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Does it take a pandemic to save the climate?


Does it take a pandemic to save the climate?
Current numbers seem to suggest so, but it is doubtful that the effect will last. Suggestion for a more sustainable logistics industry.

The contrast is stark. China was a threatening red on the pollution heatmap of the world in January 2019. One year later, it has changed towards a calming blue.[1] Stringent travel restrictions and lockdowns that have been issued to stem the spread of the Covid-19 virus have reduced the country’s emissions significantly. Global air traffic in February has been reduced by 4.3% compared to the previous year; March will see record low numbers.[2] By the looks of it, Corona is saving the climate.


However, this effect is evanescent. The Covid-19 situation is not making the world carbon dioxide-free, people will not keep up their restrictive way of living after the travel and contact banns are lifted. Once they have the means and reasons to travel again, they will, and emissions will rise more than ever.


The logistics sector is often frowned upon as one of the main culprits for CO2 emissions. Corona has cast a different spotlight on the industry and shown it as being crucial to keeping supermarket shelves stocked and the economy going despite all adversities. 


Logistics are a robust system. The mechanisms work, and are so reliable that it needs only a few adjustments even in times of crisis. Logisticians are experts at what they do, and they can deal with sudden changes in demand and supply. The sheer amount of people panic-buying and stockpiling is what left a few supermarket shelves empty momentarily. But the fundamental supply chains for necessities are secured. Nevertheless, the adjustments do entail fewer ships, planes and trucks going from one location to another. This contributes to the reduced emissions, and it might seem like a good solution for the future in general. If it works now, why would it not work after the crisis?


The supermarket shelves may be reasonably well stocked and it seems as if nothing is missing. That would, however, only portray a small part of worldwide supply chains. Pharmaceuticals, clothing, car parts, technical devices - the majority of what we use and surround ourselves with is connected to a global supply chain. Its interruption may not have the same immediate effect that an instant stop of food and toilet paper supply would have, but it would impact us sooner or later.


Therefore it follows that the amount of ships, planes and trucks cannot be reduced long-term and the emissions will inevitably revert to their pre-Corona amounts. The solution to reductions beyond Corona is simple: efficiency. The trucks we drive, the planes we fly and the ships we steer must be utilized more efficiently.


There are several ways to achieve this, and the combination of all is key. A few suggestions: 


  • Load Pooling: Avoid empty runs. If they cannot be avoided, the route should be kept as short as possible.
  • Choose the best mode of transport for every good: Perishables should be transported quickly, so planes might be the best option for these on longer trips - despite this emitting more CO2. For instance, if masks from China are now needed, they should be loaded onto cargo planes. Transporting them by train might be cheaper and greener, but would delay them. On the other hand, technical equipment that is not urgently needed and can be planned for well in advance can be loaded onto trains instead.
  • Optimise routes: Artificial Intelligence opens up new possibilities of predicting the best route and the optimal vehicle for the trip. Using these means at our disposal will not only save money and increase efficiency, but also protect the environment.


Measures to reduce the worldwide emissions that have already been undertaken before the Corona outbreak should not now be forgotten in times of crisis. The current low of C02 in the atmosphere is not a permanent state, and it will take all our efforts once the crisis has passed to ensure more sustainable and greener logistics. The momentary respite is not the long-term solution needed.


Decisions for this challenging time take precedence now. They have to be made now - but the time after Corona should not be forgotten entirely. If important regulations for reducing CO2 emissions are neglected now, there’s the risk of them being entirely wiped off the agenda once the crisis has passed. Greener logistics would revert to the status quo of being an utopia. 


The good news: All stakeholders wantthe industry to become greener and more efficient. With our combined efforts, the innovations the crisis has brought forth already, and future developments, we can make logistics more sustainable. Long-term.