THE BLOG
09/12/2014 11:57 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Waiter, What's This Diesel Fuel Doing in My Coffee?

Bjarki Reyr via Getty Images

OK, that's not literally a latte diesel-machiatto. But figuratively, you bet it is. Nearly everything you use or consume -- the coffee at your elbow, the table it's sitting on, the smart device you're reading this on, the eyeglasses you're wearing, the car you drove to get to the coffee shop -- was carried to you on a truck, and the chances are nearly 100 percent that that truck ran on diesel fuel. Some part of the price you paid for that stuff went to pay for the cost of that fuel, and not a small part, either: transportation accounts for on the order of 10 percent of the commercial cost of most products.

In a manner of speaking, that coffee, that smartphone, that table represent the diesel fuel that transported them -- as well as the climate pollutants and air pollutants released when that fuel was burned. The movement of freight by heavy-duty diesel vehicles produces about 20 percent of global emissions of black carbon, a climate pollutant second only in importance to carbon dioxide. Whether your concern is the price you're paying at the cash register, or the price the climate is paying over the long haul, it's in your interest to reduce the amount of diesel fuel needed to power the global truck fleet that carries the world's stuff.

And one of the most promising ways to do that is through voluntary programs helping truck owners and operators make that fleet run more efficiently and burn less fuel -- because efficiency is in their interest, too.

Starting with the U.S. Smartway program, which is 10 years old this year, more than a dozen national, regional, and sub-national voluntary programs to improve freight efficiency have emerged around the world, and many more are coming. Generically dubbed "green freight programs," most of these aim to recognize fuel-efficient carriers or fleets so that shippers can not only contract with the most efficient carrier but also better understand their overall carbon footprint. At the same time, these programs also aim to give carriers and fleets the tools, strategies, and information to improve their own fuel efficiency. The SmartWay program alone has resulted in $16.8 billion in fuel costs saved over the last 10 years.

But while green-freight programs generally share a mission, they differ considerably in governance and membership structure, quantification methodologies, data-collection tools, and a host of other details.

That variation makes it difficult for the giant multinational corporations that account for a huge proportion of goods shipped internationally -- IKEA, Wal-Mart, Nike, DHL and the like -- to get the most benefit from joining in with green-freight efforts. And as more such programs come online in more parts of the world, the operational differences among them are likely to grow, to the detriment of their overall effectiveness. What is needed is a cohesive global effort that can link together and align existing green-freight programs while supporting the development and harmonization of new programs.

A new initiative of the UN-backed Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants aims to do just that. The CCAC's Global Green Freight Action Plan is garnering interest from governments, industry, and NGOs around the world. The plan will be highlighted at the UN Secretary General's Climate Summit later this month in New York City.

More than $16 trillion worth of merchandise is exported worldwide every year. Green-freight programs are only one of many efforts underway to improve the efficiency and decrease the climate and environmental and health impacts of the vast and intricate system that moves all those goods. But in a global marketplace where information is power, they're essential. Everybody wins with a more efficient global freight system. The less (figurative) diesel in that latte machiatto, the better.

This post is part of a month-long series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with a variety of events being held in September recognizing the threats posed by climate change. Those events include the UN's Climate Summit 2014 (to be held Sept. 23, 2014, at UN headquarters in New York) and Climate Week NYC (Sept. 22-28, 2014, throughout New York City). To see all the posts in the series, read here.