Planes, Trains and Supply Chains: Bombardier's Holistic View of Sustainable Transportation

"I think the internal combustion engine will disappear from the streets of our cities in the next thirty years because transportation will be mass transportation, or probably electrical power." -- Gaylord Nelson, April 1990

Unless something really amazing happens in the next eight years, the prediction of the late Gaylord Nelson—former governor of Wisconsin, U.S. senator and founder of the original 1970 Earth Day—will not come true.

Still, transportation must remain a main focus of sustainable development, as it represents a big chunk of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). According to a 2010 World Resources Institute report, the transportation sector accounted for over 14 percent of global GHG emissions in 2005, behind electricity and heat (25 percent) and industry (15 percent ), but still more than agriculture, land use change and waste.

So it makes sense that the Montreal-based transportation company Bombardier (TSX: BBD)—the world's only maker of both planes and trains and one of the world's largest rail-equipment manufacturers—has made sustainability a key strategy. Listed on both the Dow Jones Sustainability World and North America indexes, and with FY2011 revenues of USD 18.3 billion, Bombardier is recognized as a market leader in sustainable transport.


"Rail is the most sustainable mode of transit," asserts the company on its website, noting that for every passenger-kilometer that was moved from the road to the rail, 70 percent of carbon emissions would be avoided.

But it's not just about the emissions caused by vehicles when they're being operated: Making and maintaining fossil fuel-burning vehicles also commits additional GHGs to the atmosphere, something that many existing carbon and air pollution audits don't consider. For one thing, transportation accounts for a fifth of the world’s total energy consumption. Extracting all that energy, particularly if its fossil fuel, pumps a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In a 2009 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Mikhail V. Chester and Arpad Horvath from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, argue that it's necessary to consider the entire life-cycle energy use of a vehicle in order to appropriately assess its total environmental effects, noting that "ost current decision-making relies on analysis at the tailpipe, ignoring vehicle production, infrastructure provision, and fuel production required for support."

Their findings are significant, and should make anyone doing a GHG assessment or inventory look closely at their process: Total life-cycle energy inputs and GHG emissions contribute an additional 63 percent for on-road, 155 percent for rail and 31 percent for air systems over "vehicle tailpipe operation," while active vehicle operation only represents 65-75 percent (for cars, trucks and buses) and 24-39 percent (for rail) of total life-cycle emissions. They conclude that life-cycle air pollutant emissions are up to 800 times larger than simple vehicle operation. That's right, 800 times. Talk about the carbon-black elephant in the middle of the room—or the road, as it were.


Bombardier is aware that moving towards a sustainable transportation industry includes more than just reducing tailpipe emissions and requires a critical, holistic review of supply chains. Last month, the company made that sentiment clear by recognizing the sustainable development accomplishments of its suppliers SKF (OMX: SKF B), a publicly-traded Swedish bearing company, and General Electric (NYSE: GE), which among other things, sells jet engines, with the Bombardier Transportation Sustainability Award.

According to the press release, the award underlines "the strong strategic importance of a responsible supply chain as part of the company's objective to foster Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)."

The selection criteria for the awards, which are based on Bombardier's supplier self-assessment survey of more than 480 master vendors, cover quality systems (IRIS); environment, health and safety systems (ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001); labor conditions and business ethics (SA 8000); and GRI level B reporting of general CSR commitments including philanthropic engagement.


But giving an award to its sustainable suppliers is more than just a pat on the back. Pierre Attendu, Vice President Operations and Chief Procurement Officer, Bombardier Transportation, said that he hopes that the awards help to "encourage suppliers to enhance their CSR performance through friendly competition."

The company has also set some targets that should keep its competition on their green toes. In addition to making public their objective to achieve carbon-neutral operations by 2020, Bombardier has, according to their profile, committed to "switching to renewable materials where possible; continuously decreasing the amount of water, energy and raw material used in the production processes; eliminating the use of restricted substances; and delivering a 'zero waste' performance."

Could Bombardier become a truly carbon-neutral company by 2020? Well, they've already reduced their CO2 emissions from 375,000 metric tonnes in 2007 to 349,000 in 2011. It's an impressive reduction, and if they purchase some carbon credits, they just might hit their target.

One of the world's largest transportation companies becoming carbon-neutral? To some ears, that might have the ring of science fiction. But it actually makes sense that a company like Bombardier would want to "boldly go where no man has gone before" (to borrow a line from Star Trek). After all, the company's late founder, Joseph-Armand Bombardier, was the inventor of the snowmobile.



David B. Kopel. Interview with Senator Gaylord Nelson. Relix. April 1990. Accessed July 17, 2012.
World Resources Institute. Citywide Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories: A Review of Selected Methodologies. October 2010. Accessed July 17, 2012.
Bombardier. About Us - The Climate is Right for Trains. July 9, 2008. Accessed July 17, 2012.
Mikhail V. Chester and Arpad Horvath. Environmental assessment of passenger transportation should include infrastructure and supply chains. Environmental Research Letters 4:2. June 8, 2009. Accessed July 17, 2012.
Marketwatch. Bombardier Transportation Announces Winners of its Sustainable Suppliers Awards. June 27, 2012. Accessed July 16, 2012.
Ecodesk. Live Bombardier Sustainability Dashboard - Executive Summary. February 1, 2012. Accessed July 17, 2012.

image: Artist's impression of the Bombardier Aventra EMU, a new family of electric multiple unit trains consisting of self-propelled carriages, using electricity as the motive power and designed to be lighter, more efficient and have increased reliability. They are expected to consume 50% less energy than British Rail Class 319 EMUs. (Wikimedia Commons)