New study shows that we are well and truly trucked

trucks on highway
© ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

Lately, every time I see an email from Michael Sivak or Brandon Schoettle of the The University of Michigan Sustainable Worldwide Transportation (UMTRI), I know it is not going to end well. It might be that people are driving further, buying bigger SUVs, or that fuel efficiency is dropping. They even predict that self-driving cars will increase traffic.

However, I believe the latest is particularly significant. The report, Transportation Emissions in the Context of Emissions from Other Economic Sectors: 1990-2014, shows that CO2 emissions from the trucking industry are an increasingly large proportion of transportation related emissions.

Figure 1© UMTRI

Figure 1 compares the various sectors, and shows that industry has significantly dropped. It’s comparing percentages, not absolute volume of CO2, so the other sectors have all picked up the slack, with the exception of agriculture, which is pretty much flat.

insdustry outputs© UMTRI

Then when you look within the transportation sector, we see that trucking is up significantly as a proportion, going from 14.9 percent in 1990 to 22.5 percent in 2014. Cars and light trucks, for all the effort, money and political capital put into making cars more efficient, are just down a bit over 25 years.

In their conclusions, Sivak and Schoettle note that there was a significant (76.3 percent) increase in absolute emissions from trucking, and that the relative emissions went way up too, compared to other forms of transportation. They conclude:

There are two main implications of this study. First, because of the major progress in reducing emissions from industry during the period examined, we can expect an increased emphasis on reducing emissions from the other economic sectors, including transportation. Second, because of the large increase in the contribution of medium- and heavy-duty trucks to total emissions, we can expect an increased emphasis on reducing emissions from these classes of vehicles.

how freight is shipped© Brookings Institute

I have to say that I disagree. Reducing emissions and increasing fuel efficiency of trucks will have the same effect as it did on cars: we get bigger ones, and with trucks, probably more of them as they compete with rail on a cost per ton basis. It is, I think, easy to misinterpret these results as I think Citylab did with their headline "Trucks Have Made Remarkably Little Progress in Reducing Emissions"- -trucks have got much better; there are just a lot more of them going longer distances.

world emissions© Global Atmospheric research

Additionally, the reason emissions from industry went down has nothing to do with increased emphasis on reducing emissions; it is entirely due to the collapse of the American industrial economy as we knew it, and the offshoring of polluting industries to China. It all comes down to the way the global economy has changed in 25 years, the rise of the suburban big box store and the demand for just in time deliveries, the switch from making things to moving them by truck from Long Beach where they arrive from China.

emissions shippingWikipedia/CC BY 2.0

Every time I read a report from Sivak and Schoettle I become more convinced that with respect to transportation, just everything we have done over 25 years to try and reduce emissions has been either futile or actually counterproductive. That we are not really making significant changes; we are just rearranging the deck chairs. That the few changes that are happening are the result of much bigger forces. That we have to talk about serious systemic change that gets people out of cars, that gets freight out of trucks and back onto rail. That tweaking efficiency is just dancing around the issue; that we have to radically change the way we move people and stuff. Their latest just confirms it.

Tags: Energy Efficiency | Transportation

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