UPS: en route to a fuel efficient future

From using electric vehicles in New York City during the 1930s to operating one of the world's largest fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, UPS has long practiced environmentally-conscious innovations. Leigh Stringer looks into the company's approach to further reducing its CO2 emissions

Sustainable practices incorporate a number of innovative measures but not all are necessarily technology based. Innovation can come in many forms and UPS has made it its goal to recognise and understand the need to integrate innovative thinking into its sustainability agenda and not to rely solely on technology.

Director of sustainability for Europe, Middle East and Africa for UPS, Peter Harris, is a strong advocate of this strategy and explains that before investing in and taking on the latest technological advances to reduce CO2 emissions, efficiency and modal shifting must be practiced to its limits.

“When you’re looking at carbon as an issue, which is what this is primarily about and you actually work out the numbers about what makes the biggest difference, then what you conclude is that modal shift is at the top of the list – alternative technologies are important but they come much later on”.

“Modal shift is the area where you can make the biggest gains and organisations that don’t have a handle on those basic issues and jump straight to the bells and whistles side or the more fashionable aspects of the alternative technologies are really missing the point,” adds Harris.

Harris’ comments have been backed up by the company’s sustainability report, released last month, which showed that UPS reduced its global scope 1 and 2 CO2 emissions year-on-year by 2.1% in 2012, despite a 2.3% increase in total shipping volume.

Contributing to this, shifting delivery volume from air to ground helped the delivery and logistics company avoid approximately 2.4 million metric tonnes of emissions in 2012. Similarly, it avoided almost 0.9 million metric tonnes of emissions by shifting volume from ground to rail.

However, modal shifting is not a new concept for the company. “We’ve been doing modal shift for decades. We’ve been using rail in the US since the 1960s and we try to get our shipments out of the air and either on to the ground or onto rail or, even better, into the water”.

The shift from air to ground to rail to water makes a progressive improvement in carbon emissions per unit of goods shifted but despite these impressive reductions through modal shift, there is a limit to how far you can take it and this often comes down to the needs of the customer.

“We can only do what’s consistent with what the customer wants so if the customer needs an express shipment that isn’t consistent with us moving it by water then we may have to fly it. We still have an airline and that will remain an important part of our business but if we can meet the customer’s time commitment or requirement and not fly it then that’s what we will do,” says Harris.

Having taken modal shifting to its limits, the next step is efficiency, says Harris.

“Again when you look at the numbers on a hierarchy basis of what you need to do, modal shift comes first and efficiency comes second and alternative technologies come third – in terms of where you can make the biggest gains,” adds Harris.

Like modal shifting there is a limit to how far you can take efficiency and this is when technology steps in.

Efficiency and technology begin to overlap at this point, however, as telematics data fed through vehicle sensors have helped UPS become more efficient, cutting more than 206 million minutes of engine idling time last year and saving more than 1.5 million gallons of fuel. Routing technology has also made a significant impact, increasing pickup and delivery stops per mile, saving 12.1 million miles of driving which equates to approximately 1.3 million gallons of fuel.

“Technology is advancing and is allowing greater and greater efficiency gains. And one of the biggest tools at our disposal now, that we didn’t have say 10 or more years ago, is telematics,” says Harris.

Once again, however, there comes a point when these efficiency initiatives and technologies are pushed to the limits in terms of reductions and an alternative fossil fuel is the only way of completely reducing emissions. This is where UPS is making its latest drive.

“You’ve done everything you can to reduce the amount of fossil fuel per unit of work done through modal shifting and efficiency then you have to start looking at ways to substitute that fossil fuel – either with a cleaner fossil fuel or with a non-fossil fuel. Depending on what’s available, what the local situation is and what works best”.

And Harris sees one alternative fuel as a potential solution to the transport sectors fuel conundrum, Biomethane – a potential fuel replacement produced from organic waste.

“We have 10 vehicles right now running on biomethane and we’re just about to double that fleet to 20 and we’d like to do a lot more but the main thing that is holding us back throughout the UK and Europe is the availability of biomethane. It’s not a problem in terms of the availability of organic waste, there’s plenty of waste when you consider as a planet we manage to waste half the food we produce.

“The problem is that what happens to that waste right now is that it’s diverted into the generation of electricity or heat, which is better than not using it at all but our argument with government is that in fact this is one of the very few, arguably the only fuel right now which we can use to decarbonise heavy trucks,” adds Harris.

Leigh Stringer, edie energy and sustainability editor

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