Collective responsibility for climate protection

Reading time: approx. 8 minutes
Text: Juliane Gringer
Photos: AdobeStock – Romolo Tavani, Silke Reents, Hermann Willers, ICC – Uwe Dettmar

Freight transport accounts for a large proportion of global CO2 emissions. The greenhouse gas is considered to be the biggest contributor to climate change. So what responsibility do companies in the transport and logistics sector have for climate protection, and how can they deal with it?

1.5 degrees Celsius – Earth should not warm more than this. This was agreed by 195 countries in December 2015 as part of the Paris Agreement. ‘In concrete terms, this means that there are only certain residual budgets of CO2 that we should still be emitting, and these budgets will be globally exhausted by 2040 at the latest,’ explains Volker Quaschning, Engineering Scientist and Professor on the ‘Renewable Energies’ course at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences. ‘Every company should take responsibility here and ensure that it is completely climate-neutral in 20 years at the latest, and even earlier if possible.’ After all, nothing less than the Earth’s future is at stake: greater global warming would have drastic consequences, including melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. Climate researchers predict that adapting to a warming of more than four degrees Celsius would overwhelm nature and mankind.

Emission-free vehicles and fuel-efficient driving

Responsibility means making a commitment to vouching for the consequences of one’s own actions. ‘Business has always been responsible for contributing to a peaceful coexistence among people and currently to global climate protection above all,’ said Oliver Wieck, General Secretary of ICC Germany, at the ‘Wiehler Forum’ logistics industry meeting in 2019. This is also how Dr Therese Kirsch, one of the founders of ‘pfadwechsel’, a sustainable change agency, and Assistant lecturer on sustainability management at the University of Applied Sciences Münster, sees it: ‘Each and every one of us assumes this duty in our role as citizens, consumers and users of services. But of course the economy is particularly responsible for a large proportion of emissions. In climate protection, as in other areas that come under the umbrella term of sustainability, we will therefore always need business. Our economic system is not self-sufficient, but there is always a connection to our social system and to nature.’ A forwarder that earns money by transporting goods could, for example, offset the negative effects of its transports on the environment or, wherever possible, avoid them from the outset – such as by using vehicles that cause as few emissions as possible, running an electric fleet on green electricity, ensuring that drivers save fuel when driving, or using technology such as telematics.

»Business has always been responsible for contributing to a peaceful coexistence among people and currently to global climate protection above all.«

Oliver Wieck, General Secretary of the International Chamber of Commerce in Germany

Trailers are also the key

Technology already makes a lot possible: Michael Pfeiffer, personally liable Managing Partner of BPW Bergische Achsen, is convinced that ‘Paris climate goals can be achieved through modern transport technologies and mobility services.’ ‘When it comes to heavy trucks, however, the key is not only in the truck, but in the trailer above all. Thanks to lightweight construction and intelligent trailer running gear, diesel consumption as well as tyre and material wear can be drastically reduced. The networking of driver, freight and vehicle using telematics systems sustainably reduces empty runs and detours, and optimises driving styles.’ Pfeiffer emphasises that in transport and logistics, climate protection measures almost always mean cost savings, too: lighter vehicles permit greater payloads and reduce fuel costs, while trucks with high capacity utilisation generate more revenue. ‘In hardly any other industry are climate and cost effects so inextricably linked,’ says the expert. ‘That’s why we are consistently investing in solutions for sustainable transport efficiency.’ Together with eTransport, BPW is helping to produce an electrically driven axle, for example.

Volker Quaschning also sees electromobility as a key technology for freight transport on the road: ‘If you think this through to the end, the additional electricity needed for mobility should only also come from renewable energies.’

Pioneers carry double the load

But as long as there are no legal regulations that make climate neutrality mandatory, there will always be companies who take responsibility – and those who do not. Pioneers are thus carrying double the load. According to Quaschning, those who are less active often excuse this by saying that there are others who are even more problematic. ‘This mantra is repeated regularly: what good will it do if I convert my fleet of trucks while new coal-fired power plants are being built in China? And yes, you may only be one of 7.5 billion people or one of many millions of companies, but you are still contributing. If we were to be as negligent everywhere as we are when it comes to climate protection, then a great many social, human problems would pop up that could completely destroy our society.’

Calls for standardised rules across the industry

According to Quaschning, even the low margins in transport and logistics should not be an excuse for not taking climate protection seriously: ‘The issue is too important for our global future to do so.’ He believes that the best way forward is for politicians to lay down uniform rules for the whole industry so that there is a shared and – by extension – an economically fair path towards climate neutrality: ‘Anyone who does not then meet these conditions is either no longer allowed to operate or must pay exorbitant penalties.’ The researcher is motivating companies to ensure that such framework conditions are implemented themselves: ‘So far, the economy has often put on the brakes here. Instead, progressive companies should join forces and demand clear CO2 limits for the entire logistics sector. This would ensure fairness: I wouldn’t then need to worry that some Polish low-cost supplier will force me off the road – after all, their trucks would also have to be just as climate-neutral, and they will have to fight with the same prices.’

»Progressive companies should demand clear CO2 limits for the logistics sector together. After all, if every party has to implement them, this also ensures fairness.«

Volker Quaschning, Engineering Scientist and Professor on the ‘Renewable Energies’ course at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences

No commitment equates to economic risk

According to Quaschning, the most important thing is to act quickly and decisively to meet climate targets. ‘This may be more difficult for companies than for private individuals since they are in economic competition. But at the same time, it can also be economically risky not to deal with the issue: if, for example, someone is now completely upgrading their fleet with diesel vehicles, the question arises as to whether this is a good investment or whether it will cause difficulties even before the end of its service life. Quite apart from that, it can always be worthwhile taking on a pioneering role, and this is often rewarded if you tackle and communicate it properly.’

He points to the EU’s intention to publish products’ carbon footprints – and those products with lower values might be taxed less. ‘Logistics plays a role in calculating this footprint,’ says Quaschning. ‘Climate protection is also getting more attention from the public – particularly if we face major climate events again. Logistics companies that can then claim to be significantly better than their competitors in terms of environmental protection would certainly have a competitive advantage.’ This is also confirmed by Dr Therese Kirsch: ‘Not taking action is not only bad for others – the companies themselves will suffer the consequences. If, on the other hand, they take action themselves, this is also a very important step for them to position themselves for the future and to be competitive. Therefore, my plea is always the same: it makes sense for every company to deal with its own responsibility at an early stage and try to contribute.’

»I hope that more and more stakeholders in the economy will also see the innovation potential that comes with responsibility.«

Dr Therese Kirsch, co-founder of the ‘pfadwechsel’ agency and assistant lecturer on sustainability management at the University of Applied Sciences Münster

Important: Taking the entire value chain into consideration

The expert recommends that companies wanting to implement this should first gain a clear picture how their own business activities have an impact and where these activities could be affected by changes to climate, nature or society. With regard to climate protection, for example, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol can be used to measure the contribution to CO2 emissions according to international standards. This includes direct emissions, such as from diesel-powered vehicles, but also upstream emissions, such as from the electricity used by a company, or emissions from suppliers, sub-suppliers and customers. ‘It is important to take the entire value chain into consideration, but it is also very complex. This is why many companies shy away from it,’ said Kirsch. ‘Here, you must ask yourself how you can influence suppliers, adapt your own product development or even change customers’ user behaviour.’ All this will never be completely understood – but an analysis could certainly show where the most influence lies. ‘And then you can decide where you want to make adjustments: in your own emissions, in electricity consumption or in the value chain.’ Many measures can be initiated internally, such as the decision to use green electricity or more climate-friendly production processes. External financial support – in the form of grants or subsidies for example – could have an accelerating effect.

Progress through sustainable ideas and products

When entrepreneurs assume responsibility, they do so for different reasons: some act out of belief. Others see competitive advantages in this approach or the possibility of reducing risks, so they act primarily from a business point of view. And yet others react to regulatory pressure or to demands from their customers. Kirsch says: ‘I hope that more and more stakeholders in the economy will also see the innovation potential that comes with responsibility. I believe that many companies will take a big step forward in tackling this topic: you can secure a real advantage here with good ideas and products. After all, sustainability can only be achieved if you have the right services and products on the market.’ Last but not least, companies that act responsibly would also be more attractive as employers: ‘When I look at my students, most of them would like to have a meaningful job with companies that act sustainably – and they are the applicants of tomorrow.’
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