load-by-load approach to scheduling freight. Digital freight marketplaces are helping shippers and carriers fill these empty backhauls, but they are also stuck thinking week by week and load by load. When a shipper changes their volume commitment or a carrier switches lanes, the filled backhaul often reverts to empty.

As customer demand for products increases, reducing empty miles becomes an even bigger deal, especially for companies who produce consumables. In 2021, 7 of 9 food majors watched their overall carbon emissions increase even as they reduced carbon emissions associated with their internal manufacturing processes. This is due to where emissions come from — for PepsiCo, Scopes 1 & 2 account for only 7% of the company’s footprint. The remaining 93% are Scope 3 emissions that scale up with business growth in the form of more transportation, more packaging, and more outsourced manufacturing. 

At Leaf, we’re able to guarantee empty mile elimination using freight patterns identified with Leaf Adapt, our data analytics platform that coordinates multi-shipper circuits across the transportation grid. Moving freight continuously in circuits is favored by drivers and also has a positive environmental impact as the CO2 emissions from empty backhauls are removed. Leaf uniquely schedules (and guarantees) these circuits months ahead of time, making the empty mile elimination repeatable, not just a one-off instance for a single trip.

This is carbon avoidance, happening today, that doesn’t require new hardware, infrastructure, or investment, and it offers immediate cost savings for shippers. As an industry, we must continue to work together to reduce the amount of empty trucks on the road and encourage our shippers to champion this impact within their organizations.

Our megaphone. British Petroleum published the first carbon footprint calculator in 2004 and by doing so, framed global warming as an individualized solution to a collective problem. While BP and other companies in hard-to-decarbonize sectors have not been held accountable for years, the narrative is changing thanks to increasing public awareness. Fortune 500 companies are responsible for over 25% of global emissions — their efforts to decarbonize should be proportionate. 

As these companies incorporate sustainability initiatives into their product offerings and operations, and think of how to maintain profitability without an unsustainable level of growth, we can help by continuing to move their products with fewer-to-zero empty miles.

What’s Not Working

Misleading messaging. As companies balance their pursuit of profit with pressure to address environmental impact, good intentions can lead to messaging that lacks substance. When competing for business, many companies make claims of zero waste or carbon neutrality, meanwhile their conference swag overflows from hotel garbage bins on its way to landfills.

Empty sustainability messaging has the potential to distract well-intentioned customers from options in the marketplace that have a positive (or less negative) environmental impact. It’s easy to recognize the unbelievability of sustainability claims from a fast fashion company that offers tens of thousands of new items each year. In nuanced industries like trucking, it can be difficult for customers to understand what solutions have a real impact on reducing carbon emissions within their supply chain. We should use this uncertainty as an opportunity to educate, not to exploit the latest sustainability trend.

While we understand the role of aspirational sustainability messaging, it must also be honest. The climate crisis is complex. We can pursue progress, not perfection, have grace for sincere missteps along the way, and maintain a commitment to evidence-based claims. This is possible without resting on the laurels of a catchy slogan or successful marketing campaign.

Carbon offsetting. A recent report from Bloomberg Green found that 40% of offsets purchased in 2021 are derived from renewable energy projects, one of the most contentious types of carbon offset:  

“Many renewable offsets came into being just as solar and wind power established themselves as the cheapest source of energy in most countries. Selling offsets for small sums as a way to support the economics of renewables doesn’t provide any real benefit if it’s already cheaper than building new coal or gas power plants.” Bloomberg

Legitimate carbon offsets exist, but they’re expensive and in the minority of what’s available in the voluntary carbon market. Before partnering with an organization that offers offsets, it’s imperative to understand both the source of their projects and their methodologies for counting greenhouse gas removal or avoidance.

The first offset was created to encourage an electric utility to think about climate change in the absence of market incentives and government regulation. While the early intentions of carbon offsets made sense, offsetting is often misused by companies as a form of pay-to-play. For a small fee relative to their profits, companies can continue their environmentally-damaging practices without actually reducing their carbon emissions. If a firm chooses to participate in the offset market, only legitimate projects should be considered, and these should account for a single component of a decarbonization strategy.

It’s easier for airlines to buy cheap offsets and claim carbon neutrality than for airlines to do the hard (and expensive) work of decarbonizing their core business. This is the difficulty with offsets — they have yet to fundamentally change behavior. Creating a global standard for what offsets can be counted against a company’s compliance targets is one way to start improving the effectiveness of the voluntary carbon market.

What’s Next

We should continue working with manufacturers in hard-to-decarbonize sectors and move their freight in the most carbon-efficient way. This will evolve as new alternative power units are developed and reach cost parity with diesel engines. 

Today, Leaf is working to reduce empty miles by coordinating multi-shipper circuits. In the future, Leaf’s proprietary dataset could support charging networks and electric fleets as manufacturers bring mid-to-long-haul electric trucks to market. This future is closer than you might think — last year, Tesla’s truck completed a 500-mile haul while weighing 81,000 pounds.

Meaningful climate action tends to follow legislation. While we’re logistics nerds, not lobbyists, what can we be doing as an industry to support the electrification of U.S. road freight? The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes a tax credit of up to $40,000 for new medium and heavy-duty electric trucks. The Rocky Mountain Institute outlines additional provisions:

“The IRA includes a new $1 billion Clean Heavy Duty Vehicles rebate program for state, municipalities, Indian tribes, and school associations to convert fleets to zero-emissions heavy-duty vehicles and other funding for disadvantaged communities that could be used to electrify local depots. The IRA also includes expansions and extensions of utility-scale renewable tax credits, which lower utility costs and improve the fuel cost advantage electric trucks have over diesel vehicles by making vehicle charging cleaner and more affordable.” RMI

We acknowledge the tension in our industry when talking about climate change — carbon emissions are largely a function of production and consumption, and enabling consumption is how we make money. As an industry, we can both acknowledge this tension and pursue meaningful, repeatable, and variable carbon reduction when transporting freight.

We welcome your partnership and look forward to working together on this journey to a more sustainable trucking industry.