It is no secret that trucking comes with an environmental cost. Modern regulations and newer, more efficient technologies aim to reduce that cost, although more remains to be done. But what exactly is the environmental impact of trucking? Where do we stand and what is the scale of the problem?
The most obvious form of pollution from trucking is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas released by burning fuel. Small quantities of other pollutants, some of which are also greenhouse gasses,are released from the tailpipe as well. Cleaner-burning fuel or better-maintained engines can reduce these other pollutants, but one gallon of diesel fuel always releases just over 22 pounds of carbon dioxide.
America’s trucks travel a total of 93,512,000,000 miles per year—that’s over a thousand times the distance from the earth to the sun. Most trucks get about eight miles per gallon, so that works out to almost 6 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Since the United States as a whole has a carbon footprint over a thousand times that (around 6053 million tons) the trucking industry’s contribution does not seem like very much, but trucking can act as a leader within the transportation sector as a whole—and transportation is responsible for almost a third of US carbon dioxide emissions.
Trucking may not technically be the most “enviro friendly” way to ship freight. By almost any measure, carbon emissions, other pollutants, noise, and accidents—rail or water is better. But there are places rail and water simply cannot go. For the foreseeable future, trucking’s market share is only likely to grow.
Trucking is already shrinking its carbon footprint by progressively improving fuel efficiency. Large truck fleets have the option of shifting to alternative fuels, such as biodiesel, since they can invest in their own new infrastructure—smaller companies and private drivers can then take advantage of the new option. Biodiesel releases almost as much carbon dioxide as traditional diesel fuel does, but because it is made from plant matter, its carbon content came out of the atmosphere recently. Sending that carbon back into the sky does not change the overall balance of atmospheric gasses.
Trucking companies can also work to improve their fuel efficiency by improving routing, driver behavior, and vehicle maintenance.
Fleet management software can help by allowing managers to identify which drivers engage in behavior such as speeding and excessive braking that waste gas. The software collects real-time recordings of such incidents, allowing managers to discuss braking or speeding with the drivers responsible. It is also possible to keep better tabs on the maintenance status of individual vehicles so problems can be fixed as soon as they develop. Better-maintained vehicles burn less gas and run cleaner.
These steps cannot solve climate change on their own, but they still can make a difference.