Climate action in freight transport: Is the future electric?

If we are to limit climate change, substantial emissions savings must be made in transport as well as in the energy, buildings and consumer sectors. In 2017 the CO2 emissions for the entire transport sector stood at 170 million tonnes, 40 million tonnes of which were produced by heavy commercial vehicles.

While emissions are falling in other areas, they continue to rise for transport. This trend is clearly measurable for freight transport too. Mileage has increased, more goods are now moved by road because of just-in-time manufacturing, and consumers expect a wide range of products to be constantly available at any time of day.

Freight transport is pivotal to climate change mitigation

If the transport sector is to help to curb climate change, greenhouse gases need to drop to no more than 95 to 98 million tonnes a year by 2030 and be at almost zero by 2050. Freight transport has a crucial role to play in this: in Germany 73 per cent of goods are transported by road by HGVs (lorries over 3.5 tonnes). A further increase is projected for the future.

An important option for reducing emissions from freight transport is a modal shift to the railways, which move goods energy-efficiently, for the most part using electricity. The higher the proportion of renewable energy in the electricity mix – and there is a clear trend in that direction – the more climate-friendly the transport is.

However, the potential for moving freight transport onto the railways is limited. Several studies have shown that, even in the future, at most a third of goods can be transported by rail. Moreover, for a greater modal shift to the railway, major investment in the rail network and an organised freight transport system is necessary.

The option of electrified freight transport

That is why it is necessary to look at the possible ways forward on the roads as well, especially at the potential of alternative propulsion. Electric lorries, whether battery-powered or on overhead cables, can be particularly energy-efficient to run and emit the least CO2 compared to other drive technologies.

For example, according to a study by the Oeko-Institut, in 2025 an e-truck will produce a quarter less greenhouse gas emissions than a diesel vehicle. This advantage will be even greater owing to further growth in the ratio of renewable energy in electricity generation. A moderate outlay is attached to the construction of a network of overhead lines or charging points along motorways; this is likely to be more than recouped through lower energy costs.

Another major benefit of using e-vehicles for freight transport in future is the elimination of local emissions. Cutting diesel exhaust fumes in the towns improves the health and wellbeing of residents as well as all other road users.

Study: Evaluating HGVs powered by overhead cables in terms of cost and the climate

In 2018 the Oeko-Institut carried out a study into the contribution that lorries powered by overhead lines can make to climate change mitigation and into the cost implications. Electric HGVs have an external current collector and an electric drive. They are able to cross unelectrified stretches of road with the aid of a larger battery or a combustion engine.

This study showed that setting up the electric infrastructure along motorways and a gradual transition of haulage fleets to electromobility is feasible and can even deliver cost benefits.

E-trucks score on climate

The transport experts compared diesel vehicles with electrically driven lorries and vehicles using other fuels. The electric-powered vehicles demonstrated the greatest efficiency and the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, e-trucks use only half as much energy as diesel vehicles to travel the same distance. If the emissions are compared, lorries powered by overhead cables will produce only half the CO2 in 2030 that HGVs with conventional engines do today.

Lower running costs compensate for conversion costs

Initially it is more expensive for haulage companies to invest in electric trucks. However, the cost is rapidly recouped through savings on operation and maintenance. Typically, aggregated running costs are lower than for diesel vehicles within five years of use.

The investment in the infrastructure is also manageable. The construction of a 4000-kilometre overhead network along the motorways could be financed until 2030 with around 20 per cent of annual road toll revenues.

Whether climate-friendly electromobility is introduced for freight transport as well depends on the policy framework. A constructive role in setting up the infrastructure and incentives for users are needed.

Oeko-Institut study “Oberleitungs-Lkw im Kontext weiterer Antriebs- und Energieversorgungsoptionen für den Straßengüterfernverkehr“ (with an executive summary in English language)”

Study: Climate change mitigation in heavy road freight transport – recommended action for Germany

In another study the Oeko-Institut, together with the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (ifeu), identified the challenges associated with the “greening” of freight transport and developed some recommendations for action.

Rapid, decisive and reliable government action is required to raise the necessary investment and to provide market stakeholders with solid prospects. This study also sees a clear benefit in battery-powered and electrified trucks, both for the climate and in terms of cost.

Clear government action provides stability for forward planning

In order to encourage haulage companies to convert their vehicle fleets to green power, the framework conditions must be clear. A CO2-based road toll or the introduction of ambitious fleet targets for road freight transport create incentives for investing in low-emission drive technologies.

The necessary infrastructure must be financed upfront by the government and must be presented transparently to market stakeholders, for example through an infrastructure development plan. This investment in the future can neither be passed on to the initial users nor should it be organised by the private sector. In the long term, however, the costs should indeed be met by the users.

Major demonstration projects are essential for technological development and for acceptance by market players and the public. Commercial pilot projects can be carried out in field tests with conditions guaranteed by government over an extended period. A long-term strategy for low-carbon freight transport can be developed based on these.

Study: „Alternative drive trains and fuels in road freight transport – recommendations for action in Germany“ by Oeko-Institut, Fraunhofer ISI, ifeu