Does electric mobility make logistics more sustainable?
Opportunities and stumbling blocks for freight forwarders
Deserts are spreading across the world, glaciers are melting, droughts are destroying harvests. Extreme weather events such as floods are becoming more frequent and are devastating entire regions. Climate change has many faces. A rise in temperature by three or four degrees Celsius means disastrous consequences for humans and nature. To limit global warming, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This applies to all aspects of human life and all economic sectors. The transport sector causes 25% of the global CO2 emissions. Whereby, some 18% are due to road traffic.
Electric mobility promises a way out of this dilemma. In passenger transport, the trend towards electric cars is gathering speed. During the first half of 2021, 7.2% of all registered new cars were electric. According to EU plans, this percentage should rise to 100% by the mid-2030s. These vehicles are usually powered by lithium-ion batteries.
The path to green logistics: How can the transport sector become more climate-friendly?
A lot about transportation will change. The EU Commission implemented legal requirements. New long-haul trucks are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by -30% by 2030. Yet, the requirements for range, charging capacity and capacity use are high. Which is why trucks with battery drive or a fuel cell don't appear very competitive so far.
According to a study by the University of Münster, with improvements in the energy density of batteries and increases in the efficiency of fuel cells, the ZERO-emission truck could very soon match diesel trucks regarding cost and competitiveness. Yet, price reductions for fast charging and hydrogen on motorways are crucial.
For example, powertrains with long-lasting lithium iron phosphate batteries or lighter nickel-rich chemistries are most suitable for distances up to about 600 kilometers in the U.S.
Above this threshold, fuel cell trucks are more attractive due to weight and refueling time.
Daimler intends to start a production series of long-haul trucks, driven by lithium-ion batteries in 2024. Thus they partnered with a battery manufacturer. Other battery manufacturers also rely on lithium-ion batteries with a higher energy density. Trade groups are demanding an expansion in infrastructure. Their goal is to provide more battery charging points and hydrogen stations.
The goal of a green future seems ever closer. Long-haul trucks powered by lithium-ion batteries or fuel cells transport an increasing amount of lithium-ion batteries emission-free, along with many other products. These in turn supply electric cars, electric bicycles and devices with electricity. They also store energy from wind power and photovoltaic plants. The transportation sector would be doubly active in climate protection.
Impacts of raw material extraction
It sounds like the ecological problems of transport and logistics will soon be a thing of the past. Yet, it all seems too good to be true, and there is a little snag – or quite a few.
This article deals with the fire hazard of lithium-ion batteries. They must be declared as Dangerous Goods. In Scope, essential steps of shipping are integrated.
Besides hazards in transportation, there is criticism of the environmental cost of lithium mining. A large part of global lithium deposits are located beneath salt lakes in the Atacama Desert and the Altiplano in Chile and Bolivia. Mining it requires large quantities of fresh waters due to an evaporation process. The local population as well as agriculture are thus suffering from a lack of fresh water. Not to mention, that they are already residents of one of the most arid regions of the world.
Both lithium mining in the Andes and nickel mining in the Philippines uses damaging chemicals. Nickel is an important component in most battery types.
Not to forget about cobalt. Producing a battery of a mid-sized electric car requires several pounds of cobalt. Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is associated with appalling working conditions and violation of human rights. Lastly, there is the issue of disposal. For some time, recycling of lithium-ion batteries was considered complicated and uneconomical.
Is battery power unsustainable after all?
If you take a close look at recent developments and the pace of innovation, such a pessimistic conclusion seems inappropriate. For most problems, solutions are in sight or have already been implemented.
In Chile, lithium mining companies are now acknowledging their environmental and social responsibility and transparency in the impacts of their activities. Also, alternative regions of origin for lithium are coming into focus. Even deposits in the Upper Rhine Valley of Germany are due to be tapped and developed. This lithium could be mined with heated water, using geothermal energy to pump it to the surface. It is hoped that cobalt becomes dispensable in upcoming generations of rechargeable batteries.
The main focus, yet, lies on the transition towards a circular economy. Major advances have been made in recent years. When a battery loses its capacity to power an electric car, it can serve other purposes as storage device. This is the so-called “second life” of a battery. Once this life-cycle also ends, the recyclable materials need to be extracted. Copper, cobalt and nickel are easily recyclable.
Manufacturers have already announced batteries made from 100% recycled cobalt, nickel and manganese. Recycling of lithium is more complicated. Still, 40% of the lithium in batteries could be produced from recycled material by 2050, according to a study. In 2023, the chemical company BASF intends to start recycling lithium from the residues of old batteries at a factory in Eastern Germany.
Making CO2-emissions of freight forwarders visible and identifying potential savings
Measures beyond propulsion technologies are necessary to reduce emissions in transport and logistics. At Riege, sustainability is among our core values. The company is always ahead in taking steps towards reducing emissions. Riege is part of the project consortium of the CargoHub Trucking CDM (Collaborative Decisions Making) initiative at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Together it aims for a further congestion avoidance. This can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also save both time and nerves.
Freight forwarders themselves are looking for ways to reduce their CO2 emissions. For example by preventing unnecessary transport routes. The first important thing is to document current emissions and thus identify potential savings. Riege has already integrated a CO2 calculator from CarbonCare into Scope.
Electric mobility and digital innovations – the paths to sustainable logistics are diverse, and developing. Riege is following this path – for a climate friendly and efficient future.