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by John McCaw
John McCaw

7 min read

The #1 Thing Missing In Net-Zero Emissions Plans: Transportation

August 13, 2020

John McCaw
by John McCaw


As COVID-19 disrupted everything from news cycles to freight flows through the first half of 2020, one area of focus that has remained strong in the background is the relentless charge to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the years leading up to 2020 more and more companies and governmental agencies released corporate sustainability goals. In these, the emergence of the term “net-zero carbon emissions” grew in popularity. Today, few sustainability pledges are missing this qualifier.

But in these net-zero carbon emissions plans, transportation and supply chain is noticeably missing. How can shippers become truly net-zero, and why should this become a priority for the supply chain community in the decade to come?

What does Net-Zero Carbon Emissions Mean?

By definition, net-zero carbon emissions, or more commonly referred to as being “carbon neutral,” can be achieved by either taking measures to produce zero greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere or by canceling out emissions by removing emissions from the atmosphere. 

The true definition of the term is simple but creating a plan to achieve it proves to be much more complex in practice.

The most confusing factor is how an organization classifies its “emissions” and how these emissions are tracked.  In the past, especially in transportation, the conversation surrounding emissions focused on tailpipe emissions—or those physically emitted by operating a vehicle. For non-transportation industries, this would be akin to the physical emissions produced by the activity in question.

Lifecycle emissions are becoming the new industry standard to track and control. This is a more accurate way to classify an organization’s total impact on the environment because it looks at all of the emissions associated with its operations – from procuring energy to manufacturing, to packaging, transportation, and beyond.  This allows organizations to take responsibility for the emissions along the entire supply chain of the energy being used but it brings another level of complexity to corporate sustainability.

As lifecycle emissions bring clarity to a company’s true carbon footprint, they are taking center stage in the future of corporate sustainability. As a result, companies have not been shy in stating their ambitious goals to reach net-zero carbon emissions.  Predominantly, most large businesses have publicly stated their goals, with most claiming the entire business or part of the business will be carbon neutral by a certain date.  Most commonly, organizations are aiming for 2025, 2030, or 2050.

The Importance of Transportation Emissions in the Net-Zero Game

When you look at the last ten years of sustainability initiatives one key driver remains central to how corporations approach their strategy: the consumer.

If consumers care about recyclable packaging, corporations will shift their product lines in droves. From water preservation in clothing manufacturing to reducing electricity with automated lights in retail locations to organic, antibiotic-free food products, consumers have a huge influence on general supply chain transparency, what gets cleaner, and how quickly.

Thus far, commercial transportation emissions have not been central to the corporate sustainability conversation. Back in 2016, the transportation industry overtook power generation to become the largest emitter of carbon emissions in the U.S.  This was not necessarily because transportation emissions rose at an exponential pace, but because power generation has made a profound move to clean up the energy they use.


Source: Energy Information Administration

As the heaviest emitter in the supply chain transportation is moving to center stage of the sustainability conversation. With unprecedented amounts of data and visibility available to shippers, there has never been a better time to push sustainability across the sector.

The reality is, without commercial transportation at the forefront of strategies, pledges, and promises, a true net-zero carbon emissions future will not be possible.

What Does a Net-Zero Emissions Transportation Sector Look Like?

As the focus shifts to the transportation sector, companies from all parts of the supply chain are getting involved and making it a priority by investing in it to achieve their sustainability goals.




The major energy companies, including the major producers of conventional fossil fuels, are getting in the game.  Most major oil companies have a goal for carbon neutrality or at least carbon reduction goals.  These may include producing low carbon energy alternatives, integration with the power generation sector, collaborations & partnerships, and looking further out—Carbon Capture, Use, and Sequestration (CCUS).




A lot of transportation companies, specifically the major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are grabbing most of the headlines surrounding zero emissions and sustainability.  Almost all the major OEMs have electric vehicles and/or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the early stages of production or plans to roll the new vehicles out in the coming years. Although promising, these technologies are not yet mature enough to fully replace conventional diesel engines in commercial transport. Additionally, these technologies enable net-zero carbon emissions, but their success will depend on whether the energy they use—be it electricity, natural gas, or hydrogen—is produced sustainably.

Read more about alternative energies in commercial transportation including renewable natural gas (RNG), hydrogen, and battery-electric vehicles, here.

The major OEMs, however, did not start the trend to develop new transportation technology.  Startups and disrupters like Tesla and Nikola Motors have capitalized on the corporate sustainability shift, and in turn, have pushed the traditional diesel truck manufacturers into this space.  With an exceptional amount of investment and funding going into clean vehicles, the push to zero-emissions is picking up steam.


Shippers have a unique opportunity when it comes to net-zero carbon emissions because their area of influence is two-fold.  They can push for carbon neutrality within their different business segments like manufacturing, procurement, packaging, and corporate operations. But they can also encourage or require their transportation partners to contribute to a shared goal.

If an important shipper partner requires a minimum level of fuel efficiency to partner, their carriers are more likely to invest in the latest technology. This sometimes requires a greater level of patience in service contracts, investment partnerships, and more to make updating carrier fleets a reality. When a shipper sets precedence in their own strategy, their partners will be held to higher standards.

Read more about what shippers can do to support a shift to alternative truck technology among their carriers in a conversation with Nikola Motors.

How to Achieve Net-Zero Carbon Emissions?

Technology to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in commercial transportation does exist today—but capitalizing on it at scale is no easy task.

Before drafting a plan, shippers should ensure they have all the resources needed to start and execute that plan.

Three key themes needed to successfully implement a sustainability plan:


Once the company alignment, cost & resources, and knowledge are agreed upon, shippers should follow 4 steps to enhance its sustainability strategy:

  1. Set an emissions goal and establish a tracking program to set a baseline. As mentioned above, most large companies have already set broad goals to meet net-zero carbon emissions by a certain year.  To accomplish this, you need to know what your current GHG emissions footprint is today and where those emissions are coming from.  Emissions values can vary greatly by program and source.
  2. Think broadly to set a roadmap for how to achieve your emissions goal. Consider the attributes of your emissions tracking program today, but don’t forget to leave space for emerging technologies.
  3. Execute locally with better data, insights, and collaborative partners. Targeted strategies with key stakeholders will create tangible successes that add up to meet a higher-level goal.
  4. Assess the results of sustainability action and revisit roadmap and execution. Continually assess results and evolve your strategy to create new opportunities that maximize your sustainability potential.

Why Shippers Cannot Leave Transport Emissions Behind

Breakthrough has long been committed to helping shippers reduce the cost, consumption, and emissions of moving goods to market. As global and domestic emissions policy becomes more complex and stringent—and consumers become privy to new sustainability initiatives to support—it is only a matter of time before shippers are forced to address the largest emitting sector in the U.S.

Rather than waiting to be at the mercy of your competitors and the wider market Breakthrough shippers sit ahead of the curve, benefiting from accurate commercial vehicle efficiencies, modal conversion optimization, and shipper-led alternative energy strategies.

For more information about how you can introduce a net-zero carbon emissions strategy at your organization, and how Breakthrough shippers challenge the status quo, contact us.

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