The state of freight

24th November 2022

A new ISO standard could help to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the freight sector, says Rick Gould

The International Standards Organization (ISO), is developing a new standard for calculating greenhouse (GHG) emissions from the freight sector, an industry that accounts for about 11% of the world’s GHG emissions. The standard, ISO 14083, is based on a successful industry standard that has helped many freight companies to calculate and manage their GHG emissions.

The importance of quantifying emissions

In 2011, the UK government stated that reporting GHG emissions would enable the country to meet climate change objectives, stating that “for businesses in the UK, as well as internationally, measuring and reporting of GHG emissions is considered an important part of the GHG management cycle and a tool for embedding sustainability into a company”.

Calculating GHG emissions also empowers an organisation to identify when and where its emissions occur, so it can efficiently and effectively target reductions. For example, researchers have found that GHG analysis in the freight sector can provide emissions reductions of up to 50% by suggesting the use of alternative routes, eliminating empty return trips, and consolidating and re-timing shipments.

Calculating GHG emissions is challenging in the freight sector due to the complexities of interwoven supply chains that use multiple transport modes. However, it is important to solve this challenge because of the sector’s economic and environmental significance (see ‘The economic and environmental significance of the freight sector’, below).

Calculating emissions

Developers have responded by creating several tools for calculating emissions in the sector. However, a diversity of approaches has made it hard to produce complete, consistent and comparable assessments – so the Smart Freight Centre (SFC) decided to solve this challenge. The SFC is an international not-for-profit trade organisation that focuses on lowering GHG emissions from the sector, with the aim of guiding it to net zero by no later than 2050 and reducing GHG emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030.

The SFC created a bespoke group, the Global Logistics Emissions Council (GLEC), to develop harmonised, validated international guidelines for calculating and reporting freight transport GHG emissions. The GLEC began as a voluntary collaboration but has since grown to include more than 150 freight organisations and companies, and is backed by governments.

After it reviewed and combined the best available tools, such as the GHG Protocol, and filled in the gaps, the result was the GLEC Framework, published in 2016. This covers all transport modes of the freight transportation supply chain. What benefits does it bring?

“The first thing it achieved is harmonisation,” says Dr Alan Lewis, technical development director at the SFC. “This results in buy-in from increasing numbers of organisations. The Framework gives you a baseline to calculate and report emissions in a meaningful way and also acts as a focal point for interactions with other organisations.”

Since its launch, many companies worldwide have applied the Framework and it has grown into an international success story, driving down emissions and cutting costs. Despite this, the Framework has not yet achieved its full potential because, as an industry tool, it lacks official and formal approval. “The European Commission, for example, is supportive, but it cannot fully endorse it because it was produced by industry,” says Lewis.

This challenge can be solved if the Framework is formalised by being converted into an ISO standard. The result will be ISO 14083: Greenhouse gases – Quantification and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions arising from transport chain operations.

The economic and environmental significance of the freight sector

According to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), container ships transport more than 11bn tonnes of goods across the world’s oceans and seas each year – equivalent to 1.5 tonnes of goods per person. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) reports that this accounts for 90% of the world’s trade by volume.

Air freight adds around 70m tonnes each year, and beyond the world’s ports, shifting freight overland becomes increasingly complex, involving a dynamic web of storage facilities, trains, trucks and delivery vans.

And the volumes shipped are growing – they have more than doubled during the past 20 years and are expected to increase by more than 50% during the next decade.

Distributing billions of tonnes of goods requires a huge amount of energy, largely provided by fossil fuels that cause significant GHG emissions. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology determined that freight transportation causes about 8% of global GHGs, with warehousing and distribution centres adding another 3% to this figure. If freight transport keeps growing at its current rate under a business-as-usual scenario, the freight sector could be contributing more GHGs than any other sector by 2050.

This is unlikely, given that decarbonisation and net-zero strategies are gaining traction within the sector. The IMO and ICS, for example, both have strategies to decarbonise, and the ICS has committed to net zero by 2050. Meanwhile, AP Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest integrated logistics company, aims to be climate neutral by 2040.

An international standard

“We approached ISO and proposed a new work item to produce an International Standard,” Lewis says. “The idea was to embed the principles and factors of the GLEC Framework within the ISO 14000 environmental management family of standards.” In effect, ISO 14083 is a synergy between the GLEC Framework and the ISO 14000 family. The latter includes the ISO 14040 series for lifecycle analysis, which works well for supply chains and interconnected processes.

Once published, ISO 14083 will create a common methodology for quantifying and reporting freight sector GHG emissions. “The standard will ensure industry, governments and investors use a single methodology, consistent with GLEC Framework,” adds Lewis – as well as solidifying a strong future role for the Framework.

It will also provide the formal recognition that the Framework needs if it is to expand its reach and catalyse net zero for freight transport.

Rick Gould, MIEMA CEnv, is a senior air quality adviser at the Environment Agency. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Image credit | iStock


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