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Does electric mobility make logistics more sustainable?

Opportunities and stumbling blocks effecting freight forwarders

Deserts spread all over the world, glaciers melt, harvests are destroyed by droughts. Extreme weather events such as floods become more frequent and devastate entire regions. Climate change has many faces. If the temperature rises by three or four degrees Celsius as a result of global warming, this will have disastrous consequences for humans and nature. To prevent this and to limit global warming, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced rapidly and significantly. This applies to all aspects of human life and all economic sectors. For example, 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 is towards electric cars and this is gathering speed. During the first half of 2021, 7.2% of all registered new cars were electric. According to EU plans, cars should be 100% electric by the mid-2030s. These vehicles are usually powered by lithium-ion batteries.

How does the transport sector progress on a climate friendly path?

There is already a lot of change occurring towards sustainable transportation. This is driven by legal requirements implemented by the EU Commission which calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from new long-haul trucks of 30% by 2030. Trucking has high demands in terms of range, charging capacity and utilization levels, as a result battery- or fuel cell-driven long-haul trucks have only recently become competitive.

A study by the university of Münster recently revealed that as the energy density of batteries improves and with improvements to fuel cells, the costs and performance of long-haul zero-emission trucks should soon reach parity with diesel powered vehicles. However, the study says a key requirement for a breakthrough are reduced costs for fast charging and hydrogen on the highways. It also says, that “for trips in the U.S. market that remain below 400 miles, powertrains with long-lasting lithium iron phosphate batteries or lighter nickel-rich chemistries are most suitable. Above this threshold, the fuel cell’s weight and refueling time advantage becomes more and more attractive.” By partnering with a battery manufacturer, Daimler intends to start a production series of long-haul trucks, driven by lithium-ion batteries in 2024. Other battery manufacturers are also relying on lithium-ion batteries with a higher energy density. Simultaneously, trade groups are demanding an expansion in infrastructure providing more battery charging points and hydrogen stations.

The goal of a greener future seems ever closer: Emission-free long-haul trucks driven by lithium-ion batteries or fuel cells will transform transportation. Lithium-ion batteries are increasingly part of the solution, by powering everything from electric cars, electric bicycles, notebooks and smartphones. Climate friendly energy from wind turbines or photovoltaic systems is stored in banks of lithium batteries. By utilizing electric propulsion using energy derived from renewable resources, the transport sector is poised to act in two ways for climate protection.

Impacts of raw material extraction

While it sounds like the ecological problems of transport and logistics could be solved very soon, it all seems too good to be true, and there is a little snag – or quite a few.

This article is about 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 is deposited beneath salt lakes in the Atacama Desert and the Altiplano in Chile and Bolivia. Lithium is mined using an evaporation process that requires large quantities of fresh water. This results in the local population as well as agriculture in one of the most arid regions of the world suffering from a lack of fresh water. Environmentally damaging chemicals are used when mining lithium in the Andes, and the same occurs when mining nickel in the Philippines. Nickel in turn is an important component in most battery types. Several pounds of cobalt are used to produce the battery of a mid-sized electric car. 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 recycling: For some time, recycling of lithium-ion batteries has been considered complicated and uneconomical.

Is battery power ultimately an unsustainable solution?

Taking a closer look at recent evolution and the pace of innovation indicates such a negative conclusion may be inappropriate. Solutions to most problems have already been realized or are in sight.

In Chile, lithium mining companies acknowledge their social and environmental responsibility and transparency regarding the impacts of their activities. The focus is also partially shifting to other extraction countries. Even deposits in the Upper Rhine Valley of Germany are due to be tapped and developed. This lithium could be mined collectively with heated water, which is pumped to the surface using geothermal energy. Scientists and producers also assume Cobalt may become dispensable as a battery component in forthcoming generations of batteries.

The main focus, however, lies on the transition towards a circular economy. Major advances have been made in recent years. When a battery, for instance, loses its capacity to drive an electric car, it can be used for other storage purposes – this is referred to as “the second life” of a battery. Once the life-cycle ends, the recyclable materials should be extracted from used batteries. Copper, cobalt and nickel can be recycled easily – manufacturers have announced batteries which are made from 100% recycled cobalt, nickel and manganese. Recycling of lithium is more complicated. Nevertheless, 40% of the lithium in batteries could be produced from recycled material by 2050, according to a study from the think tank Agora Verkehrswende. 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

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to make transport and logistics more climate-friendly, measures beyond vehicle propulsion technologies are available. At Riege, sustainability is among our corporate values, the company is always ahead in taking steps towards reducing climate damaging emissions. Among other things, Riege is represented in the project consortium of the CargoHub Trucking CDM (Collaborative Decisions Making) initiative at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport which aims for a further congestion avoidance. With the leadership of this group, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced, time and nerves can be saved.

Forwarding companies themselves seek ways to reduce their CO2 emissions, for example by preventing unnecessary transport routes. The starting point is to document the current emissions and to calculate potential savings. Riege is currently investigating the possibility of integrating appropriate tools into Scope. Users are actively involved in these investigations, since their demands will decide on the design and importance of such tools.

Electric mobility and digital innovations – the paths to sustainable logistics are diverse, and they develop dynamically. Riege is following this path – for a climate friendly and efficient future.

Seeing is believing.

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