Outside my window, a delivery van stops, its engine idling as the driver jumps out. A little cloud of exhaust fumes begins to form in the London drizzle behind the van.
In 2018, an estimated 1.8 billion consumers worldwide bought goods online, generating e-retail sales of $2.8 trillion. By 2021, this figure is expected t0 reach $4.8 trillion. Yet it is unclear what its overall impact is on the environment.
Logic suggests that one delivery to several homes would be better for the environment than several cars or several buses going to the shops, but in practice, it isn’t this simple.
Earlier this year, the journalist and author Fred Pearce looked at the impact of online shopping on the environment. He found that the theoretical benefits it might have been expected to bring were offset by the big variation in consumer behaviour.
For instance, if items have to be redelivered or returned, then the carbon footprint goes up. A study in Germany showed that as many as one in three orders online were returned.
Another study, by Dimitri Weideli, categorised shoppers into three different categories: traditional shopper, cybernaut, and cybernaut impatient (demanding high-speed delivery) to try to compare the carbon footprints of different kinds of internet shopper with traditional shoppers.
The cybernaut’s carbon footprint was twice as small as a traditional shopper. However, the cybernaut impatient, who always opted for faster delivery regardless of when a van was in their area, almost tripled the impact of freight transportation.
As Weideli points out, the product being produced tends to determine its carbon footprint. A lap-top will require more protective packaging than a T-shirt, and it will therefore generate greater carbon emissions.
Room For Hope
Profitability for home delivery companies is all about last mile efficiency—how cost-effectively they can travel the last mile. The last mile also tends to generate the greatest carbon emissions. A report by Bain & Company shows how retailers can lower carbon emissions by encourage shoppers to cluster purchases. By getting customers to pick up their purchases from a store—a frequent occurrence in Sweden, for instance—a locker or a gas station, emissions can be reduced.
It also helps offset the congestion in cities caused by delivery vehicles. In 2016, Researchers at the University of Delaware found that when the number of home shopping increased, so did travel time, delays and vehicle emissions from the transport network as a whole.
New Solutions to Old Problems
In the small medieval town of Sigtuna, Sweden, Carl-Magnus Norden is applying a modern solution to the age-old problem of moving heavy goods around crowded cities. Norden is CEO of Volta Trucks, which makes electric delivery vehicles. He hopes that the first prototype vehicles will be ready Summer 2020.
Norden points out that with major European cities like London expanding low emissions zones, it won’t be possible for fleet operators to continue running trucks on fossil fuels.
“According to the European Automobile Manufacturing Association, there were over six million trucks in use in the EU in 2017,” he says. “Nearly all of these (95.5%) run on diesel.”
Volta’s trucks make 50% less noise than conventional vehicles, and don’t create emissions. As there is no bulky engine, the driver’s seat is in the centre of the front of the truck, with wraparound windows, sensors and cameras on all sides, which doesn’t just make it more comfortable but offers the driver a wider field of vision, improving the driver’s ability to spot pedestrians and cyclists.
Home grocery shopping only accounted for seven per cent of the U.K.’s online sales in 2018, but this segment is expected to increase significantly, as part of a growing global trend. Worldwide, the online grocery market is forecast to reach approximately $150 billion by 2025.
The British online grocery store Ocado is trying to become carbon-zero by 2045. it has been phasing out diesel vehicles and rolling out Compressed Natural Gas trucks fuelled by bio-methane which emit 83% less CO2 than standard diesels. Although since 2018, 98% of its electricity has come from renewable sources, 69.5% of its total emissions still come from fossil fuels.
“We have been busy working to make the Ocado business as environmentally friendly/sound as we possibly can, with everything from alternative fuelled vans, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) trucks, super light vehicles (everything stripped out to reduce payload), energy efficient buildings and even the lowest food waste figures in the industry,” said a spokeswoman.
In the absence of like for like data, the company is wary of making any claims that online shopping may be better for the environment.
Amazon has revealed its corporate carbon footprint for the first time – 44.40 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. Of this, its own delivery vehicles’ fossil fuels accounted for 4.70 million metric tons. Third party delivery, including packaging, amounted to 13.89 million tons. The online giant recently announced that it will be ordering 100,000 electric delivery trucks from Rivian.
All well and good, but this is still a relative drop in the ocean? Why aren’t there already more electric delivery vehicles in service?
Norden believes that most of the big truck manufacturers have woken up to the shift in technology. However, he speculates, “I don’t think they are giving it all they have got. I would guess that many of these larger companies are too invested in archaic technology and are perhaps afraid that producing electric trucks will hit their own core businesses.”
These big companies may be able to produce an electric truck more cheaply than a startup like Volta. However, Volta’s advantage is that it is focusing solely on urban logistics, rather than trying to resolve issues around long-haul electric transportation as well. This week the company will be presenting at Autonomy 2019 in Paris. “There’s simply no time to lose,” Norden adds.