WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Refining The Green Transportation Story

The Department of Transportation just released the final version of its National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, a first-ever blueprint for decarbonization of transportation. It lays out a vision and set of goals, without specifying a strict timetable or how to get there. It is sure to intensify the conversations that all transportation modes are already having about the way forward to a less carbon-intensive future.

It’s unclear whether the administration’s ambitious goal of complete decarbonization of transportation by 2050 can be met. Many encouraging initiatives and technological breakthroughs are being announced in the maritime sector, both here and overseas.

In the race to decarbonize, the inland waterways have a long-standing green advantage. As a recent American Waterways Operators’ memo announcing its new Sustainability Agenda and CEO Sustainability Task Force stresses, our industry already has a green story to tell.

“Empirical data shows that the tugboat, towboat and barge industry is the most environmentally friendly, fuel-efficient mode of freight transportation, with both lower greenhouse gas emissions per ton-mile and a substantially smaller carbon footprint than competing modes,” AWO states. “This is in addition to the other societal benefits our industry provides, like increased public safety, decreased traffic congestion and good-paying jobs with great potential for career mobility.”

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

All those benefits are right in line with the goals of the new decarbonization blueprint, as well as the climate provisions and incentives of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

In its maritime section, the National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization says, “Despite the variety of potential decarbonization fuels, technologies and policies under development, the best pathway for decarbonizing the maritime sector is unclear. New maritime technologies can be slow to be adopted, particularly when safety and operational standards still need to be established. Vessels have a long fleet turnover time—30 years or more—so understanding the costs, standards and requirements is critical for long-term investment planning. Decarbonizing the sector by 2050 will require innovative practices, targeted regulations and a strong and immediate commitment to innovation and deployment of new and emerging technologies.”

All industries need to refine and update how they calculate and attribute carbon emissions. One of the goals of AWO’s sustainability strategy is to “supplement existing aggregate data about the industry’s emissions with the development of a life-cycle assessment of the carbon footprint of a towing vessel, which will help industry regulators, stakeholders and the public understand the value of existing assets relative to new construction.”

Inland vessels have an even longer lifecycle than blue-water ships. Some towboat hulls can last 50 years or longer. Instead of a limiting factor, that’s a good thing for carbon emissions, especially given regular engine repowerings with greener, more efficient engines.

In general, the longer a single piece of equipment can serve—with emissions improvements where achievable—the better for the planet. That’s because long-serving equipment saves the emissions associated with manufacturing new equipment. That savings is not always captured in carbon budgets. How many tons of cargo does that one towboat push during its life cycle? How does that measure against other transportation mode lifecycles?

The more ways you compare the inland waterways to other modes, the greener we look.