• Benjamin John

Freight & Carbon: Which Option is the best?

The UK population is becoming more eco conscious which is great.

A quick query on google trends shows us that the number of searches including the term "eco friendly" has increased dramatically since 2016, [1].

When considering our next eco swaps we need to also consider carbon emissions associated with them.

As a company, we try to take responsibility for the carbon associated with our products (more on that later), but eliminating all carbon is essentially impossible.

For example, our eco sponges are grown from the loofah plant, and our eco dish brushes contain fibre from the sisal plant.

Have you every seen a loofah farm in somerset or a sisal plantation in Northumberland? No.

Neither of these plants grow well in the UK climate, or even have a major agricultural presence in Europe. These materials have to get here and they have to travel a long way - an unfortunate fact.

Not to mention that we sell our products online, meaning they are delivered via courier to our customers in the final leg of the distribution.

Freight is Necessary.

So how do the different freight options compare with regards to carbon emissions? Let's break it down! For much of this break down I will be relying on this 2018 paper from Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (defra) [2].

Air Freight

Air freight is very appealing to business owners for two main reasons:

  • It's Fast: Much faster than other freight options on this list, you can ship cargo from the far east and have it in shops within a week, at most two.

  • It's Easy: Companies like FedEx and DHL use digital freight tracking makes keeping up with your cargo extremely easy.

While air freight is considerably more expensive than other forms of freight, its real drawback comes in the form of its high carbon emissions. Defra (2018) assert the following:

This shows us kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilometre for every metric tonne of cargo.

Illustrating this in a real world example highlights how staggeringly high this CO2 cost is.

Let's imagine we are shipping 1 metric tonne of freight from Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) to BA Stansted (Lon).

Google maps approximates this to be a distance of 9,590km, clearly a long haul flight [3].

9,590 x 0.8 = 7672

A staggering 7,672 kg of CO2.

Getting 1 tonne of cargo cost 7.6 tonnes of CO2 just getting it into the UK!

This article by Yatit Thakker estimates the average tree offsets about 7 tonnes of CO2 over its whole life [4].

Moving one tonne of cargo by air will cost more carbon than an average tree can offset over its entire lifespan.

Rail Freight

You may have heard of the "New Eurasian Land Bridge," a kind of modern day silk road, an immense rail link connecting Europe to Asia [5].

This includes the Yiwu-London railway line, which opened 1st January 2017 [6]. It stretches about 12,000km and is generally completed in a mere 18 days.

Though obviously not as fast as air freight, 18 days is still very fast. Additionally, train freight is considerably cheaper than air. So how does it stack up with CO2 emissions?

The European Environment Agency estimates that between 2005 & 2014 rail freight cost an average of 19.03g of CO2 per km per tonne [7]. (Yes, grams not kilograms!) However, European rail includes a lot of electric rail services, where as the Yiwu-London rail line is almost entirely diesel.

CE Delft provides this figure for medium weight diesel freight: 30g of CO2 per tonne, per kilometre. In other words, moving 1 tonne of cargo 1km costs a 30g of CO2, compared to the 800g for air freight.

(What makes this figure even more impressive is that it is a "WTW" or "Well To Wheels" figure, accounting for all CO2 associated with storing and transporting the diesel prior to use as well).

Let's illustrate this with a similar real world example. Let's imagine we are shipping 1 tonne of cargo from Yiwu to London.

12,000 x 0.03 = 360

Transporting 1 tonne of goods from China to London via rail would produce 360kg of CO2. Dramatically less than air freight despite travelling nearly 2,500 km further.

This is a much more realistic amount of CO2 to offset.

Sea Freight

Shipping by sea is by far the largest form of freight transportation. This is primarily due to one reason: it is the cheapest! However, it is also generally the slowest, typically taking 35 - 40 days to reach the UK.

But what about sea freights carbon emissions?

ECTA (the chemical logistics association) has compiled this list of estimations [8]. It looks like sea freight produces even less carbon per km.

Although, this may be offset by the immense distance travelled: calculates the distance from Shanghai to London via sea at 11,866 nautical miles, which is a whopping 21,976 km [9].

So let's assume we are shipping 1 tonne of cargo from Shanghai to London on a Larger Container Vessel:

21,976 x 0.0115 = 252.724

This freight option would only cost ~253 kg of CO2, by far the least of the options we've explored.

However despite this, the sheer volume of sea freight traffic may pose a problem. If treated as a country, international shipping would be the sixth largest CO2 emitter in the world, about the same as Germany. Currently, shipping accounts for ~2% of global CO2 emissions, though this could rise to 20% by 2050 if reforms are not put into place [10].

Heavy Goods Vehicles

In reality there are not many scenarios where a business would be importing long haul via roadways. However, HGV's will invariably make up a good portion of any domestic distribution network and should be considered.

McKinnon recommends an average factor or 62g of CO2 per tonne, per kilometre [11].

This is high! The most carbon-inefficient freight method aside from air.

Just moving 1 tonne of cargo from London to Manchester (340 km) would produce 21.08 kg of CO2!

340 x 0.062 = 21.08

Electric Transport & The Future

The carbon associated with freight could be drastically reduced if electric vehicles start being incorporated into our infrastructures.

There are already a multitude of plans to "electrify" our transportation and freight systems across Europe [12], including electric HGV's and Container ships.

Even controversial "drone delivery" systems would run on electricity, and would reduce congestion and pollution by shrinking the number of LGV's on the roads.

With luck, freight options will become much less carbon intensive in coming years.

The Business Take Away

For many business owners, freight is a balancing act between cost and shipping time.

It needs to become a balancing act between cost, shipping time and carbon emissions!

Let's revisit our examples:

It's obvious that air freight is has a drastically higher carbon cost relative to rail and sea.

Is a 7 day time advantage really worth >7 tonnes of carbon-dioxide?

As a general rule, at Agile Home and Garden we try to use rail and sea freight wherever possible.

But we as consumers also need to also stop demanding the quick delivery afforded by air freight - we want things now. For example, as of this time we sell exclusively on In the Amazon space, your products need to rank to be profitable: they need to be on the first page of search results.

However if you have stock shortfalls, your product ranking suffers. If you are out of stock you might drop 10, 100, even 1000 rankings before you are back in stock.

This rewards sellers for utilising fast freight. It is easier to be competitive on Amazon if you utilise air freight. We as consumers should push back against systems like this.

Carbon Offsetting

You can always do your best and always pick the low carbon option, but the reality is there will usually be at least some carbon emissions associated with any goods or service.

There is a growing number of companies and organisations who will help you offset your carbon footprint. Whether you want to minimise your personal carbon footprint, or whether you are looking to minimise that of your business, there are plenty of people to reach out to. We at Agile Home and Garden are currently exploring this avenue, and hope to announce how we aim to minimise our carbon emissions even further in the near future.














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