European operators with less than 20 vehicles see limited benefits in reducing their carbon emissions and lack the basic capabilities to address the issue, according to a new report by online transport platform provider Transporeon.

In an extensive survey of 800 small- and medium-sized European carriers, researchers found that although heavy-duty vehicles are responsible for around 20% of all transport-related GHG emissions, hauliers are not sufficiently engaged with the topic and that the potential for cutting emissions is not being adequately exploited.

Backed by the Smart Freight Centre and Kühne Logistics University, the research found two thirds of carriers were aware of the urgency and importance of the topic, but that their overall engagement with decarbonisation initiatives is limited.

A total of 59 small UK carriers took part in the survey. 49% of these claimed not to be able to calculate emissions as opposed to the European average of 43%.

The uptake of measures is inhibited by uncertainty about their financial impact and a perception that freight buyers have little interest in environmental performance, the report said.

In particular, researchers found a close correlation between the size of a company’s fleet and the extent to which it sees environmental improvements yielding commercial benefits. Small operators saw limited benefits while operators with bigger fleets took 10-30% more carbon-reducing actions.

Many carriers lacked information about the range of technical and operational measures that can cut fuel consumption and emissions.

Carriers that are aware of decarbonization solutions do tend to implement them, the report found. But in general carriers are twice as likely to implement operational as technical fuel efficiency measures.

In the light of the results, the report contains a series of recommendations for key stakeholders outlining how they can incentivize the decarbonization of European trucking.

"As there are over half a million road haulage businesses in Europe, 99% of them with fewer than 50 employees, it is proving difficult to incentivise them to cut emissions," professor Alan McKinnon of Kühne Logistics University told motortransport.co.uk.

"When you try to publicise these initiatives, there's a percentage of the industry that are very receptive but there's a long tail of companies that are so busy finding day-to-day business that cutting emissions is quite low down their list of priorities. Engaging them is going to be the problem. The big players are setting ambitious targets but the work is done by small day-to-day operators. Is the message getting across?"

McKinnon added that he had sympathy for small operators and could understand their position: "The sector is intensively competitive, they work on slim margins and they're struggling to survive," he explained. "Often they don't have the luxury of thinking about how they cut their emissions."

However, he reminded them that a low carbon approach would reduce costs rather than adding to them.

"One of the key things underpinning this is that cutting their fuel emissions will save them money," he said. "It goes back to the relationship they have with the shipppers or the logistics providers or how they manage the relationship with sub-contracting their transport. So they have incentives to improve their fuel efficiency."

While McKinnon admitted that projections for the transition to battery electric or catenary lines was a "minimum of five years away, and more likely 10 or 15", other approaches could cut emissions in current diesel fleets: "It's things like driver training and retro fits of anti-idling devices," he said. "A lot of things are already being done but the feeling is more can be done to improve that.

"The other thing that emerged was that the trucking companies could be more helpful on giving advice on how the vehicles could be maintained and operated more energy efficiently," he said. "The shippers and also the truck manfuacturers have a role to play.

"Where companies know what to do they tend to do it. These smaller operators can be given advice on training. The Smart Freight Centre runs training courses for companies and a lot of driver training organisations are diversifying into providing that advice. The trade associations also have a role to play."