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Innovation & Future

Green logistics: a glimpse of the present and the future


Conserving resources and acting sustainably

People have not just started talking about how to use resources efficiently since the energy crisis. Handling water, electricity and other raw materials carefully and in a sustainable manner has been a familiar topic in the worlds of politics and business and even private households for some time, inspired by the climate protection movement. When it comes to assuming responsibility, logistics specialists are also right at the forefront because they are one of the main sources of emissions in the transport and buildings sector. So, what are the key elements of logistics operations that are environmentally friendly and cost-efficient at the same time?

Illustration CO2 footprint

A glimpse at the carbon footprint demonstrates that the transport sector bears a huge responsibility for the consumption of natural resources and emissions of gases that are harmful to our climate. A study conducted by Statista forecasts that international road transport operations will emit almost 4.5 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2050. Ocean freight (2.6 million tonnes) and air cargo (762 million tonnes of CO2) in particular will contribute to a drastic increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to this forecast. This represents a huge challenge in the light of the process of climate change, which is already well-advanced. However, it is also a task that logistics specialists are facing up to, with modern climate concepts for using resources carefully and actions that are designed to promote natural regeneration. The goal is to have “green logistics” operations, which not only do business in the spirit of climate protection, but also assume corporate responsibility.

We have a huge social responsibility as a logistics company that operates around the globe – towards our partners, our clients and the environment.
Isa Kohn | Head of Sustainability at the Rhenus Group

Carbon neutrality is the long-term goal

co2 neutral

The issue of sustainability should be considered from a long-term perspective so that firms are able to continually improve their operations in terms of reducing their own CO2 emissions and creating sustainable transport and supply chains for clients. Decarbonisation plays an important role here so that companies can satisfy clients’ demands for logistics services that are carbon-neutral in the long term. Logistics specialists are therefore relying on renewable energy sources, alternative drive systems and multimodal transport solutions so that their business operations save resources in the different business fields – ranging from warehousing to air and ocean freight and even road transport services.

Warehouse logistics: energy-efficient logistics buildings

Rhenus Contract Logistics Tilburg-exterior

The German market for warehouse and logistics space is setting new records. The market increased by more than 25 percent compared to the previous year to reach a figure of approx. 8.67 million square metres in 2021, according to a JLL Report. Then there is the fact that space is a limited resource. Legal restrictions are being enacted to halt the ongoing process of building development on what could be agricultural land. Germany has committed to reducing the new space that is lost to just 30 hectares per day by 2030.

There are, however, numerous opportunities for sustainable development in individual logistics buildings. Resources can be conserved by building warehouses on brownfield rather than greenbelt land. Some of the construction materials that are obtained when demolishing the old buildings, can be recycled and used for the foundations, for example, within the framework of the German Recycling Act. Roofs planted with vegetation create places of refuge for birds and insects; solar panels generate green electricity in order to cut the emissions produced by the technologies that are used in the warehouse – for example, the materials handling equipment. One best practice example is the logistics centre used by a global logistics specialist operating in the Dutch city of Tilburg: this warehouse is one of the most sustainable logistics structures in the world and was nominated for the “BREEAM Award” in 2019. A solar panel system, facades with high levels of heat insulation and toilets flushed by rainwater as well as its social facilities are just some of the things that have attracted the “outstanding” rating.

Reducing emissions in air freight

Biofuel aircraft

The aviation industry is also planning to reduce its ecological footprint – for example, as part of the Fly Net Zero system. This is the target that has been set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) or its member airlines, so that they become carbon-neutral by 2050. This commitment matches the Paris Agreement, which seeks to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, how can this be achieved? Firstly, by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and, secondly, by using Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) as an alternative to fossil kerosene. SAF, for example, includes bio-kerosene, which can be manufactured from biomass, wood residue, waste materials, fats and waste oil. The challenge here is to ensure that it is possible to use bio-fuel with the jet engines that are currently in service – and that is hard to guarantee, given that aircraft have a service life of about 30 years. It is therefore not always possible to completely replace traditional kerosene at this time. By using the HEFA (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids) production method, sustainable fuels can account for at least up to 50 percent of the kerosene that is being consumed. As a first step in this direction, one logistics specialist with international business operations is offering its clients a programme through which they can transport their consignments on more environmentally friendly aircraft, which are planes that consume less fuel, on particular routes.

Electric aircraft are a much longer-term – or rather futuristic – concept. Electricity, provided that it is green electricity, offers many benefits in contrast to fossil sources of energy: quiet engines, no greenhouse gas emissions if green electricity is being used, and low-cost energy if it is generated using solar panels. This possibility has so far been fairly unrealistic because of the range and weight of the batteries, but it is becoming increasingly practical because new technologies are being used – for example, thanks to initial pilot projects such as Solar Impulse 2, a solar plane that flew around the world in 2016. It will, however, be some time before these kinds of propulsion systems can be used for wide-bodied aircraft and therefore become interesting for the world of logistics. Fortunately, logistics specialists can make their air freight services more sustainable by using various possibilities on the ground. E-mobility has long since become an integral part of airport operations, for instance for handling and transhipping goods internally. Ecological and lighter packaging materials such as cardboard runners, which are used as an aid when making air freight pallets, are also contributing to more environmentally friendly logistics services.

Sustainable transport services at sea and on inland waterways

Ocean transport services are used for the majority of goods that are traded around the world. This has an undeniable benefit: ships are a much more environmentally friendly means of transport for long-haul routes when compared to conventional overland or air traffic. Despite this, ocean freight traffic still generates greenhouse gas emissions, noise and oil contamination – for instance because they are powered by heavy fuel oil, which creates serious pollution for the environment. More than 200 organisations from the entire maritime value-added chain have signed an appeal that has been sent to governments as part of the “Call to Action for Shipping Decarbonization”. They are making the following demands: emissions-free shipping projects should be supported by national policies and become the standard solution by 2030 through the enacting of new laws. The governments should also commit themselves to decarbonising international shipping by 2050. The responsible parties are currently racing to find innovations as alternative propulsion systems to meet this goal.

Ship with hybrid drive

Numerous measures are currently being put in place: the ports are creating capacity for liquid natural gas (LNG) and to import hydrogen; eco-efficient crane systems, e-mobility and green electricity that is generated by solar panel systems are making the terminals fit for the future. Some goods are being transported by water using push barges instead of trucks. Vessels are being refitted or equipped with hybrid drive systems, which combine gas, oil or electricity. Inland waterway fleets are also being continually modernised. As current projects indicate, operators of hybrid push-barge formations are relying on new drive concepts – for example, a combination of a fuel cell powered by hydrogen, a scalable and long-life lithium-ion battery and modern generators.

E-mobility and other powertrains on roads

Road transport services are responsible for a considerable proportion of CO2 emissions. According to the German Federal Environment Agency, it is true that emissions from truck traffic have fallen thanks to improved engines, exhaust gas technology and better fuel quality. However, the significant increase in the number of trucks on the roads is cancelling out these savings and causing an increase in CO2. The absolute CO2 emissions for road transport services in Germany in 2020 amounted to 45.9 million tonnes. As logistics services are, however, absolutely essential on roads, logistics specialists have been increasingly electrifying their fleets for several years.

Rhenus e-truck

LNG is also one of the sustainable drive technologies. Compared to conventional drive systems, LNG trucks emit approx. 15 percent lower CO2 emissions than a normal diesel vehicle and the emissions for nitrogen oxides and soot particles are almost zero. The trucks can also cover distances of up to 1300 kilometres with a full tank. Solar cells on vehicles are another future-oriented development; they could relieve some of the pressure on the electricity grid in the foreseeable future and extend the range of fleets for logistics specialists. First tests show how this is possible.


Innovative Sustainable Logistics

Regardless of which means of transport is involved, it is clear that sustainability has now become an essential feature of concepts in all the divisions of logistics and has even become an integral part of many firms’ corporate philosophies. How quickly and how extensively the goals of decarbonisation and carbon neutrality can be achieved will partly depend on technological advances and future innovations. However, the initial steps such as e-mobility and other alternative drive technologies already demonstrate that sustainable and efficient business activities are not mutually exclusive. The latest projects and initiatives provide examples of “green” logistics operations that are efficient and assume responsibility for future generations.

Would you like more information?

The Rhenus Group has launched numerous projects to reduce emissions levels and improve the environmental balance sheet in logistics.



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