Transportation needs to get on the sustainability train

Walmart's new more sustainable truck
Walmart
The Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience is a tractor-trailer combination that features leading edge aerodynamics, an advanced turbine-powered range extending series hybrid powertrain, electrified auxiliary components and sophisticated control systems, developed in support of the company’s sustainability program.

Over the past few years, companies have made tremendous progress on renewable energy. More than 40 large corporations have committed to sourcing 100 percent of their energy from renewables, and at least eight have organized utility-scale purchase agreements for electric power larger than 100 megawatts.

This exciting progress needs to continue, and companies that have not yet taken advantage of the increasingly attractive renewable-energy options should scale up their commitments. But to date, the focus of the renewable energy movement has been solely on stationary power (for example, electric power plants that stay put), which leaves half the job of energy undone. It is time to include transportation.

In the United States, transportation accounts for 27 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is very close to the 31 percent from electricity. And when considering the broader lifecycle impacts of fuels, vehicles and infrastructure, the emissions from transportation is likely more than 40 percent, making it the biggest source of impacts of all.

Transportation also contributes to air pollution, which is linked to major global health problems including asthma, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, and cancer. So addressing transportation’s emissions also will reduce the impacts of these related issues, which disproportionately affect poor communities and are of increasing interest to regulators internationally.

Many companies are in the transportation business, as providers of fuels, vehicle technologies and transit services. Virtually all require transportation to get critical work done: Companies own fleets, they depend on inbound and outbound logistics, they have employees who commute and travel for business, and they rely on customers to travel to their stores and facilities.

And despite impressive corporate commitments to renewables for stationary power, similar commitments for transportation are rare: Walmart’s aspiration goal of 100 percent renewables is unusual in that it includes transportation. There are few case studies on companies making transformative commitments to buy alternative fuels (so called “offtake” agreements) or fully converting fleets to renewable resources.

The lack of investment in renewables for transportation is understandable. Unlike with stationary power, mobile energy must be energy-dense, and no mature technologies can compete with petroleum-based diesel and gasoline on price, range and scale. This makes the way forward less clear.

But if corporate sustainability leaders don’t take the lead here, advanced vehicle and fuel markets will develop too slowly. On the flip side, companies committed to effectively addressing climate change can pioneer this market and ensure that transportation is high on the agenda, where it should be.

Here are some actions company leaders can take right now:

  • Understand your total transportation footprint, including how freight and passenger mobility affect the company. BSR’s Future of Fuels initiative has a suite of research initiatives that explore transportations’ impacts, which include well-known emissions such as carbon dioxide as well as the often overlooked short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon.
  • Take advantage of new tools and opportunities to collaborate. BSR is developing a Commercial Fuel Sustainability Tool, CALSTART and the National Association of Fleet Administrators have the LEED for Fleets framework, WBCSD is leading the Low-Carbon Technology Partnerships Initiative for Freight and the Partnership on Sustainable Low-Carbon Transport has the Paris Process on Mobility and Climate.        
  • Pilot new technologies, including electric vehicles, hydrogen and biofuels, in order to understand how the continuing transition from a “mono-fuel” (diesel) to a “poly-fuel” economy will affect your business, and how these technologies actually work on the ground.
  • Talk with local communities that care about shared mobility solutions, and work with them to create shared, community-friendly initiatives.
  • Tell policymakers that transportation matters, emphasizing that the climate agenda needs to include strong incentives for low-carbon fuels and vehicles.

Only a few years ago, when we asked sustainability teams in the information and communications technology industry about their role in addressing climate change, they never mentioned renewable electricity. Today, these same companies are leading the way in renewable-power procurement and, in doing so, literally remaking the business for stationary power.

The same no doubt will prove true in transportation, but which companies will lead the way?

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