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"The Multiple Roles of Logistics in the Climate Crisis": webinar led by Professor Alan McKinnon on 5 November 2023

Logistics accounts for about 11-12% of carbon emissions, and is among the hardest activities to decarbonise. According to Professor McKinnon, "How we move and store stuff is at the heart of our battle against climate change", but this is about much more than just decarbonising existing operations.

Recent data is very worrying, with many records broken and average global temperatures in September 2023 about 1 degree Centigrade above normal, which University of Reading climate scientist Prof Ed Hawkins has called "surprising ...astounding ... gobsmacking". Antarctic ice is now occupying a record low area by a wide margin. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guiterres has declared that we are on a "highway to hell, with our foot on the accelerator" - the era of global warming has ended, he says, while that of global boiling has arrived. We have seen forest fires in Rhodes, Canada and Hawaii, and, closer to home, flooding during Storm Babet in Brechin. There has been a five-fold increase in climate disasters worldwide since 1970. After a dip in carbon emissions during the pandemic, the trend is again relentlessly upwards despite 27 COP climate change conferences, and the UN Environment Programme saying that we need a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to stay within a 1.5% rise in average global temperatures by 2100.

Logistics fulfils eight roles, as a:

Cause - a major source of CO2 emissions, with freight transport producing just under 10% of energy-related carbon emissions plus more from logistics buildings and terminal operations. If logistics were a country it would be third in the league table, after the USA and China, responsible, if methane and nitrous oxide are included, for 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Decarboniser - cutting logistics emissions is difficult since the sector is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, is expected to growth around 2.5 times on current trends by 2050, and benefits from the long life of its assets. Five decarbonisation levers are demand reduction, modal shift, optimised use of capacity, improved energy-efficiency, and cutting the carbon content of logistics energy. There has been a freight modal shift in the wrong direction, away from rail and water. Efforts in the UK and elsewhere to reverse the long term modal shift to road have not been encouraging. Driver fuel efficiency training with use of telematics is however showing good results along with reduction in maximum ship and truck speed. Logistics will need to be switched to different types of low-carbon energy, but it will be a slow process.

Victim - road, rail and port networks are increasingly disrupted by extreme weather events owing to being geographically extensive, highly time-sensitive and very dependent on energy infrastructure. Wide adoption of just-in-time distribution has increased this vulnerability

Adaptor - there were only three references to logistics in a 3000 page Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report on adaptation published last year, reflecting a wider under-estimation of the need to climate-proof logistics systems

Facilitator - logistics helps other sectors to decarbonise and adapt to climate change. This is well illustrated by its support for the provision of a new renewable energy infrastructure which will be much more geographically dispersed, and rely on materials moved through complex global supply chains and equipment like wind turbines which are often "out of gauge". Making our economies much more circular will also cut emissions, but require a restructuring of logistics and supply chains. Growth in demand for aircon and refrigeration must also be taken into account, and there is likely to be huge logistics expenditure on flood protection and population resettlement

Rescuer, in providing humanitarian logistics support to communities seriously exposed to climate change. There could be a doubling of the population needing this relief by 2050, particularly where agricultural systems are being steadily degraded and the numbers of "climate refugees" sharply increasing.

Remover, with logistics playing a major role in the sequestration of greenhouse gases already in atmosphere. By 2050 we may need to remove 18 times as much CO2 from the atmosphere as was emitted last year by all global energy consumption. There is currently much scepticism about its technical and economic feasibility. There are fears that carbon capture and storage supply chains will themselves be very carbon-intensive. Filtration of the atmosphere to capture CO2 will require huge amounts of renewable energy, because CO2 represents only 0.04% of the atmosphere

Last resort, if we have to resort to solar geo-engineering - screening the planet from global radiation with stratospheric aerosol injection - a process which again involves the movement of large amounts of material. In that ultimate scenario, it may be that the survival of life on the planet becomes dependent on logistics.

Some roles are in conflict - for example, the movement of materials for climate-proofing and carbon sequestration will counteract climate-mitigation efforts. Logistics researchers must form stronger bonds with land use planners, geographers, climate scientists and others. What is the logistical feasibility of things like carbon dioxide removal being organised at a planetary scale? How do we optimise supply chains for climate change adaptation? On the positive side, climate change is likely to create valuable new business opportunities for logisticians over the next few decades.

During the Q&A session, several points arose. Carbon dioxide removal is likely to be one of the main areas for future logistics research. In the case of solar geo-engineering, studies have already investigated ways dispersing sulphates high in the atmosphere to counteract global warming - around 3M tonnes per annum could cut average global temperatures by 0.3 degrees centigrade. Putting "distance-travelled" or carbon labels on products is often advocated as a way of getting consumers to switch to more environmentally-friendly products, but this would be analytically challenging for products coming through complex global supply chains. It is also estimated that around a third of international trade has a lower carbon footprint than locally sourced products. The predicted growth in the number of migrants displaced from regions that climate change renders uninhabitable is clearly a politically sensitive issue. This takes us beyond logistics into the need for new systems of global governance to manage these mass movements of population.

To download a copy of the presentation, click here (PDF format, 3.8Mb)

Report by Alan McKinnon.

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