A difficult dilemma
We are facing a difficult dilemma: the transport of goods, on which the economy depends, also causes serious problems. Traffic, and in particular freight traffic, acidifies our lakes and contributes to eutrophication. It also causes noise, air-borne pollution, and accidents. And what’s worse – the emission of greenhouse gases drives climate change and threatens human survival in the long term.
In other words: sustainable transport with a long-term perspective is not only useful and desirable: it is completely necessary.
“There is no conflict between economy and efficiency. And more efficient transport is also more sustainable transport”, says Maria Huge-Brodin. Photo credit Anna Nilsen
Maria Huge-Brodin is the first professor in environmental logistics in Sweden. In fact, she’s the first in the world. She says that things are going in the right direction, but too slowly. Emissions from freight transport have started to come down, but the rate of reduction is too slow to enable Sweden to reach its long-term goal – zero net emission of greenhouse gases by 2045.
Discussions of sustainability between Maria and her colleagues in the Division for Logistics and Quality Management usually identify several important factors. One of these is the development of technology – new types of vehicles, engines and fuels.
“Advances in the past 20-30 years have been huge. Just think about electrification, which is really taking off now, or consider the range of different biofuels available. This is very positive”, she says, and adds that all alternatives will be needed, and all at the same time.
Considerably less progress has been made in one of the principal research areas of the division – logistics. But the efficiency of transport is at least as important for sustainability as the choice of vehicle and fuel. To put it simply: good logistics is making each journey as short as possible with each vehicle as fully laden as possible.
Maria Huge Brodin at the railway station in Linköping. Photo credit Anna Nilsen
“More efficient transports have an immediate direct, independently of the fuel used. This is a major advantage”, says Maria Huge-Brodin.
While new fuels have led to lower carbon dioxide emissions in recent years, the effect has been inhibited by poor efficiency in the transport chain. One reason may be that logistics is more abstract than new technology, while another may be that the policy instruments available target vehicle manufacturers and hauliers, and focus less on companies that manufacture and sell goods. And it is, of course, the latter who actually determine to a large extent how transport is carried out.
Maria Huge-Brodin describes two measures to improve efficiency that would be easy to take. One of these concerns groupage (mixed loads) and the coordination of transport, the other scheduling. Groupage reduces the number of journeys necessary, which is, of course, good for the environment. The difficulty is that companies must collaborate. If delivery times are longer, more goods can be collected into a grouped transport and the opportunity to select an eco-friendly alternative such as train transport increases.
This means, strangely enough, that it can be advantageous to send a letter from Norrköping to Linköping via Stockholm. The journey is, of course longer, but the volume when combined with all the other items is much, much larger.
“Something that I want to emphasis is this: coordination and longer times. This combination is nearly always eco-friendly, and all companies should look at this”, says Maria Huge-Brodin.
“There is great potential for improvement here that is currently not being used.”
From here, it’s a short step to the third main factor behind sustainable transport: the consumers. Our choices make a big difference, both with respect to the goods we buy and how they are delivered. When shopping online, it’s usual that people choose the quickest delivery method. This is comfortable and convenient, but it’s often bad for the environment.
Our owh choices
One ongoing research project is investigating how different delivery alternatives offered by online retailers can be designed to increase the use of eco-friendly transport. One method might be to environmentally label the alternatives: another is to have the most environmentally sensitive choice as default. The easier it is to make the right choice, the greater is the probability that we will do so.
“Our transport system will become overloaded and collapse if we don’t do something about logistics. Developing new technology and finding more eco-friendly fuels will not on their own be enough to save us”, says Maria Huge-Brodin. Photo credit Anna Nilsen
“This research is extremely exciting, and crucial from the perspective of sustainability. If we can we take a deep breath and wait a while for the item we have ordered, stress throughout the complete transport chain will be reduced.”
E-commerce in itself, which is increasing rapidly, can be both a threat and an opportunity for sustainable development. The answer, which is one that researchers often give, is “It depends”.
“If I get in the car and drive into town just to buy something at the pharmacy, then it would have been better to buy it online. But if I shop for the week and at the same time take the opportunity to run several errands, maybe it’s better that I do it myself. And then this argument may change again in the future if everyone starts using electric cars”, says Maria Huge-Brodin.
“Logistics is complex. But this is what makes the field so interesting for research.”
Sustainable transport includes also economic and social sustainability. The research at LiU is primarily focussed on ecological sustainability, but some projects also investigate social aspects of sustainable transport. Two of the topics studied are the role of transport in society and working conditions for those working in the transport industry.
Translated by George Farrants