Environmental Assessment of Freight Transportation in the U.S. (11 pp)



Goal, Scope and Background

This study provides a life cycle inventory of air emissions (CO2, NOx, PM10, and CO) associated with the transportation of goods by road, rail, and air in the U.S. It includes the manufacturing, use, maintenance, and end-of-life of vehicles, the construction, operation, maintenance, and end-of-life of transportation infrastructure, as well as oil exploration, fuel refining, and fuel distribution.


The comparison is performed using hybrid life cycle assessment (LCA), a combination of process-based LCA and economic input-output analysis-based LCA (EIO-LCA). All these components are added by means of a common functional unit of grams of air pollutant per ton-mile of freight activity.

Results and Discussion

Results show that the vehicle use phase is responsible for approximately 70% of total emissions of CO2 for all three modes. This confirms that tailpipe emissions underestimate total emissions of freight transportation as infrastructure, pre-combustion, as well as vehicle manufacturing and end-of-life account for a sizeable share of total emissions. Differences between tailpipe emissions and total system wide emissions can range from only 4% for road transportation's CO emissions to an almost ten-fold difference for air transportation's PM10 emissions.


Rail freight has the lowest associated air emissions, followed by road and air transportation. Depending on the pollutant, rail is 50-94% less polluting than road. Air transportation is rated the least efficient in terms of air emissions, partly due to the fact that it carries low weight cargo. It emits 35 times more CO2 than rail and 18 times more than road transportation on a ton-mile basis. It is important to consider infrastructure, vehicle manufacturing, and pre-combustion processes, whose life-cycle share is likely to increase as new tailpipe emission standards are enforced.

Recommendation and Outlook

Emission factors, fuel efficiency, and equipment utilization contribute the most to uncertainty in the results. Further studies are necessary to address all variables that influence these parameters, such as road grade, vehicle speed, and vehicle weight. A focus on regional variation, end-of-life processes, fuel refining processes, terminals, as well as more accurate infrastructure allocation between freight and passenger transportation would strengthen the model.

road transportation rail transportation life cycle assessment (LCA) life cycle inventory (LCI) freight transportation environment economic input-output analysis-based LCA (EIO-LCA) air transportation transportation infrastructure United States 


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Copyright information

© Ecomed 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dr. Arpad Horvath Associate Professor Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering 215 McLaughlin Hall University of California Berkeley, CA 94720-1712 USA  

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