The pharma supply chain would be impossible without globalisation. Between ingredient manufacturing, formulation and packaging, small molecule pharmaceutical production might encompass a dozen different countries. Between Canadian wood pulp and Dutch formulation and Japanese packaging, at any rate, it makes sense that the global market for pharmaceutical logistics was valued at $92bn, with work by Grand View Research expecting the sector to enjoy CAGR of 9.3% through 2030. These broad-brush figures, moreover, are matched by the cosmopolitanism of specific companies. Based in New Jersey, for instance, Johnson & Johnson boasts some 45,000 supply chain partners, even as the conglomerate supports patients across 103 countries.

Yet if internationalism is vital for getting drugs finished and to patients, the sector is increasingly brushing up against broader climactic pressures. That’s clear enough in areas like the cold chain, with artificial cooling ensuring that healthcare still contributes over 4% of global carbon emissions. And though technical improvements are rapidly making the cold chain less painful for the planet – for instance through the development of renewable power sources – difficulties remain. As a GlobalData survey from 2021 uncovered, after all, 43% of sector insiders still considered environmentalism the most urgent ESG challenge across global pharma.

Fundamentally, this problem can be understood by returning to the industry’s globalised nature – and especially to its continuing reliance on aviation. For if aircraft are obviously the easiest way of quickly transporting drugs across far-flung markets, all that activity comes at a heavy environmental cost. Reputations are bound to suffer here too, especially at a time where the climate crisis is becoming the outstanding danger of our age. No wonder, therefore, that experts across global pharma are exploring ways to make pharma flights less environmentally painful – work that could yet have consequences far beyond airports.

Fly in the ointment

Few people are better placed to explore the vast scale of global pharma than Dorethe Nielse. A veteran of Novo Nordisk for almost 25 years, she’s worked right across the Danish multinational. In 2011, for example, she became the director of project execution at Novo Nordisk’s pharma engineering wing in Shanghai, before returning to Europe around three years later. Since then, Nielse has taken on a range of environmental roles at the company, finally becoming its vice-president of corporate environmental strategy in 2019. That’s echoed by external work too: for the last few years, she’s acted as the chairperson at TRACE, a Danish environmental nonprofit.

All this is to say that when Nielse speaks, it’s worth listening – and as she says, aviation has long been a persistent if necessary drag on pharma’s green aspirations. “Aviation is the most climateintensive form of transport,” she stresses, continuing that while alternatives are always welcome, the sector must equally ensure that “our medicines are delivered in time.” Frank Van Gelder makes a similar point. Especially during the Covid- 19 emergency, the secretary general at Pharma. Aero, an industry body dedicated to bolstering logistical sustainability, says that aviation is the “only solution” the industry could turn to. As Van Gelder continues, this is especially true when expensive drugs, or other vital medical supplies, are needed far away at speed. While shipping containers or trucks can help in other situations, “when the value is high, and the distance is far, that is where aviation comes into the game”.

“The private sector must stand united…We need investments in SAF to reduce price and scale availability and create a better business case for opting for greener solutions.”
Dorethe Nielse

There are signs, moreover, that such situations are only becoming more frequent. Already, investment in the cold chain is expected to reach $23.7bn by 2030, even as temperature-sensitive vaccines, insulin and gene therapies are increasingly popular too. Yet if some $213bn worth of drugs are transported by air each year, aviation, as Nielse concedes, comes with downsides – not least environmental. As so often, the numbers here are revealing, with one recent study finding that air travel accounts for 4% of manmade global warming. Once you add the fact that flying a single 2kg package 1,000 kilometres contributes almost 4.5kg of CO2 to the atmosphere, and it’s easy to see how quickly pharma’s climate bill can rise.

The percentage of manmade global warming contributed by aviation.
New York Times

Fuel for thought

How to square the circle here – between the importance of aviation on the one hand and pharma’s sustainability commitments on the other? One solution on the lips of insiders everywhere is SAF. Short for ‘sustainable air fuel’, it drops traditional fossil fuels in favour of cleaner alternatives. In practice, that can span the gamut from food scraps and paper to cooking oil and algae – but whatever the source, it’s clear that SAF can be hugely beneficial. “Low-carbon alternatives to traditional fuels are preferred,” emphasises Nielse. “Using SAF results in a substantial reduction of carbon emissions compared to fossil jet fuel.” Consider the statistics and it’s hard to disagree: according to one calculation, alternative fuels can cut green total greenhouse gas emissions by four-fifths.

The amount of carbon dioxide flying a single 2kg package, 1,000km, contributes to the atmosphere.
CO2 Everything

There are signs, meanwhile, that SAF is being adopted across pharma logistics. An obvious example here is Novo Nordisk, which in 2022 announced a deal with the Kuehne+Nagel shipping giant to deploy some 12 million litres of SAF a year.

“How are they cooling their warehouses? Are they using solar panels? So from airport to airport, it’s not only the aircraft – it’s also the ground equipment that needs to be sustainable.”
Frank Van Gelder

That’s shadowed elsewhere too. Headquartered in the US, Merck is borrowing from plants and microbes to convert carbon dioxide into clean fuel. Not to be outdone, Astrazeneca is moving in a similar direction, part of broader plans to become almost entirely carbon neutral by 2026. Not, of course, that turning the aviation supply chain green is quite so straightforward. For one thing, companies are under intense pressure to understand exactly where their logistics operations are impacting the planet – not always easy with so many external partners. Fortunately, experts like Van Gelder are there to help, with Pharma.Aero’s Green Air Pharma Logistics project a case in point. Bringing together manufacturers, suppliers, logistics providers, airports and academics, Van Gelder explains his scheme can help promote “sustainability awareness” up and down the supply chain.

Novo Nordisk deployed this much sustainable litres of fuel across its air freight shipments with Kuehne+Nagel in 2022.

Nielse, for her part, is doing similar groundwork with her employer. “Documentation of the environmental impact of SAF is essential,” she stresses. “We have defined a set of requirements for the SAF we procure, which includes requirements for feedstock used for the production of SAF and data documentation throughout the value chain.” Yet if research – and collaboration – is clearly one part of the battle here, stakeholders must equally take action. To put it differently, though SAFs are certainly one part of the sustainable puzzle here, it’d be wrong to focus exclusively on what goes into jet engines. “Do they use electrification for vehicles going from and to an aircraft?” asks Van Gelder rhetorically. “How are they cooling their warehouses? Are they using solar panels? So from airport to airport, it’s not only the aircraft – it’s also the ground equipment that needs to be sustainable.”

Green shoots

More generally, the principles of sustainable aviation are being applied far beyond the runway. Once again, Novo Nordisk offers a robust example, with Nielse noting that the company has partnered with shipping giant Maersk to carry the Danish giant’s sea freight with biofuels. Some developments even leave physical space altogether. After all, innovations like digital twins are already helping managers understand exactly how much they’re cutting their carbon footprint, even as AI-powered data analytics models are promising to bolster this work yet further. “What they would like to come up with,” says Van Gelder hypothetically of the world’s biggest pharma giants, “is that they have an important shipment with high value that needs to go from one side of the world to the other. They have four potential lanes to ship it in – and they will calculate which is the most effective, the most reliable, the most sustainable. All these factors will be put into a machine where there is a predictive analysis – before they send it.”

Technology could well be crucial in other areas too, particularly when it comes to SAF. An environmental boon it may be, but right now, fossil fuel alternatives are expensive. Thanks mostly to its low production volume, it’s currently three to five times as pricey as regular jet fuel. For a sector predicated on profit, that naturally makes going green less appealing. Yet once again, scientific innovation may well be coming to the rescue. Green hydrogen is one option here, as is reusing solid wastes from municipal plants. Nielse, for her part, seems reasonably confident. “The private sector,” she says, “must stand united in stimulating demand for new decarbonising technologies and low-carbon fuels. We need investments in SAF to reduce price and scale availability and create a better business case for opting for greener solutions.” Together with a new generation of sustainable aircraft – electric models now boast a range of 750 miles – and the green future of pharma transportation seems assured. Given the environmental challenges we all face, that’s surely just as well.