Decarbonizing logistics: Taking the long and bumpy road

Climate protection and achieving climate targets is a major and challenging task for everyone involved. But DACHSER is clearly committed to consistently moving towards more sustainable and climate-friendly logistics. CEO Burkhard Eling succinctly summarizes the strategy with the concrete measures in a name article.

Climate protection is more than an end in itself.
Climate protection is more than an end in itself.

“ESG. Net zero. Sustainability reporting. Terms that we barely knew a decade ago have now become the linchpin of corporate strategies. And that’s good! Behind these terms are alarming facts, the effects of which are being felt more and more by societies all over the world. Southern Europe has had a summer marked by severe drought and devastating storms. European Union researchers reported that the summer of 2022 was Europe’s worst drought in at least 500 years.  And we’re seeing the same picture in Asia and the US. Climate protection is far more than an end in itself: it is a manifestation of the fact that we are serious when we talk about our responsibility to future generations.

This responsibility has now even been given constitutional status in Germany. It is no longer an empty phrase; on the contrary, it carries legal and political weight. In 2021, for example, the Federal Constitutional Court declared parts of Germany’s climate protection law unconstitutional, as the path toward climate neutrality by 2050 was not sufficiently defined, especially with regard to the years 2031 to 2050. In other words, shifting the burden onto future generations is not compatible with the German constitution. It is our generation, us, who must take action. Now.

So let’s do something about it! Let’s turn the lofty language of ambitious sustainability projects into real action. I’m proud to say that at DACHSER, we not only talk the talk, we walk the walk. We’re committed to putting sustainability on the road and in the air—and not just figuratively. That’s one side of the story. The other side—and there’s no tiptoeing around it—is that according to MIT Climate freight transport  by trucks, planes, ships and trains is responsible for about 8 percent of all CO2 emissions worldwide – or even 11% if warehouses and ports are included. And that figures are still rising.

Logistics causes emissions because our society thrives on the possibilities, convenience, and amenities offered by modern logistics. Yes, scaling back global logistics services could and would reduce carbon emissions. But is this a viable option? No: logistics is the backbone of our global, interconnected economy. This became even more apparent when Covid tore through our global supply chains and the world was suddenly faced with shortages. What’s more, as new markets emerge, the number of road, rail, air, and ocean shipments will only increase. Cutting back on logistics services would mean cutting off the lifeblood of the economy. The Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2015 can only be achieved with the help of logistics. It’s obvious: logistics, climate protection, and sustainable development are closely linked.

Carbon trading won’t cut it

The challenge we face is a “bigger undertaking for mankind than flying to Mars,” as Bernhard Simon, Chairman of DACHSER’s Supervisory Board, recently  put it. How can we decarbonize logistics when it’s estimated that road transport by truck will increase by 50 percent by 2050? Is decarbonization even possible?

Such an undertaking would involve the entire transport infrastructure, new policies and legislation, technologies, construction in real estate, the interaction of various industries, and diverse regulatory frameworks. There can be no doubt that the goal of decarbonized logistics can be achieved only if all stakeholders pull together.

Making logistics carbon-neutral through CO2 offsetting is certainly not a sustainable solution. In our view, the key is to take the long and bumpy road and actually actively avoid and reduce emissions. We are going to tackle our own emissions first and reduce them as fast as possible, while also collaborating with our customers, service partners carriers, and the entire ecosystem in the logistics industry. But how exactly is this to be done?

There’s certainly no magic formula, especially in industries such as transport and logistics. Do I have the answer? No. Because there’s not just one answer, but several. 

DACHSER Emission-Free Delivery uses electric vans and trucks as well as heavy-duty, electrically assisted cargo bikes to cover the “last mile” in defined downtown areas.
DACHSER Emission-Free Delivery uses electric vans and trucks as well as heavy-duty, electrically assisted cargo bikes to cover the “last mile” in defined downtown areas.

Taking the first step

We have to take the first step. To reduce our carbon footprint, we need to increase process efficiency. We need to improve energy efficiency. We have to strengthen research and innovation. And we must maintain our social commitment beyond our sphere of business, assuming responsibility as a “Corporate Citizen+,” as we call it.

Here’s how we’re taking action at DACHSER:

Process efficiency: Making the most out of existing logistics capacity
We’re continuously increasing the efficiency of logistics processes. We strive to leverage all available technologies, from artificial intelligence to Internet of Things applications. We’re working tirelessly to maximize truck capacity utilization, whether it’s using mega trailers and longer trucks, consciously avoiding empty-truck kilometers, or deliberately using multimodal transportation in combined transport. Making the most of existing logistics holds huge potential for avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy efficiency: From air freight to solar power
Streamlining our energy efficiency is a twofold task: 95 percent of DACHSER’s carbon footprint is caused by carriers and transport companies over which we have no direct control. But that’s no reason to sit back and do nothing. Instead, we’re making a conscious effort to influence the market, for example with sustainable offers in the Air & Sea Logistics business field and by promoting attractive leasing offers for electric trucks in Road Logistics.

As for our own carbon emissions, we’re taking action on several fronts. All DACHSER logistics facilities worldwide are powered entirely by green electricity, for example. We’re installing solar panels on our logistics facilities and are well on track to quadruple our energy generation capacity by 2025. We use LED lighting, battery-powered ground conveyors, and heat recovery. We’re working with airlines to offer customers the option of reducing the carbon footprint of their air freight by about 30 percent through sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). We’re in the process of introducing a similar model for sea freight as well. We also invited our employees around the world to submit ideas for improving climate protection in the workplace. We received a whopping 2,100 ideas from employees in 39 countries, and have already implemented more than half.

We’re not just building energy efficiency into our existing business models—we’re using it as a baseline for new ventures. Our award-winning city logistics concept, DACHSER Emission-Free Delivery, is a great example: it uses electric vans and trucks as well as heavy-duty, electrically assisted cargo bikes to cover the “last mile” in defined downtown areas. By sourcing and charging with green power only, we can cut our operational greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Plus, we help reduce truck congestion. We have rolled out this model in thirteen European cities so far and plan  to add another eleven by 2025. 

Research & innovation: Getting heavy-duty electric trucks on the road

Reducing carbon emissions on the road remains a major challenge: electric vehicles are becoming more and more common in private transportation, but commercial vehicles like electric trucks are still scarce. And we’re still in urgent need of zero-emission technologies—whether powered by batteries or hydrogen—in long-distance trucking. This also includes the installation of loading infrastructure. At DACHSER, we’re making research & innovation a priority: at our three e-mobility sites in Freiburg, Hamburg, and Karlsruhe, we’re testing the use of zero-emission technologies in short- and long-distance transport as well as charging infrastructures and intelligent energy and load management. We’re also piloting a heavy-duty battery-electric truck with a gross vehicle weight of 37 tons, a 350-kWh battery that can be recharged in about 75 minutes, and a range of around 200 kilometers. And in the Czech Republic, we’re operating our first fully electric swap-body combination on a regular long-distance route. In a nutshell: we’re moving forward, but there’s still a long way to go together with our technology partners.

Solar panels on our logistics facilities contribute to energy efficiency.
Solar panels on our logistics facilities contribute to energy efficiency.

A task both humbling and exciting

Converting logistics to fossil-free fuels will require staying power. As things stand today, it will take 15 to 20 years to replace our current diesel trucks with zero-emission vehicles. We’re taking on an enormous task, one that requires action from many players: logistics providers, transportation partners, and carriers, as well as customers and legislators. As we move toward net zero logistics, we need to have a laser-like focus on efficiency, technical and financial feasibility, and the actual sustainability impact.

Logistics and sustainability are mutually dependent, and as a logistics provider, our leverage is huge. Unlike less carbon-intensive industries, every effort we make will have a direct impact. For me, this is a task that is both humbling and exciting. We must not be discouraged by its magnitude. On the contrary, every successful contribution, no matter how small, must spur us on to intensify our efforts a hundredfold—to ignite the spark that succeeds in transforming an entire ecosystem.”

DACHSER worldwide
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