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Rethinking Freight Transport in the Face of the Climate Challenge

Special issue : n°170 : Freedom of Movement in a Zero-Carbon World

Politique InternationaleIn the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic, have you put your sustainability initiatives on hold?

John Pearson — The pandemic that we are experiencing will have the merit of showing how far the world is capable of withstanding a crisis of such amplitude. Under such circumstances, it isn’t easy to imagine a coherent global response that protects both population health and the world economy, while at the same time supporting sustainable development. In order to take these different issues into account, we have defined several priority axes. The first, of course, concerns the health protection of the population. In that sense, we owe it to ourselves to protect the world economy in order to preserve, to the greatest possible extent, people’s income and livelihood given the looming recession. As we work to reach these goals, the European Commission and a number of member states have reaffirmed their commitment towards the European Green Deal, stating that the EU’s economic recovery could, in the end, speed up the transition to a carbon-neutral, circular economy thanks to investment in clean technologies, artificial intelligence and digitalisation. For that to happen, national and European economic policies for fighting coronavirus and climate change have to be perfectly aligned. Using this historical juncture to encourage innovation and modernisation could strengthen the economic system and protect it against later crises, which would be a beneficial approach for everyone.

P. I. When did DHL first commit to helping the environment?

J. P. — A few details first of all to give a sense of our size: DHL Express is a division within the Deutsche Post DHL Group, which generated turnover of more than 63 billion euros in 2019. With more than 380,000 collaborators spread over more than 220 countries and territories, DHL is the world’s leading logistics firm. The Deutsche Post DHL group has been reporting its performance in the field of sustainable development since 2003. More than ten years ago, we laid down the basis of a more sustainable market in logistics thanks to a raft of climate and environment-protection measures. Since then, we have been measuring and managing our key environmental-performance indicators to track our progress in the area of carbon efficiency effectively. The particularly ambitious goal we set ourselves in 2017 testifies to this: to reach zero emissions by 2050.  

P. I. How do you make these ambitions concrete, given the increasing demands of your clients? Could the economic emergency generate a slowdown in activity?

J. P. — At DHL, we believe that the company’s social responsibility is fully incorporated in our strategy, which consists of connecting people and improving their daily life. For example, the increase in demand for transport solutions generated by the enduring success of online commerce constitutes one of the big drivers of global trade. At the same time, transport is the source of about 14% of greenhouse gas emissions on a planetary scale, to which our business also contributes. That is why we are striving to reduce the emissions produced by our logistics activities so as to bring them down to zero by 2050, and why we have set ourselves several ambitious intermediary targets through to 2025 in order to achieve this. Using the approach favoured by the Science Based Targets initiative, we have committed to improving our carbon efficiency by 50% in comparison to our 2007 performances. We are, furthermore, on track to carry out 70% of our services, on the first and the last kilometre, with zero-emission solutions.

         In order to illustrate our commitment to respecting worldwide standards for legal and ethical commercial practices, for the wellbeing of our employees and their communities, and for the protection of the environment, we invest more than 1 billion euros every year in the latest infrastructure, notably in more fuel-efficient planes, in green technologies for our hubs and agencies, and in greener fleets. Thus in 2018, DHL ordered 14 new Boeing 777Fs, which are more reliable and fuel-efficient. We have already received 10 of these planes, which reduce CO2 emissions by 18%, and 4 will enter service in 2021. In total, we operate a fleet of 260 dedicated aircraft that provide air liaison with 220 countries and territories. Our 100,000 or so collaborators share the same goal: to offer the best possible quality to our 2.6 million clients spread everywhere around the world.

P. I. How do you inform your clients about this situation of climate emergency?

J. P. — We are very conscious that today’s clients and consumers demand solutions that respect the environment. More than half of the requests from our major clients include an insistence on respect for responsible practices, including in the area of climate protection, in some of the most delicate logistical processes. As international specialists, we are constantly on the road for our clients, and we are aware of the responsibility conferred on us by the environmental impact associated with our worldwide presence.

         When it comes to CO2 emissions, our aim is to “consume less” and “consume clean” by making our clients’ supply chains more respectful of the environment thanks to the use of alternative vehicles, solar panels, and the use of green electricity in our depots and warehouses – measures that have already allowed us to raise the proportion of green electricity in our worldwide consumption to 77%. The Express division, for example, has made investments in order to obtain alternative, zero-emission delivery solutions, like the hundred or so clean vehicles deployed in France. What’s more, we offer our clients the possibility of offsetting their greenhouse gas emissions – produced by transport and logistics associated with our services – thanks to our climate protection plan that has been certified by Gold Standard, a third-party organisation. Our experts are also coming up with tailor-made proposals for reducing CO2 emissions, helping them protect the environment while saving costs.

P. I. How do you sensitise your employees?

J. P. — We believe that the involvement of our collaborators is essential for achieving our environmental goal. Thus, we expect to certify no less than 80% of them as “GoGreen Specialists” between now and 2025. We offer them training aimed at improving their basic knowledge of environmental protection and at giving them the means to support the group’s environmental objectives in their daily work. In addition to this training, our collaborators can get even more involved by taking complementary modules and contributing to activities like our project for forest conservation, which expects to plant 1 million trees every year between now and 2025.

P. I. Is the field of logistics incompatible with climate protection?

J. P. — In order to reduce our environmental impact by as much as possible, we have defined clear objectives and put into practice a host of protection measures that we have integrated into our code of conduct, into our code of conduct for suppliers, and into our environmental and energy policy. In parallel with the constant modernisation of our fleets and our increased recourse to renewable energies, we are working to establish standards for measuring greenhouse gas emissions, to promote electric mobility, to develop and expand the use of alternative fuels like biofuels and electrofuels, and to support initiatives to reduce noise pollution.

P. I. Can you envisage a future in which products and services will only be despatched along short supply channels?

J. P. — At present, a large proportion of trade takes place via short supply channels within a single country or between neighbouring countries, and not systematically via international trade routes. All the same, the rise of globalisation allows clients – consumers as much as industrial groups – to buy products and goods manufactured on more distant markets. The advantages in terms of costs and volumes often play an important role in these decisions. Furthermore, globalisation allows a lot of companies to sell the goods that they produce on markets that are much bigger than the national one. That encourages economic growth and allows companies to increase their turnover, and therefore their prosperity as well as that of their employees. We’ve seen that global trade has not been interrupted despite the Covid-19 pandemic; this, given the context, is essential for maintaining an economic base that will serve as a springboard once the crisis is over. Globalisation at present is playing a fundamental role in protecting population health, because demand in various countries for medical supplies and protection equipment very often exceeds national production capacity. These goods are highly coveted, and their dispatch is made possibly by logistical efforts carried out behind the scenes. That said, I am convinced that global trade is far too big to disappear. It has to continue, and it will continue. It will play a fundamental role in helping States rebuild their economies after the crisis. If History has taught us anything, it’s that protectionism and isolationism are not fertile territory for economic recovery.

P. I. Is it possible to imagine that one day, a simple bar code might be used to verify a shipment’s ecological footprint?

J. P. — We already keep track of the emissions produced by all our activities and we present reports on our carbon footprint to a number of our professional clients. The DHL Express division is number 1 in international express transport, with turnover of 17.1 billion euros in 2019. Every day we handle, on defined schedules, about 1 million shipments, or 38% of the 2019 global market in the international express transport sector. In a company that operates in a network like DHL Express, it is possible to calculate the average CO2 emission values for a specific segment of the network, but not for a given shipment. Our primary objective is to reduce the carbon footprint of our entire network, and in doing so, of every shipment. In order to do so, we are making large-scale investments so as to provide our hubs and our agencies with green operating technologies. Furthermore, our clients have the option of offsetting the emissions associated with their shipments thanks to our climate neutral services, based on those famous average values. Climate neutral shipments are already included in some of the services that we offer our individual clients.

This interview was conducted in November 2020.