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Impact of Climate Change on Intermodal Transportation


In recent years, more attention came to the issue of climate change and greenhouse emissions which are considered to be one of the main causes of it. Intermodal transportation is one of the essential industries of the modern age. It is responsible for delivering the majority of all goods on the planet, especially in international trade. Unfortunately, due to the heavy loads of the transports and the use of outdated technology, intermodal transportation is also one of the more emission-prone industries. Unlike the automotive field of transportation, intermodal transportation cannot be as easily converted to greener energy sources.

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There is no opportunity for a refuel in the middle of the ocean, and the amount of power needed to move even the smaller intermodal transportation ships is much higher than the largest ground-based alternatives. However, this fact does not mean that intermodal transportation has no possible solution to its issue of greenhouse emissions. This research paper will show that intermodal transportation can reduce its emissions and still be viable through a variety of solutions that can be used in tandem.


Intermodal freight transportation is a method of transportation of goods by utilizing special containers that can be easily transferred from railways to ships, and even to ground vehicles using large cranes. It allows companies to save costs on cargo handling, while at the same time making the freight more secure and less prone to losses and damages. Containers are primarily shipped over long distances, but in some cases, they need to be transported to nearby locations.

The industry holds in origins in the 18th century in the mining industry. The first containers were used to transport coal and were primarily constructed out of wood. With the popularization of the railway systems, trains became the primary mode of transportation for intermodal containers.

At the same time, iron containers for coal transportation became available. World War I became a proving ground for transportation of large shipments in containers across multiple railways, and the results established intermodal transportation as one of the primary ways of international delivery of products. In 1933 an international effort for standardization of containers was started with the establishment of “Bureau International des Containers et du Transport Intermodal.” It established the norms for European container of light and heavy types. Due to the standardization, a variety of heavy machines were constructed specifically for use with standardized containers.

The first container ships began appearing after World War II, which were used with giant cranes capable of neatly stacking containers on their decks. The industry steadily grows to this day with new sizes and specifications of containers appearing whenever a new use case is found. In recent years, even larger planes became capable of transporting goods in intermodal containers. However, despite the progress in container technology and its proliferation, the harmful nature of greenhouse emissions was not a major concern for companies until recently.


The primary method for this research was a review of the literature on the topic of reduction of greenhouse emissions in the intermodal transportation industry. The search for information was focused only on scholarly articles and publications with a relatively high level of evidence or feasibility. Google Scholar search engine was used to find the examined articles. All the materials had to be 5 years old at the oldest to ensure that the information presented in them is still relevant to the industry and the economic realities of today. No limitation on the type of solution was implemented to allow for a variety of solutions and the possible combination of them if their approaches are not contradictory.

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One of the most feasible solutions found during the research process was the implementation of a carbon emission tax policy for intermodal transportation. This solution would not require complex technological advancements in intermodal transportation, the majority of its elements have already been implemented in similar industries, and the overall cost of implementation would not be prohibitive (Wang & Chen, 2015). A study on a theoretical implementation of carbon emission taxes on a real intermodal transport network in the United States has been conducted by Xiaoren Duan and Sunderesh Heragu (2015).

They utilized computational skills to find the breakeven point for the tax rate which would allow for a positive impact on the environment while not increasing the cost of transportation. Their research estimated that 13 dollars per ton would be the optimal tax rate for an intermodal transport network which spans 15 states and includes highway, railway, and inland waterway modes of transportation (Duan & Heragu, 2015).

This paper was found to have high credibility due to its use of detailed data analysis of a real place and consideration for both the environment and the cost of transportation. One of the main barriers to this solution, especially in countries with an aversion to taxation such as the United States, would be the legislative process during which any increases in cost would be seen in an extremely negative light.

In worst cases, environmental concerns would not be taken seriously as the short-term profit would outweigh the long-term negative consequences. Similar tax programs aimed at the reduction of carbon emissions are already implemented in the industrial sector of multiple countries, and overall they were met with a positive response from the population. However, this is not the only possible solution to this issue.

The traditional model of intermodal transportation is primarily concerned with the minimization of transportation costs through the determination of the needed network and routing. The use of this and models similar to it continued for the last two centuries as the industry grew to use new modes of transportation. This model has its merits and can be considered viable if the reality of carbon emissions did not need to be considered.

However, due to its simplicity, the effect is likely to be incompatible with the more environmentally cautious solutions. Multiple new models were presented by researchers over the last decade which gives greater attention to greenhouse emissions produced by vehicles, trains, ships, and cargo planes. The first out of examined models were built on a hypothetical case study of the United Kingdom-based intermodal transportation network (Qu, Bektaş, & Bennell, 2016).

The second is a more general model, but it also considers the simultaneous process of import and export of products on the intermodal networks alongside the priority of minimization of transport cost and emissions while maximizing customer satisfaction (Baykasoğlu & Subulan, 2016). Both systems are focused on providing realistic solutions based on real or accurately simulated scenarios which bring a high level of credibility to them. This type of solution might encounter some initial issues with its implementation. Companies often have difficulties with adapting to new models due to being used to traditional systems of operation.

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The senior management staff is likely to be the most apprehensive to change, even if the initial estimates would show an overall benefit to the company. Organizations in industries where environmental concerns are rarely considered to be a priority, such as the coal industry, would be the most difficult to convince of the importance of this project. However, if other industries show positive results, likely, the new model would gradually become standard.


Examination of the relevant literature on this topic has shown that there are multiple low-cost solutions to the reduction of carbon emissions in the intermodal freight transport industry. The most optimal solution, however, would be to combine taxation with a new model of intermodal transportation because of their high compatibility. If taxation is implemented, the new model of operation would have to take the most taxed routes and network into account when determining the most optimal way to deliver containers.

The new model is also likely to lessen the negative perception of the new taxes because it would be designed to minimize the losses by the company while maximizing customer satisfaction. It is possible that if the new model of operation is already put in place by the time the consideration of the new taxes is performed, they would not be seen as an immediate issue by the legislative powers. Nevertheless, the low costs of implementation, low demands from the companies in the industry, and extensive research was done on the subject make this solution one of the most feasible out of all examined during the research processes. Hopefully, it could be implemented despite the current lack of concern for the environment in the United States.


Climate change is likely to cause great issues for the world shortly. From the initial changes in weather patterns to the subsequent difficulties in agriculture and rising of the ocean levels, everyone is likely to be affected. 2017 was recorded as a year with the most hurricanes as well as the year with the most destruction and deaths caused by hurricanes. Hopefully, the reality of this situation would cause more countries and industries to consider implementing solutions designed to reduce carbon emissions.

Countries like China, Germany, and France have already dedicated themselves to the improvement of their industrial sectors. However, as long as the logistics of transportation do not consider environmental issues, these efforts would only be partially effective. Full dedication to new work practices and operation standards is required to make this world more sustainable but also to advance the industry to the modern age because some of its elements still operate on outdated principles.

The outcome of these changes would be seen in the following decade. We may live in an age of safe and sustainable freight transportation or a deficient system with no feasible alternative to the exacerbated issues of climate change. In some ways, it is already irreversible, but it is possible to reduce its negative consequences. As a global society, we are capable of doing this at the lowest possible impact on profits, and it would be irresponsible to ignore it.


Baykasoğlu, A., & Subulan, K. (2016). A multi-objective sustainable load planning model for intermodal transportation networks with a real-life application. Transportation Research Part E: Logistics and Transportation Review, 95, 207–247.

Duan, X., & Heragu, S. (2015). Carbon emission tax policy in an intermodal transportation network. In Proceedings of the 2015 Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference (pp. 556–574). Nashville, TN: Norcross.

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Qu, Y., Bektaş, T., & Bennell, J. (2016). Sustainability SI: Multimode multicommodity network design model for intermodal freight transportation with transfer and emission costs. Networks and Spatial Economics, 16(1), 303–329.

Wang, Q., & Chen, X. (2015). Energy policies for managing China’s carbon emission. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 50, 470–479.

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