Inland waterways advocates—including The Waterways Journal—often talk about the green advantages of water transportation by the ton-mile—meaning the amount of carbon emitted to move a ton of cargo one mile.
It’s important to remember that water transport is always more efficient than truck or rail. Its green advantages are inherent in the mode. This means that the equivalent amount of engine power will move vastly more tons of cargo on the water than on land. Water transport is greener than competing modes even for vessels that don’t have the latest engine technology.
From that greener baseline, carbon emissions from the waterways’ inland sector have been steadily improving, both in total amounts and per ton-mile.
Comparisons showing the ton-mile advantage of barges have been steadily updated over the years to show the increasing benefit. The latest comparative figures—from the 2022 report titled “A Modal Comparison of Domestic Freight Transportation Effects on the General Public 2001-2019” released in 2022 by the Texas Transportation Institute—shows that an average towboat emits 19.3 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per 1 million tons of cargo moved, versus 26.9 tons for railroads and 71.6 tons for trucks.
Along with the entire transportation industry, the maritime and barge sectors are currently exploring and investing in technologies to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero or below. Those technologies range from burning biodiesel and sustainable diesel fuels that don’t require any engine modifications, to designing engines and boats that can use hydrogen, to using electric batteries, and many more innovations. But regardless of how fast these transitions take place, moving as much cargo as possible by water will always reduce emissions in the supply chain. That modal advantage will remain and grow for the foreseeable future.