No truck with diesel? The race to zero-emission freight

With several technologies vying to help the trucking sector hit Europe’s emission freight targets on time, Carl Adler reviews what might soon replace our roads’ diesel-guzzlers

Record-breaking heat waves scorched Europe this summer, as they have in previous years and as they likely will in summers to come. Our baseline is shifting and the reality we experience promises to become more and more extreme as time moves on. Climate change is no longer just a bogeyman that hangs over humanity and haunts our visions of tomorrow. It is here, it is now, it is catastrophic. A massive cutting in greenhouse gas emissions must happen urgently if we are to save ourselves from the worst effects of the climate emergency. A major component of this action is decarbonising transport.

Transport is responsible for almost a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions. Trucks are responsible for an enormous amount of emissions within the transport sector, contributing 20% of greenhouse gases from transport in Europe. Though trucks can be challenging to decarbonise due to their often high range requirements and the heavy freight they carry, making these vehicles zero-emission is possible. Several zero-tailpipe emission technologies, including battery electric vehicles (BEVs), electrified roads, and hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles (FCEVs), have been developed and tested to various degrees.

Can battery-electric vehicles, electric road systems and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles compete with diesel?

A new ITF report analyses over 1 000 different modelling scenarios to see how various technologies can work to decarbonise European trucking. Considering the European Commission’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030 and other ambitious climate goals, the trucking industry needs solutions to cut emissions fast. But, according to ITF’s report, not all zero-emission powertrains are created equal, and hydrogen is not the answer to quickly decarbonising truck transport in Europe.

Future scenarios: Potential sales shares of lowest total-cost-of-ownership technology accounting for uncertainty

It is often just as expensive to purchase hydrogen fuel cell trucks as it is to buy vehicles powered by high-capacity batteries or that run on electrified roads. Today, these three vehicle types cost significantly more than diesel trucks. However, several factors make battery-powered vehicles and electric road systems more viable options for decarbonising trucking in Europe. First, Europe is densely-populated; hauliers mainly operate on road systems where regular charging stations can be installed at a lowered cost due to economies of scale. Hydrogen filling stations could also benefit from this density, but fuel production is the main issue with hydrogen.

In nearly all scenarios, it either costs the same or is more expensive to produce hydrogen than it is to power battery electric vehicles or electric road systems. In this case, operators would naturally choose to stay away from hydrogen trucks. Battery-powered trucks can likely benefit from existing electric vehicle charging infrastructure along motorways, whereas hydrogen-powered trucks require the wholesale adoption and implementation of new refilling infrastructure. Electric road systems also require the construction of expensive infrastructure, but vehicles using this technology promise to be less costly to operate. Electric vehicle charging is a more developed technology than hydrogen filling, and operators can use inexpensive electricity at off-peak hours when charging vehicles at depots.

Hydrogen trucks may make sense outside of Europe, especially in places where the electric vehicle charging network is not as widespread and in areas where truckers travel long distances through sparsely-populated areas. Filling a hydrogen vehicle generally takes less time than charging a battery and could help truckers meet tight deadlines. But, in Europe, there are barely any scenarios in which hydrogen could be an economically-viable alternative to diesel trucks, electric road systems or battery-electric vehicles in the years to come.

Any effort to decarbonise transport is worth exploring. Policymakers should encourage the adoption of zero-emission vehicles over diesel ones, regardless of the technology they employ. However, decision-makers should refrain from investing large amounts of capital on less-effective fuelling infrastructure, particularly when funds could promote technologies more likely to replace internal combustion engines. Hydrogen is a less-likely path to carbon-free trucking in Europe, and policy actions should reflect this.

Carl Adler graduated with a Master’s in governance from Sciences Po Paris’ Urban School in 2022. He has a keen interest in all things urban and transport-related and manages digital content at the International Transport Forum.

Three transport sectors are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, making them particularly difficult to decarbonise: aviation, shipping and heavy-duty road. ITF’s project on “Transport Decarbonisation: Driving Implementation” helps to identify ways to cut CO₂ emissions in these three areas. Learn more

2 thoughts on “No truck with diesel? The race to zero-emission freight

  1. Very interesting and important work by ITF. Absolute worth reading. One question though regarding the calculation for the TCO of electric vehicles. ITF report uses 0,125€ whereas the real price is closer to 32,16 Cent. This changes the picture completely. Jens Hügel, IRU.


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