In the past few days, have you ordered anything online, gone out for lunch with friends or colleagues, or picked up a few groceries at the local supermarket? If the answer is yes, then you’ve had to rely on local freight transportation to get what you wanted.

In fact, pretty much anything we buy needs to travel along an entire supply chain – often originating across the world – before it ends up in our hands (or mouths). Most of us rarely think about the path that goods take before arriving at our local shops or doorstep – which may be why so little attention has been paid to the carbon emissions and air pollution arising from commercial transportation.

Luckily, our allies at the Pembina Institute are on the case. Last year TAF supported Pembina’s multi-year initiative establishing a Neighbourhood Freight Forum, which aims to improve freight efficiency and reduce emissions in the Duke Heights Business Improvement Area, located in northwest Toronto. At the same time, Pembina is also taking a wider view of the freight landscape and exploring opportunities to strengthen freight-related policies across Canada. This is the subject of its recently-published report, The State of Freight: understanding greenhouse gas emissions from goods movement in Canada.

The report gives a comprehensive overview of the significant contributions that freight makes, both to the Canadian economy and to our national climate emissions. It reveals that any gains in fuel efficiency in recent years have been overwhelmed by increases in overall freight activity. Behind the rise in emissions are factors such as economic growth, the offshoring of manufacturing, a surge in online shopping, and ever-increasing consumer expectations regarding the delivery speed for their goods.

This is troubling: Ontario’s freight emissions have more than doubled since 1990 and now account for over 10 per cent of total provincial emissions. Globally, carbon emissions from heavy-duty vehicles are projected to surpass emissions from passenger transport by 2030.

Pembina’s report notes that there’s no singular or straightforward way to curb rising emissions from freight. Effective approaches are hampered by the fragmented nature of the trucking industry, which is characterized by many players, diverse operating models, low margins and multiple levels of regulation.

However, the authors identify some key policy tools which, if implemented effectively, could start to curb freight-related emissions. These include a federal benchmark for carbon pricing, the forthcoming national Clean Fuel Standard, Phase 2 heavy-duty vehicle efficiency regulations, government incentives to support the continued adoption of efficiency technologies, and the build-out of infrastructure to support low-carbon fueling options – think electric vehicle chargers and hydrogen fuel stations.

Ultimately, we need to accelerate the shift from carbon-intensive fuels such as diesel and gasoline to low- or no-carbon sources. This goal also forms a central element of the TransformTO low-carbon vision, which requires all transportation in Toronto to be virtually fossil fuel-free by 2050 – including freight. The technology to make it happen is advancing quickly; manufacturers Tesla and Daimler are developing battery-electric freight trucks that are set to enter the market in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

There’s more we can do. I would like to see industry and government move towards providing consumers with information about the carbon impact of transporting our everyday goods to us. This information could, in turn, lead us to make more informed choices about what goods we want, and how to reduce the carbon impact of the goods we do buy – something that consumers have been shown to care about.

Overall, Pembina’s freight work is giving some much-needed profile to a major source of carbon emissions that’s been off the radar of policymakers – and the public – for too long. Hopefully these efforts will allow us all to address the ever-increasing impact of freight more effectively.