The Climate Action Plan proposes a 10% reduction in emissions from the heavy goods road freight sector by 2030.
Transport accounts for approximately 18% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Diesel-powered heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and buses produce 38% of our road transport emissions.
The road to transition to alternative fuels that will produce zero emissions is recognised as difficult for the HGV operator fleets due to the limited supply of affordable and available alternatively-fuelled vehicles, the significant cost differential between new fuel and traditional diesel vehicles, and the current lack of availability of infrastructure to support a sustained transition.
In line with meeting EU ambition, the Irish Government has committed to achieving a 51% reduction in Ireland’s overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030, and to achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2050. These legally binding objectives are set out in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021.
The recently-published Climate Action Plan has, for the first time, a special focus on the haulage and heavy goods road freight sector.
The overall abatement required of the heavy goods sector will be to deliver circa 10% reduction in emissions relative to 2018 levels by 2030, the report states.
This is no mean feat — the demand for freight will increase where volumes are projected to grow by 91% up to 2050 and, during the same period, Ireland’s population is projected to increase by 1m to approximately 6m people.
Ireland, as an island, is reliant on strong maritime and aviation connectivity with the world. Some 95% of all imports and exports are through our maritime ports, where Dublin Port is by far the biggest, accounting for over 80% of all unitised trade (roll-on-roll-off and load-on-load-off cargo units). More than 90% of goods are moved by road, due to the signiﬁcantly lower contribution of other modes of transport.
National and local policy must be aligned to ensure that barriers to decarbonisation are minimised.
There is zero benefit to publicly vilifying port projects that are designed to deliver for the Irish economy and are critical to our global competitiveness. Common sense must prevail in our understanding of the necessity of these critical infrastructure projects.
We must focus on making operations around our ports more efficient, ensure that access is allowed on a 24/7 basis, and encourage freight flows outside of peak commuter time, thus reducing congestion on our roads, all of which improve air quality and work to enhance positive stakeholder engagement.
Environmental emotion must be more focused on solutions that deliver transformational change through leadership, as well as clear and concise planning that has, at its core, a progressive implementation plan that starts delivering immediately. This is particularly important for the freight distribution and logistics sector as it aspires to support the reduction of emissions and improve air quality through progressive fuel management plans, and investment in new technologies.
Achieving net zero is a complex proposition, and needs to focus on what is viable for the movement of freight on an island that has a regionally dispersed population and where the east coast is the most densely populated. A lot of the soundings on rail freight and hydrogen as a solution to the emissions issue (rail freight by taking trucks off the road and hydrogen by delivering zero emissions) is clouded by the fact that the infrastructure or energy is not available, nor will it be for many years, thereby nullifying its influence on targets to 2030.
Rail freight needs economies of scale to be viable — at least 300km distance and dense populations to justify the mass movement of freight by rail.
When we examine Ireland’s freight movement, we see that the road network has developed to support ‘just in time’ delivery on a national basis. Hydrogen will require a significant oversupply of green electricity for it to be produced in the quantities and price that make it a viable solution for transport. There is also a case that as road freight decarbonises, it will be impossible for rail freight to keep pace and make it an economically feasible proposal that will encourage the modal shift to rail for freight.
‘European transport policy is focused on modal shift from road to inland waterways and rail, but because of Ireland’s island status, the EU transport policy does not easily transpose itself here. That is not to say that rail freight has no role to play, it does, but it must be borne out by a thorough examination of the market, and a cost analysis that makes a viable economic argument for rail freight.
Progress is being made, and there are many examples of leaders in the industry who have moved to alternative-fuelled commercial freight distribution such as CNG-fuelled HGVs, the majority of which are now run on 100% biomethane. The first fully electric articulated trucks will be operational in Ireland in the coming weeks. But industry ambition must be matched by State support and investment in infrastructure.
The focus must be on what can be done now to advance a culture that prioritises decarbonisation of the freight distribution and logistics sector. Introducing tax credits and support for hydrotreated vegetable oil (90% net reduction in CO2 emissions) and support the production of biomethane should become a priority for this Government.
The Freight Transport Associations’ alternative fuel working group is providing evidence that there is strong ambition within the freight sector to decarbonise, but many challenges remain.
Consideration must be given to understanding the cost associated with transitioning to newer fuelling technologies, the availability of the technologies, the lifespan of the new technologies, and crucially, the infrastructure available to support the effective transition to newer fuelling technologies.
It is reasonable to assume that for new technologies to be introduced, they must make business sense, be sustainable (in the sense that they are not short-term solutions), and most importantly be affordable.