Climate experts agree that time is of the essence. We must make “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” by 2030 to limit global warming, or the results could be irreversible, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.1
It’s no surprise that the transportation sector plays a large role in making those changes. Greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide, trap heat and make the planet warmer. They come from a variety of sources, but in the U.S., the transportation sector is the largest contributor of GHG emissions, and medium- and heavy-duty trucks account for about one-quarter of those emissions.2
One critical factor that is often overlooked is the cumulative nature of greenhouse gases. Once released into the atmosphere, they persist for many years, meaning each year’s GHG emissions add to those from previous years and continue to have a climate impact for many years after the year they were produced. This is why negative impacts from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can increase so dramatically over time and also why simple annual accounting of GHG emissions fails to reflect their true environmental impact.
A simple analogy is the idea of investing money for retirement. For example, if you put $1,000 per year for 10 years into a 401(k) with an 8% rate of return, you wouldn’t have $10,000 after 10 years. You would have almost $14,500 — and the first year’s $1,000 deposit would have contributed almost $2,000 to the 10-year total, while the 10th year’s $1,000 would have contributed only about $1,000 to the total. In other words, the 2021 contribution has twice the value of the 2030 contribution, even though the same annual amount was contributed in each year.
This is why retirement professionals advise us to start saving when we’re young, rather than waiting until we’re older. This is also why earlier adoption of lower-GHG transportation energy options can dramatically increase their cumulative benefit by the 2030 deadline.
There are a variety of cleaner energy options out there for fleets to consider — bio-based diesel, electric vehicles (EVs), compressed natural gas and more. Much of the “buzz” today focuses on the future of EVs and what they will mean for improving our environment in the future. However, today’s EVs, if available, often cannot meet the performance and financial requirements that fleets need to be successful. In addition, a majority of our country’s electric grids still include a substantial amount of coal and natural gas in their energy portfolios. Unfortunately, while fleets explore the possibility of a future transition to EVs, many are continuing to run on petroleum diesel and delaying critically important reductions of their carbon footprints. They often don’t realize they don’t have to wait.
There are cleaner fuels available now, such as biodiesel and renewable diesel, which offer significantly lower GHG emissions than petroleum diesel and can be used today with existing engines. In fact, using the highly regarded California model, known as CA-GREET3, to calculate the lifecycle carbon intensities of various fuels, Renewable Energy Group, Inc. (REG) calculated the CI reductions of our best-in-class biodiesel versus the following options:
- 88% reduction vs. ultra-low-sulfur diesel
- 85% reduction vs. compressed natural gas
- 65% reduction vs. a heavy-duty vehicle charged by the U.S. grid average electricity (2019 average)
While these numbers may surprise you, they validate the fact that cleaner-burning fuels such as biodiesel and renewable diesel can have an immediate impact on our environment. Whatever options a fleet chooses to explore, the timing of the associated GHG reductions should be weighted at least as heavily as the long-term potential for GHG reductions in the distant future.
At REG, we support an integrated energy management (IEM) approach in which fleets consider all available transportation energy sources and adopt any and all options that meet their needs today and tomorrow. As we celebrate 2021 Earth Day, it’s important for fleets to begin to adopt near-term solutions that work for them today and don’t require years to begin achieving GHG reductions. By starting to save today, we can have the biggest beneficial impact on our environment for years to come.