The clothes we wear, the devices we use, and the food we consume—or at least the way we get it—is contributing to the global climate crisis.
Increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions accumulate in the atmosphere and cause global warming, disrupting our lives and negatively impacting our health. Environmental consequences like rising sea levels, drought, and degraded air quality indirectly influence our physical and mental health—and in some cases directly contribute to illness and diseases.
In the United States the freight sector is responsible for transporting 71% of goods, and while we certainly enjoy ease of access to groceries, electronics, and household products, freight trucks are one of the largest contributors to GHG emissions. And we anticipate that movement of goods will only grow in the future due to increased international commerce.
Here is an example of that projected growth: the U.S. transported more than 56 tons of freight per person in 2015, and by 2040 that will be closer to 81 tons per person—the weight equivalent of delivering 40 more cars per person per year.
As freight activity increases, emissions from this sector will exceed emissions growth from all other transportation sectors, including passenger transport. The immediacy of the climate crisis makes the need for change in this sector clear. A combination of utilizing emerging technologies and reallocating resources to more efficient means—most significantly moving more freight by rail—can help relieve the ongoing damage and lay groundwork for a more sustainable future.
The U.S. trucking industry moved more than 11.84 billion tons of freight in 2019, and freight activity is growing. The emerging technology of freight platooning—which combines existing safety technology with emerging vehicle-to-vehicle communications and autonomous control technology to electronically “tether” tractor-trailers together—holds promise for reducing emissions.
However, challenges from technology and interstate policies create friction in bringing platooning to fruition. Instead of waiting for platooning technology and policy, the industry could focus its energies on the tried-and-true technology that has served as the backbone of American transportation for over a century—rail.
According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), rail moves 40% of American freight but accounts for only 2.1% of U.S. transport-related GHG emissions. Using analysis of federal data, the AAR documented that if 50 percent of long-distance (minimum 750 miles) freight truck traffic was replaced by rail, GHG emissions would decline by around 26.2 million tons.
This would be equivalent to removing 5.1 million cars from highways or planting around 400 million trees to reduce the carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. Clearly, one of the most efficient ways to address the sustainability challenges in the freight sector is to reinvest in rail.
Rail is more efficient, more sustainable, and safer. In fact, when it comes to employees, U.S. freight railroad workers have one of the lowest injury rates among many major industries—including agriculture, manufacturing, and other transportation industries like trucking and airlines. Investing in rail also brings a variety of economic benefits. For example, Class I railroads’ operations and investment in 2017 alone helped fund over 1.1 million jobs, stimulated $219.5 billion in economic output, paid $71.3 billion in wages and produced nearly $26 billion in tax revenues.
Moving freight by rail also means fewer trucks on highways, improving traffic flow and decreasing road congestion for everyone. Rail is safe, efficient, and sustainable and shipping more goods by rail just makes sense—for our health, our environment, and our collective well-being.
San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.